The Multnomah Bar Association’s First Legal Hackathon

This past May I participated in the Multnomah Bar Association’s first-ever legal hackathon. Having been on the planning committee, I was excited to see the event come together so well. MBA Past President Andrew Schpak wrote a great summary of the event for the July/August edition of Multnomah Lawyer (beginning on page 10). 

Hackathon Presentation

My team was tasked with helping the county court figure out a better way to address the needs of self-represented litigants. The courthouse was built in 1904, which causes a lot of problems. The layout isn’t intuitive, the halls are echoey and crowded, and the court staff are overwhelmed with questions from the public. The line sometimes goes out the door and around the building.

After discussing different possible solutions, our team decided to build a wayfinding app to help people navigate the courthouse building. We uploaded the courthouse floor plans to Google Maps Indoors. Then we built a simple web app so that someone coming to the courthouse who has a smartphone could figure out what room they need to go to, and navigate directly there without having to ask court staff. The court also has extra iPads on hand because their judges recently switched from iPads to laptops. So the idea is that volunteers such as law students can roam the building with an iPad and if there’s a long line forming, they can help the people in line use the app to figure out if they’re in the right place.

Here is a short video of our team presenting our solution to the judges at the end of the hackathon. Video of the other teams’ presentations is available online


In recent talks I’ve given about design thinking, I’ve used the hackathon project as an example of the power of collaboration and rapid prototyping.

The truth is that I have no idea if our wayfinding app is actually going to work. Are people going to want to use it? Will it actually cut down on the number of questions the court staff receive? I simply don’t know. But the court is going to do a pilot to test out the app. And if it doesn’t work, it’s not a big deal because we built it for free in one day! That is the power of rapid prototyping—you find out early on whether your idea has legs, before investing too much time and money in it. 

Part of the reason we could do this kind of rapid prototyping was that we were a diverse team. We had developers who knew about the free Google Maps technology and could do the coding. We had court staff who could provide the floor plans and knew about the extra iPads. And some of our team members had personal experiences going in the courthouse and being confused—like one woman who had gone in for a name change and had no idea what department that would be in—is it civil? Family? So that gave us inspiration for the solution.

I look forward to participating in future MBA hackathons as one way of addressing the numerous legal needs of our community.