I’ve never been able to fit into a perfect mold as just a “lawyer” or an “engineer.” As much as I enjoy expression of useful ideas in software, I also really enjoy exploring and expressing the nuances of the social contract at work in this country that I love.
In the private sector, technology and open data has been a disruptive force against monopoly for years, affording Americans greater consumer choices from broadband access to the way we buy real estate. And as web technology and user interface/experience science evolves, the choices grow even larger. In my mind though, the real jewel of technology disruption remains with government – the heart of the social contract – being “A Part of It All.”
As a society, we are still missing something though when professionals (be they lawyers or programmers) assume that the only way to explore the social contract is through their particular medium of expression. You can find dozens of law review articles by lawyers on technology’s place in law and legal systems, but much fewer realizations of these ideas in GitHub repos. All the same, there are quite a few budding law tech platforms aimed at exploring/disrupting the practice of law, but in these, I don’t see full integration of all of the contingencies and breadth of circumstances that a thoughtful law review article, or a court opinion covers.
Perhaps it is due to the reward structure in the two distinct law vs tech sectors favoring either difficult-to-understand-by-the-public academic texts or oversimplified software platforms. I don’t think understanding the law should be a privilege only for legal academics, nor do I agree with tech platforms promising disruption, but merely rediscovering (through a series of costly errors) the reason why law may be a bit esoteric to begin with.
As a Code for America fellow last year, I was in the unique position to both code and write about social contract issues. Then, earlier this year thanks to a 2012 fellow, I was encouraged to pitch a session topic for the Innovate/Activate conference and started a project I’ve called “PatentBat.”
I found at I/A that I wasn’t alone – there is a growing number of “Lawyers who Code” trying to thoughtfully and ethically integrate the nuanced knowledge of the law with technology. The aim is to leverage tech into the zeal of zealous advocacy, to make it better, rather than focusing exclusively on being cheap. After all, can you put a price on the social contract?
This philosophy is what drives civil servants also, as I saw a month ago attending a meeting of my local chapter of the Code for America Brigade. Two town officials from bordering cities/counties attended and began a dialogue on collaborating over front end development for Open 311. They realized the cognitive surplus of the Brigade as a way to make the service better, not just make it cheaper.
From my experiences at Code for America and after, it seems that government has a place for people expressing better, not just cheaper. As a patent examiner with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, I aim to write thoughtful actions, while acquiring expertise to thoughtfully integrate into tech platforms I work on in my free time like PatentBat. Maybe, in a few years then, I’ll have a new label: an “Administrative Law Judge that Codes.”