Can a Hackathon Solve the Diversity Challenge in the Legal Profession? 

hackathon“What is a hackathon?” an attorney friend of mine asked me after I finished excitedly telling him about a diversity conference I would be attending in a few months. 

“Well,” I stammered. “It’s ..  uhh, let’s see, we have groups of people and we work together to solve a problem, then we present our solution to judges and the best one wins.” 

“Oh,” he said. “So it’s a bunch of meetings. Plus Shark Tank.” 

“Sure,” I agreed. “Plus Shark Tank.” 

A Hackathon is More Than Meetings plus Shark Tank 

Late last year, Caren Ulrich Stacey and her team at DiversityLab asked me if I wanted to serve as a hackathon advisor to a team of law firm attorneys and in-house counsel working to “hack” diversity in the legal profession. Familiar with Caren and DiversityLab from their work with the OnRamp fellowship and the Mansfield Rule, I immediately said yes, then spent the next few months wondering what exactly I had gotten myself into. 

Well, I’m happy to report that a hackathon is so much more than “meetings plus Shark Tank.” Last week, we had our two-day kick-off event. It was an enormous success. In the room were ten teams of around eight attorneys from across the country – senior leaders at law firms and corporations – each paired with a law student and an advisor (me). Diversity Lab assembled each team around their topic interest, in my case, implicit bias. 

We met over the course of those two days to discuss our topic and our ideas, then left to launch the hackathon part of our journey. Over the next four months, we will have weekly calls and more frequent messaging exchanges, where we will hash out our ideas and design a prototype to help solve the challenge of implicit bias in law firms. That’s the “meetings” part. Now the Shark Tank part. In November, at UC Hastings Law in San Francisco, each team pitches its prototype solution to a select group of judges, as well as an audience of interested guests. The judges select a winner, and the audience selects a winner. DiversityLab then puts its resources behind implementing these solutions in companies and law firms. 

The teams are off now, starting to build out ideas. But first, at the kickoff, we all had to get an intensive course in design thinking. Because what we are doing isn’t just “meetings plus Shark Tank.” So here are the five things I learned at last week’s kick-off.  

1. Start with Empathy

The first stage of design thinking is empathizing with the human being you are trying to help. Who will benefit from your diversity and inclusion solution? Who should be involved in solving it? Who are the stakeholders? What are their characteristics? What are their hurdles? Design thinking puts the person at the center of design, along with the sum total of that person’s experience. As part of that process, over the two days, we brainstormed in our groups about what implicit bias looked like to an individual, what it looked like in an organization, and, my personal favorite activity, finishing the sentence, “I hate it when …” from the perspective of someone in the organization. The goal is that whatever prototype we come up with in the end, that we design it from the perspective of the user, rather than from our perspective as the designer.  

2. Focus on Solutions

This is also called the “ideation” part of the process, and is the process that my hackathon team will carry out over the next four months. Design thinking focuses on solutions not problems. This was perhaps the hardest thing for our team to navigate. As lawyers, we are trained in focusing on problems, on the minute details that can hang up the next deal, or motion, or plea deal. Design thinking requires that we transform our mindset and not dismiss anyone’s ideas as unworkable. As Caren Stacey said numerous times over the weekend, instead of saying, “That will never work.” Instead say, “That will only work IF ….”  

3. Know Your Personality

I have never done a Myers-Briggs personality test before. And, if I’m being honest, I never saw the point of doing a Myers-Briggs personality test before. I was wrong. The assessment helped me understand how to best interact with my teammates. Here’s a great exercise we did. We were asked to describe a simple picture of a river flowing through a garden. My description was about the river and the European countryside and, off to the side, children playing while their parents drank tea in the garden (possibly after a war, I noted).  Many of my fellow hackers had a far more straightforward description – river, flowers, sky. It was a different perspective of the same scene, and a different way of processing and communicating that information. And this communication challenge applies across the spectrum – sending around an agenda before a meeting or allowing a longer silence after asking a question in order for people to gather thoughts. No one way is better or worse, just different. 

4. Understand Who Holds the Keys

I’ve said this before, but if we as a legal profession want to move diversity and inclusion forward, clients will have to lead the way. Some of the most groundbreaking initiatives on law firm diversity and inclusion have come from clients, whether through individual clients like Microsoft, or through ABA Resolution 113, or through efforts from organizations like LCLD and DiversityLab. The good news is that every single in-house counsel in the room last week was dedicated to making our profession more diverse and inclusive. They recognized the power they have with law firms, and their obligation to the worldwide customer base they serve. Plus, the wide variety of industries made it clear that this was an issue in every market sector, both with traditional companies around for decades, and new start-ups just making their mark in the world. Diversity and inclusion is everyone’s business. 

5. Enjoy the Ride

The next four months are going to be challenging and argumentative and fun. I have never engaged in this type of design process before. My team is made up of passionate individuals who care deeply about diversity and inclusion and have the desire and ability to change the legal profession. I’m looking forward to designing a new and innovative solution for what often seems like an intractable challenge – sustainable improvement of diversity and inclusion in the legal workplace. It’s going to be a great ride. 

Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism
After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism
After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

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