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Build, Baby, Build

“I have a great idea for an app”, said the excited caller at the end of the line.

“With just a couple clicks, your phone can […insert really cool function here…]. It will save so much time and money, and you can just imagine the contribution it will make to improved access to justice!!”

At least weekly, but typically more often than that, people share with me their idea for an app/service/tool that could very well make a valuable contribution to public or professional engagement with legal information or the legal system. I love these discussions.

My prior roles with CanLII and legalX, as well as my current role in legal tech have made me a bit of magnet for these calls. Keep ‘em coming, I say! I’m a tinkerer and a dreamer, so I’m energized by ideas and by the confirmation of my belief that the legal profession is bursting with creative people.

More often than not, the caller is someone with domain expertise that sees a gap, an inefficiency, or an opportunity and they want to figure out what it would take to make things better…and to maybe build a business around the idea. Their level of commitment to the idea varies greatly, as does their capacity – whether alone or with a team – to move it forward. Where I find the greatest consistency across conversations, is in the degree to which the aspiring inventor has identified and addressed the critical first input in the chain of events and activities that may eventually lead to the desired output. That is to say, most have spent little or no time figuring out whether they can get what they need to start and sustain their creation.

Like the best economists, or the penultimate prevaricators on Seinfeld, they often assume the existence of the required circumstances or they “Yada Yada Yada” away the discussion of how they will get what they need.

That’s a good thing.

There’s plenty of time for reality to intrude before you go all-in. Focusing too closely and too soon on the first hurdle takes your mind off the destination and could lead you to abandon your idea before it’s been fully fleshed out. There will be plenty of time to think and talk through the hard questions with people you trust.

While it’s true that you shouldn’t attempt to build a permanent solution or structure without a proper foundation, I’m a huge advocate of hacking projects into existence if for no other reason than to get them out of your head and off the drawing board. Prototyping is easier and cheaper than ever, and you’d be surprised at the value that others might attach to even the barest functionality. More importantly, creating a tangible manifestation of your idea, however rudimentary, creates the conditions you need to gather feedback and to think through what it would take to move your concept forward. In my view, it’s here that you want to be when making a decision to move forward, and not at the extremes of the sobering reality of the first hurdle or the mirage of future perfection.

Don’t worry about someone stealing your ideas. If you’ve come this far, you clearly have the capacity to generate boatloads of new ideas. What you don’t have yet is a sense of your willingness to commit to doing what it takes to fully realize your vision. Moreover, you don’t have a sense of whether others will value your solution, whether they might lead you in a new and superior direction…or whether they might tell you to kill it with fire.

In that spirit, I’d like a share a few of my recent prototype projects:

  • Bardal Factors – a few clicks to finding notice period awards in wrongful dismissal cases
  • whois.incourt.ca – linking the lawyers, firms and publications cited by in 44 years of the Alberta Reports to case summaries
  • Headnotes.ca – topic-based linking to Alberta case law summaries

Each of these projects began with a well-defined sense of what the end-point could be and less-than-clear path on how to get there. The prototyping came from forcing myself to consider what resources I could draw on to create a so-called “Minimum Viable Product”*. None of these are ready for prime time. They do, however, offer some utility as-is, and they help me better understand how I might want to go about advancing closer to my ideal. I do not code, so I had to spend a little money (think “hundreds” not “thousands”) to get to this point.

These preliminary efforts help me understand how far a certain amount of time and money can get me, and help me estimate how much time, money and expertise I’ll need to go further. I can’t say for sure how and when I’ll move these ideas forward or whether I will build out a few more prototypes for other ideas before I do. But what I can say with certainty is that I’ve found far greater value in publicly exposing these ideas than I would have in spending the same time sketching and finessing iterations and extensions of the ideas in the privacy of my own workspace.

So, if you have an idea for the next great legal app, build a prototype. You’ll be glad you did.

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*There are many versions of a great graphic showing what an MVP should and shouldn’t be. This one comes from Sparksolutions.co.

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