LegalGeek 2018 — my talk and some thoughts from the day.

7 min readNov 15, 2018

I can genuinely say that LegalGeek is my favourite event to speak at, and it was wonderful to be welcomed back this year. Jimmy and the team put on an incredible event, and this year they scaled up LegalGeek to 2,000 attendees from 40 countries and 140 speakers, as well as holding their inaugural LegalDesign geek conference the following day.

I thought I’d share my slides, a rough transcript of my talk and some reflections from the day.

“This time last year I worked for the ODI and my talk at LegalGeek 2017 focused on data infrastructure, data ethics and what data could be shared more equitably, and what data could be made open for everyone.

When preparing for that talk, I started to reflect on my own career and how I wanted to affect culture change and data transformation in the legal/justice sector. I could continue to critique or challenge from the outside, or I could get stuck in, truly understand the problem and take a positive role in trying to make things better, which is what I decided to do — and I joined MOJ in December 2017.

This years talk won’t be as technical. There’s no avocado toast, robots or blockchain. It’s just wholesome (probably obvious!) advice that anyone can apply. This are my four lessons in four minutes.

Lesson number one — build empathy between professions. As humans, we have a really rubbish part of the way that we’re wired. If we can’t see what someone is working on from day-to-day, our brains assume that they are doing nothing at all. There’s never one set way of working or one culture for an organisation. What works for an operational team might not work for a digital team, and what works for a digital team might not work for a policy team. So we need to listen to each other, and find ways to bring different professions, organisations and sectors together to solve problems for society. We need to embrace networks over hierarchies, and create space for side projects — because that’s often where the magic happens.

One way we’re trying to bridge that gap between professions in the public sector is through the OneTeamGov community. OneTeamGov was co-founded by Kit Collingwood and James Reeve from DWP & DFE. Essentially, it seeks to bring together policy makers and service delivery teams together ‘to break down barriers and talk about shared problems and goals’. OneTeamGov has held two large scale events, and the way the movement is spreading and sustaining is through the local meetups — breakfasts, lunches, after-work events where civil servants (et al) are giving up their time to share their experiences and learn from each other. The nearest OneTeamGov meetup is the Westminster breakfast that’s happening today. And everyone is welcome — so why not pop by sometime?

So lesson number two — the things you’re open with, are the things you’ll get better at. When you’re brave and bold enough to shine a light on something, you enable others to contribute, to challenge, to make it better. Right now at the MOJ we’re on a journey to becoming a more open organisation, and so are other government departments and other organisations. And why? Because openness builds trust, it creates partnerships, it helps to share and solve problems. Being open makes ideas more scale-able and sustainable.

One way we’re being more open at the MOJ is through coding in the open. Another is by publishing our ‘Areas of Research Interest (ARI)’. ARI’s are a document that all Government Departments now publish — and they set out our long-term research interests, the kinds of questions we’re thinking about, and the potential gaps in our evidence. It’s about opening up a dialogue and engaging with different communities, and by being open in this way, institutions can align their research, seek funding from relevant organisations, create partnerships and so on.

Lesson number three — technology and data shouldn’t be magic. It should be understood by all. Of course things should be easy to access, and user friendly, and intuitive, and work well. But it’s not enough to say that something just works (*clicks fingers*). People should be able to understand how a particular piece of technology works. And people should be able to understand what data an organisation collects, who they share it with, how they use it. We need to educate and inform people about data and technology in different ways that appeal to different people, different communities, different learning styles and abilities. Let’s use art, culture, games, sport as well as more traditional pathways. We have to make sure we teach people offline as well as online. We need to value and treasure our libraries because they play such a vital role here. And let’s not forget that what we define as ethical changes all of the time — because people and societies deem what is ethical.

And finally, if you really want to change culture, you have to hire beyond skillset. Hire for mindset and values. Understand the person you’re interviewing. People aren’t resources. Help them connect their passion to the mission of your organisation — let people play where they play best, so they bring all of their energy and enthusiasm and grow with you.

When I’m hiring for roles, these are the types of ‘qualities’ that you’ll see advertised: enjoy experimenting, create a learning culture, take creative approaches, value empathy, be open and empathetic, and above all — bring your whole self to work. Meri is known for saying ‘culture add matters much more than culture fit’, and she’s absolutely right. We can’t have tables full of people that look and sound the same, that don’t challenge each other or have healthy disagreements, that don’t represent the societies we serve.

So that’s my four lessons in four minutes — and there’s so much more to say! But for now, I’ll leave this on a quote by Myron Rogers I heard recently which is, ‘the process you use to get to the future is the future you will get’. Let’s make our legal sector open and inclusive, people focused, trustworthy and ethical. Thank you.”

Here are some of my reflections/key takeaways/quotes I just really liked from LegalGeek 2018:

  • This year felt much more people focused than being technology/innovation-led. Saying that, it feels like there’s much more we could discuss with legal education and access to justice and I’d like to see more people talking about that in 2019.
  • I really enjoy how different professions and sectors are brought into LegalGeek. Last year Mark Cohen said ‘law is an island no more’ which set the tone for a lot of the talks this year. To open this year with George’s talk on mental health showed how much progress has been made in making these topics feel less taboo, especially as the legal profession admits to feeling the impact of long hours and presenteeism. It’s okay to be not okay — and we have to keep talking about it.
  • ‘People don’t leave companies.. they leave bad bosses’ — Maaike De Bie
  • Attract people with an attractive culture: make it part of your DNA’
  • ‘Always disclose how the system works’ Noah Waisberg
  • Audree, Cassie & Andrea were tweeting about having a legal design prototyping for policy event next year and I’d love to see how we bring LegalGeek into that — so many opportunities and possibilities!
  • Big thumbs up to Daniel’s suggestion that LegalGeek 2019 has a dedicated data track — have obviously already volunteered my support. I’m so keen!

On a related note, a paper on legal data infrastructure that Leigh, Jeni and I wrote with Tharindi and Andrew of Thomson Reuters (whilst I was working for the ODI) has just been published. Let me know what you think.




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