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Charles Berret/MEDILL

Nicolle Neulist, seated at center, controls a version of the 1970s arcade game "Pong" with her brain waves using a "neural-impulse actuator," a computer input device. Other members of 2600, an informal hacker club, tried out the brain game using the neural actuator.

Lawyer turns hacker and tunes in on hacker legal services

by Michael Scott Leonard, Charles Berret and Ian Monroe
June 09, 2009


Charles Berret/MEDILL

Nicolle Neulist, lawyer turned hacker.

Inside the Mercury Café, a sprawling art studio of a coffee shop on Chicago Avenue, a dozen or so 20-somethings wearing jeans and dark t-shirts huddled Friday evening around a futuristic contraption rigged to the forehead of a young woman with close-cropped blue hair.

The woman tensed her jaw imperceptibly as she stared intently at a laptop computer open on a table. Her companions watched over her shoulder and joked about the anachronism unfolding on the monitor — a bout of “Pong,” the classic 1970s arcade game, with one crucial distinction: She was controlling it with her brain waves, communicating with the computer through the OCZ-NIA — otherwise known as neural-impulse actuator — anchored to her forehead. She squinted at the pair of retro-animated vertical lines oscillating onscreen, a digital blip bouncing between them.

This is what hacking looks like today.

“Hacking is about creativity,” said Nicolle Neulist, 26, removing the actuator's headband, which uses sensors to transmit brain wave information, and pushing back from the table. “The hacker mentality is: We have this framework, this art, and how do we push the boundaries to do something new and interesting that no one’s ever done before?”

She walked a few steps across the vast room to the handful of couches where other members of 2600 — an informal hacker club, after the magazine of the same name — were busy trading legal flash-drive bootlegs of a recent Nine Inch Nails show. (Legal in this case means the rock group gave fans permission to record.)

“Most people I meet through hacking circles know a hell of a lot more than me,” Neulist said. “But I’m learning.”

Electric hair and eyebrow piercing notwithstanding, Neulist in some ways makes an unlikely hacker. She grew up in Raleigh, N.C., where she wrote for the local weekly newspaper and sang in the school choir. By her high school graduation, Neulist was ready to light out for the big city.

“It was too small for me,” she said. “I wanted to be somewhere with the feel of a real city — somewhere with public transportation and neighborhoods.”

In 2000, Neulist enrolled at the University of Chicago. After earning her undergraduate degree, she graduated in 2008 from Washington University in St. Louis Law School. She took a job with Lock, Lorde, Bissell & Liddell in Chicago as a bankruptcy attorney. But two months ago the firm, like many others across the country, scaled back and laid her off, leaving her “very happily unemployed.”

“They gave me a pile of money and told me to leave,” she said. “They did me a favor.”

Neulist’s hacker tendencies may have been latent throughout her 4-year flirtation with a law career, but they were there, she said. She actually had her first taste of computer programming as a child in Raleigh, tinkering with the Mac Classic her family bought when she was 10. By 7th grade, she served as de facto substitute teacher for her computer class during the regular teacher’s months-long maternity leave.

But when time conflicts forced a choice between the choir and computer science class, her first passion won out.

“I chose the choir,” she said. “I was away from [computer science] for almost 10 years. And about a year and a half ago I just decided I wanted to make up for lost time.”

Even before leaving the law firm, Neulist had hooked up with Pumping Station 1, Chicago’s nascent hacker space — a loose collective of hackers and the like-minded who buy into 2,000 square feet of rented workspace, plus 2,000 square feet of shared storage space, on Elston Avenue at Roscoe Street for $50 each a month.

Neulist, anticipating some of the issues the organization could encounter, donated her legal expertise to its formation, helping Pumping Station 1 incorporate as a nonprofit by drawing up by-laws, electing officers and securing the space.

“These are things I wouldn’t have even thought about if I weren’t a lawyer,” she said.

Hacking, in the sense that Neulist and her friends use it, doesn't mean defacing Web sites.  It means exploring novel applications of technology, often simply in the pursuit of fun and knowledge but also to expand computer innovation. Neulist fits right in among the gadget hounds and system administrators because of her passion for pushing the technological envelope.

Her boyfriend, Rob Vincent of Long Island, N.Y., called her a “dynamic person with a passionate mind” and said her role at Pumping Station 1 exemplifies the intellectual restlessness that often leads her to new interests.

“She’s not one to sit back and say, ‘I got a law degree, so I’ve got to go be a lawyer now,’” he said. “She’ll really branch out and do what she wants to do. She sets a goal for herself and then runs for it. She basically throws herself completely into things.”

Dark Storm, the pseudonymous facilitator of Chicago’s 2600 meetings, said hackers need lawyers who understand their subculture.

“For the hacker space she helps with, that’s golden,” he said. “As long as it’s a legitimate issue, it’s important to the community.”

Vincent agreed, and he credited her pro bono work in large part with “getting [Pumping Station 1] from zero to 60 in such a short amount of time.”

“The world needs lawyers that understand the hacker community, and the hacker community needs people that understand legal issues,” he said. “There are definitely not enough hacker-lawyers or lawyer-hackers.”

Neulist said she feels compelled to devote time to hacker law after her experience at Notacon, the Cleveland hacker conference she and Vincent attended in March, where strangers approached her one after another with “random legal issues.”

“It just hit me like a ton of bricks that most of these hackers and hacker spaces don’t even know a lawyer,” Neulist said.

Her experience in Cleveland motivated her to help hackers understand the legal issues associated with their hobby.  It also became the germ for a lecture she’ll present at Defcon 17, the hacker conference scheduled for July 31 through Aug. 2 at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. But she said she hopes to keep her lawyering to a minimum, setting aside just a fraction of her time to help hackers untangle the intricacies of their work.

To that end, Neulist plans to keep her law license current, but she said she’s serious about making a living in hacking.

“I’m trying to figure out what I want to do,” she said. “I’m hoping it can be in computers, although I’m not quite good enough to do it professionally. Yet.”