Hacking for Justice

At the inaugural Miami Law Legal Impact Hack, Osamudia R. James, acting dean and professor of law, gives a Living Law talk on the NFL’s controversial national anthem policy. Photo by Evan F. Garcia/UM News.

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

At the inaugural Miami Law Legal Impact Hack, Osamudia R. James, acting dean and professor of law, gives a Living Law talk on the NFL’s controversial national anthem policy. Photo by Evan F. Garcia/UM News.

Hacking for Justice

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Miami Law conducts its inaugural Legal Impact Hack for first-year students.

As a high school history teacher, Kristen Calzadilla became passionate about human rights issues, especially those in the area of forced labor in global supply chains. 

“Teaching so many students who are one day going to comprise our workforce made me care tremendously about all the young people across the world who are enduring harsh working conditions,” she said. “It’s a problem that is very solvable, but it’s just going to take a lot of time, patience, and creativity.” 

Last Friday, Calzadilla, now a first-year student at the University of Miami’s School of Law, took what she considers an important personal step in the ongoing process of ending slave labor, participating in the school’s inaugural Legal Impact Hack, an exercise that Osamudia James, acting dean and professor of law, said called upon “diverse groups of bright, energetic, and engaged people to consider some of society’s thorniest issues.” 

From the impact of artificial intelligence on doctors and lawyers to the NFL’s controversial national anthem policy and the player, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt for the Star-Spangled Banner before games in 2016 as a protest against social injustice, the Legal Impact Hack dealt with a range of issues, using so-called Living Law talks by law professors to orient students to certain problems. 

“Hackathons are very common in the tech space, especially because they help participants develop the capacity for teamwork, creativity, and innovation—essential skills for any professional, including attorneys,” said James. “Hacks are typically anchored in problems, and our orientation team realized during a brainstorming session that our Living Law Talks already presented students with problems that could serve as the focus for hacks—and the idea was born.” 

After listening to the series of talks, of which there were 12, students broke up into smaller groups, crafting their own solutions to such issues as how to mitigate the environmental and public health effects of displacement and how lawyers for Miami’s homeless can use the Constitution, which does not protect a right to housing or shelter, to safeguard their clients’ rights and reduce homelessness.

And then there was the issue tackled by Calzadilla and about 25 other students: what to do about companies with forced labor in their supply chains.

“Slavery is at one of its highest points in history right now, but it’s difficult to count the number of slaves because people don’t come out and say they are slaves,” Marcia Narine Weldon, a Harvard-educated lawyer who teaches legal communications and compliance courses at Miami Law, said during her “Living Law” presentation.

“But if you’ve been in a bathroom at a restaurant or at an airport, you might actually see something about human trafficking,” she continued.

Major sporting events like the Super Bowl and Olympics lure traffickers who exploit women, men, and children for forced labor or the commercial sex trade. “It’s a big business,” said Weldon.

She reeled off the names of several well-known products, telling the students that the companies that produce them have all been implicated recently in either lawsuits or campaigns by NGOs because of their potential use of slave labor in their supply chain. Weldon also addressed legislation, noting that Australia will soon enact a modern slavery act and that California has a Transparency in Supply Chains Act that requires manufacturers and retail sellers that do business in the state and have worldwide gross receipts exceeding $100 million to disclose their efforts to address the issues of forced labor, slavery, and human trafficking within their supply chain.

“I’m telling you these things because part of our job is to figure out solutions,” Weldon said. “You’re the ethical consumers. You’re the people who are saying, ‘I’m not shopping here because of this.’ But no one is actually with you at the cash register saying, ‘Did you know slaves make those socks?’ ”

Among some of the solutions proposed by Calzadilla and the other first-year law students in her group: creating a watchdog organization that assigns a score to corporations based on their level of corporate social responsibility; imposing tariffs on companies known to have slave labor in their supply chains; and placing warning labels on certain products made as a result of slave labor. “We’re coming at the problem from different perspectives, but we all want the same outcome,” said Calzadilla.

Outside Stakeholders, which included a physician, journalist, and clergyman, but mostly practicing attorneys, assisted all of the students participating in the Legal Impact Hack. “No lawyer can effectively advocate for a client or problem-solve tough issues without understanding the perspectives of all parties involved,” said James, who gave a Living Law talk on how an organization like the NFL can accommodate both freedom of expression and its market audience. “Bringing varied stakeholders into the event exposes students to those varied perspectives, gives them an opportunity to draw on the expertise of the faculty and stakeholders who hack with us, and further orients them to the vibrant communities of our great city.”

Ronnie Graham, a first-year law student from Lake City, Florida, was part of a team that addressed the question of how financial regulators should react to new uses of technology in finance or what’s known as FinTech.

“The solution we came up with is to create a new independent organization, the goal of which is twofold: to protect consumers of cryptocurrency from scams and misinformation while also protecting and cultivating innovation in the finance industry,” said Graham, who called the daylong hack an invaluable learning experience.

Added Graham, “It’s exciting to create something that could potentially be pushed forward in the future.”