An App to Report Hate Crimes

This March, against a backdrop of escalating racial and religious threats and attacks nationwide, an ambitious and eclectic group gathered at Suffolk University with a singular mission: to design a hate crime app that will help victims report crimes, assess their legal standing, and get help from local and national organizations.

Funded by a grant from tech giant Cisco Systems, the app project is spearheaded by the American Bar Association’s Center for Innovation—chaired by Suffolk Law dean Andrew Perlman. The Center, like Perlman himself, views technology as a means to make the legal system more efficient.

“I come at this from the angle of seeing the importance of technology in helping people get the legal services they need,” Perlman told the Boston Globe. “The time is right; the place is right.” 

The goal of the daylong ‘design sprint’ was to flesh out a prototype for an app or website that makes it easier for victims to determine whether their situation meets the legal threshold to be considered a hate crime—a definition that changes depending on the location where the alleged crime took place, Perlman said. The app will also help individuals find the proper pathway to report a crime, Perlman added, which can be confusing. The resulting framework is slated to be refined and developed into final form by CuroLegal.

In addition to coders, designers, Suffolk Law students, law enforcement officials, civil rights advocates, and attorneys familiar with immigration and hate crime laws, members of minority communities and various religious groups were invited to draw on their experiences to help develop the app. And by all accounts, the day was a success. “Recently I had the chance to see how smart technology, applied to vexing social problems, can help provide solutions and build a better world,” said Mark Chandler, general counsel at Cisco, reflecting on the event. 

Wisdom (and Funding) of the Crowd

Suffolk’s Sawyer Business School introduced one of the nation’s first experiential courses on crowdfunding in fall 2016. Students launched campaigns to fund their own startup companies through Kickstarter and Indiegogo. The acclaimed course, conceived and taught by entrepreneurship professors Chaim Letwin and Jenni Dinger, just ended its second semester, with a new group of student entrepreneurs launching campaigns to fund their businesses.

“Crowdfunding is shaping up to be an important factor for startup success,” said Letwin. “To run a successful campaign one must be passionate about their venture. That’s why it’s important to not only teach our students why some campaigns are successful while others are not, but also to give them the opportunity to dig in, get their hands dirty and run a campaign of their own.”

“This course is still quite young, only the second time through, so we’re continuously adjusting and learning as a group,” Dinger said. “It’s very exciting to see how this group of students have built on what was accomplished last year.”

Among the new student ventures seeking funding this year: a full-length documentary film by David Apostolides and John Moran that incorporates the perspectives of those living outside of the U.S. in the current American political conversation, two children’s books, and Cosmic Eye, an augmented reality technology by junior Ashton Viqueras-LaRochelle that bridges the gap between what you see through a telescope and what actually exists in the cosmos.

Digital Pro Bono

A new, digital approach to expanding access to free legal advice is taking shape—and thanks to a partnership with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and the Boston Bar Association, Suffolk Law’s first-year students got a hands-on look at the groundbreaking model in March. 

Mass Legal Answers Online is a “virtual” legal advice clinic: Eligible low-income clients can post their legal questions to the secure website www.masslao.org, and their questions are answered by volunteer attorneys. About 300 Suffolk Law students split into groups to research answers to commonly asked legal questions. The questions, which ranged from landlord-tenant issues to family law and foreclosure law, were modified to protect client confidentiality, but are based on actual problems submitted by the site’s users, said professor Gabriel Teninbaum, director of the Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation.

“We’ve trained students to do great legal research, and now we’re demonstrating how that legal research can be done more efficiently and effectively, using technology,” Teninbaum said.
“It’s also important that they get a healthy perspective on pro bono work, which is an affirmative obligation for every attorney,” he added. “You have to do work for those who can’t afford it — we’re trying to get students in that mode as 1Ls.”

Law professor Kathy Vinson’s students tackled a question about a landlord’s access to a tenant’s apartment. Students had one hour to review the question, research the related details, and draft an email to send professors outlining their discoveries.

“They’re used to having a lot more time to answer questions,” Vinson said. “It’s good to bring the real world into the classroom, so students can get used to researching under time constraints for real clients, and see the impact that their research answers have on the world.”