Like any law school, the University of Miami School of Law sought to find a way to include a public service experience in its orientation, both to create more meaningful connections between students and the Miami community and to help its students begin developing the soft-skills they will need to be successful practitioners. The law school created its own version of a “hackathon,” putting students on teams that challenged students to solve legal problems including athlete activism, cryptocurrency, municipal bankruptcies, and healthcare litigation.

Students were randomly assigned to one of eight hacks so that each hack has about 45 students per hack.  Six community stakeholders were invited to join each hack. These people included alumni and other practitioners, law faculty, faculty from across the University in disciplines similar to or related to the fields represented by the hack topics, and activists and policymakers who worked on the issues raised in the hack topics.  The students were not asked to created new technologies (which is the typical expectation of technology hackathons); rather, the students were asked to “hack” (create) a way to address their issue.

Each topic was related to the law school’s Living Law Talks in which 12 mini-lectures are delivered by law faculty (four rounds of 3 concurrent panels) to 1L students during orientation; each lecture includes 10 minutes of lecture and 10 minutes of Q&A, after which students switch and go to the next lecture.  The Talks themselves are an opportunity for faculty to use their scholarly agenda, a particular project, or a current event/phenomenon to make connections with students early in their law school careers.

Facilitated by upper level students who followed a hack-guide developed by Acting Dean & Professor of Law Osamudia R. James and other members of the law school’s orientation team, the hack groups were given a specific problem to consider, as well as a prompt to consider a product, process, or legislation that might address the problem articulated in the hack.  The students’ worked in small teams and their work culminated in a five-minute presentation that they would deliver to the larger hack group of 45.

The hacking exercise was designed to develop soft skills: a capacity for teamwork, innovation and creativity, the ability to offer problem-solving skills and not just isolated legal knowledge, and an awareness of the interdisciplinary nature of legal problems (both within the law, e.g. a problem that includes tort law, and contract law and civil procedure, as well as in concert with other disciplines, e.g. a legal problem that invokes larger sociological or political issues).

Students were able to see themselves as problem-solvers invested in understanding issues from the vantage point of multiple stakeholders. At the same time, students worked closely with each other, getting to know each other very quickly, and getting accustomed to speaking up even before the first day of class.  Finally, students were able to connect with members of the local Miami community in only their first moments of law school.

From my perspective, by creating this unique orientation experience, Miami Law itself has hacked a solution to the problem of translating new law students’ passion for justice and change into a unique and exciting learning opportunity and connections with the local Miami community.