High in demand, BU Law clinics continue in fall

Director: ‘We’re here to help students do crazy-exciting things’

The second law clinic, focused on technology and cyberlaw, launches this fall. Overseen by Boston University Law faculty, the clinics partner students from MIT with BU Law students who provide legal assistance with issues related to their innovative activities.

“We know that the demand [for legal assistance] is very high,” director Andy Sellars JD said. Indeed, last year’s clinic on innovation reached more than 75 MIT ventures, “we’re expecting a similar number.”

Sellars emphasized that these ventures can range from starting a business to purely academic research.

“We’re here to help students do crazy-exciting things,” Sellars said “I hope I can break the feeling that lawyers are here to say no.”

The excitement in Sellars’s voice is palpable.

“I teach what I call constructive lawyering. Lawyers have a bad rep for being the ones who say no. I want to work with the client to get what they want.”

Sellars is also quick to clarify who the client is: “I’m not representing MIT. We represent the students.”

Sellars explained that the clinic can help in many ways.

The first is at the design stage: “when your legal spidey-sense is tingling, just contact us,” Sellars said. Both clinics have a single point of contact, the mailing list bulaw.

In addition to preventative consultations, the clinic can also represents students facing less-hypothetical legal issues. “As far as I can tell, MIT is the only school that does this, at least in the tech sphere... This hasn’t happened before,” Sellars said.

Sellars also wants the clinic to “be of service to those who want to take on the policy fight. We aren’t interested in taking positions in our own name. We’re here to be an advocate for the students.”

The clinics find their origin in Fall 2013 when Jeremy Rubin ’16, was subpoenaed by New Jersey’s Attorney General for work done at a hackathon. MIT’s General Counsel, which represents the institute, declined to take a non-Institute case but still put Rubin in contact with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. After a failed challenge to the subpoena, a settlement was reached in May 2015.

In reaction MIT’s lack of legal support for the student, Prof. Hal Abelson PhD ’73, Prof Ethan Zuckerman and Nathan Matias G authored an open letter calling for MIT to make a stronger stand in the case, explaining that they considered “[the] subpoena to have a chilling effect on our own work.”

That letter resonates strongly with Sellars. “It is a big part of why I’m here. I’ve met with all of [the authors], I hope to build the clinics to their satisfaction.”

Zuckerman echoed a similar sentiment. “I’m glad we wrote the letter. It led to three things I feel good about,” he said.

The first is a series of IAP classes entitled “Hackers, know your rights” on which Kate Darling, the Intellectual Property research specialist at the Media Lab worked on with Sellars.

“[Sellars] is well known to our community,” Zuckerman added, “he’s been on the cutting edge of media and law […] and has been interested since the beginning.”

The second one is the Fall 2015 freedom2innovate summit, which explored whether it was possible to build an academic movement to protect research from chilling legal effects.

Zuckerman further details a discussion at the summit about research that was effectively being forbidden, either because of legal or moral barriers. That discussion lead to the recent Forbidden Research conference at the Media Lab, attracting many prominent speakers, including Edward Snowden, known for leaking classified NSA information about surveillance programs.

Finally, “the clinics are the most practical response to the Tidbit case,” Zuckerman said. “MIT is doing something brave and innovative … it is a recognized fact that when you are doing cutting edge work, you are in a gray area. If students don’t have legal support, their trend is to back away from their ideas.” Zuckerman hopes the clinic becomes “[the] model that other universities end up replicating.”

Beyond the clinic, Zuckerman has high hopes for its impact: “I would love to see my colleagues realize we need to be proactive, rather than reactive, on the freedom to innovate. I would love for people to become more active against laws on the books like CIFA. I would love to hear about places when legal uncertainty has limited [my colleague’s] research. We can turn this into a movement.”

Sellars said that BU Students are also excited about the clinic, receiving far more applications than the 8 spots allow for, making the clinic likely to grow.

Sellars will be holding office hours all day each Friday and is exploring the possibility of teaching a condensed IAP class and offering services during the summer.

“I hope that this gets woven into the fabric of MIT,” concludes Sellars. “Like you have a school doctor, you have a school lawyer.”