Experiments in Lawyering: Does the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau Deserve a Merit Badge?
posted by Dave Hoffman
We report the results of the first in a series of randomized control trials designed to measure the effect of an offer of, and the actual use of, legal representation. The results are startling. In the context of administrative litigation to determine eligibility for unemployment benefits, a service provider’s offer of representation to a claimant had no statistically significant effect on the claimant’s probability of a victory, but the offer caused a delay in the proceeding. Because a substantial percentage of the provider’s client base consisted of claimants who were initially denied benefits but who would have that initial denial reversed as a result of the litigation, the delay an offer of representation caused inflicted a harm upon such claimants in the form of an additional waiting time for benefits to begin, this with no concomitant increase in the probability of a favorable outcome. In other words, these claimants would have been better off without the offer of representation. Other classes of claimants were unaffected, but in cases with a certain profile, the delay hurt the financing of the unemployment system, again with no concomitant benefit in the probability of a favorable outcome for the claimant. We were also able to verify a delay effect due to the actual use of (as opposed to an offer of) representation; we could come to no firm conclusion on the effect of actual use of representation on win/loss. Stepping back, we use these results as a springboard for a comprehensive review of the quantitative literature on the effect of representation in civil proceedings. We find that this literature provides virtually no credible information, excepting the results of two randomized evaluations occurring in different legal contexts and separated by over three decades. We conclude by advocating for, and describing challenges associated with, a large program of randomized evaluation of the provision of representation, particularly by legal services providers.
Greiner/Pattanayak take (very) broad swipes at a variety of previous studies of representation. Putting that aside, the results from the paper are unsettling, at least if your prior is that legal representation always helps the poor. And I wanted to pull out one part of the article that is particularly interesting. From pages 6-7:
[Our] ideas polarized the legal services community. Some organizations overcame initial nervousness about defining measurable outcomes and about ceding partial control over case selection to a randomizer and embraced the effort. In doing so, these providers demonstrated the courage necessary to subject their programs to gold-standard evaluation. Among the most courageous were the students of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (“HLAB”), a student-run, faculty-overseen legal services office that is part of the clinical educational program at Harvard Law School. But other organizations opposed our effort. One group did not limit its opposition to a refusal to participate on its own part. Instead, when it discovered that HLAB was conducting a randomized evaluation, it halted its previous practice of suggesting that clients it could not itself represent call HLAB.