Author: Bob Sable

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What Difference Representation – A Response

I am the Executive Director of Greater Boston Legal Services, the primary provider of civil legal services to poor people in the greater Boston area.  My program and I have a great stake in assuring that our limited resources are used where they can be most effective.  Indeed we are participating with Professor Greiner in a study of the impact of our staff attorneys’ representation in defense of eviction cases.  My comments refer to the draft dated February 12, 2011.

It is important with any study; however, to know what it concludes and what it does not.  For instance, and most importantly, the study concedes on page 43 that it could draw no conclusions about the effect on outcome for claimants actually receiving representation, as opposed to just an offer of representation.  Thus, this study should be recognized for what it is: a limited analysis of the somewhat abstract concept of “offering” assistance.  Indeed, the study wisely cautions against drawing any conclusions from the study about the usefulness of free legal assistance or even about the usefulness of offers of representation in unemployment cases in general (page 47).

I feel some changes are necessary to avoid much confusion about (and misuse of) this study’s conclusions (or lack thereof) as to the effect of representation itself, as opposed to just the offer.  For instance, given that this study’s principal conclusions are about an offer of representation and not actual representation, a more accurate title to this study would be, “What Difference an Offer of Representation?”  And the very first sentence of the Introduction on page 5 currently reads, “Particularly with respect to low-income clients in civil cases, how much of a difference does legal representation make?”  It is only a footnote that explains the study looks at offers as well as effect, and much later in the study (page 32) that no conclusions were reached at all as to the effect of representation.  Similarly, the conclusion (“Where Do We Go From Here?”) states, “the present study primarily concerned representation effects on legal outcomes affecting the potential client’s pecuniary interests.”

I am concerned also that the results reported in the study with respect to offers of representation by HLAB are misleading at best and of little utility at worst.  This is because nearly half of the control group were represented by counsel and, more significantly, probably that many and perhaps more in the control group got an offer of free representation from my program or another providing free legal services in unemployment cases.  To make an analogy to the medical world, suppose there was a Pfizer drug trial where 50% of Pfizer’s control group were offered the exact same medication from Merck.  Wouldn’t that cast serious doubt on the outcome of the study?  There is no mention of this 49% in either the abstract or introduction which unfortunately are all many readers will read.

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