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Student Series: Wildcard Exemptions

Students are back from break! And ready to tackle some more bankruptcy forms and self-help materials.

As we mentioned last week in our first student blog posts, there a quite a few students working on the Lab’s Financial Distress Project. They are constructing self-help materials, and in doing so learning the ins and outs of the bankruptcy process, interacting with court users, and drawing on literature from other fields.

Last week, Seth Motel talked about what he had learned from a small sample bankruptcy filings from Connecticut. This week, Alvina Pillai, also on the Bankruptcy Team of the Financial Distress Project, talks about how to navigate the complicated assessment of household items and federal “wildcard” exemptions.

Let’s Hear from Students!

The A2J Lab produces quality research on A2J issues and seeks to change hearts and minds about the value of rigorous empirical study, including RCTs, to the legal profession.  It also has a symbiotic relationship with students.  Lots of students.  Currently, over four dozen law students work on A2J Lab projects.  Some of these students will be writing blog entries to show how their work furthers Lab projects, and how the Lab provides them with opportunities to experience the real world of law.

Our first student blogger is Seth Motel.  Seth works on the Bankruptcy Team for the Financial Distress Research Project.  That means he works with several student team members to create self-help materials to allow low-income Connecticut individuals and families to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.  Self-help materials are one of the primary interventions that the Project will evaluate.

Seth’s post shows that a great deal of empiricism involves good, old-fashioned spadework.

The Gift of RCTs Keeps on Giving



Just before the holidays, a monumental RCT delivered an early gift. In what is being hailed as a “scientific triumph,” a vaccination trial documented 100% protection against the Ebola virus. You read that correctly: 100%. In several prior posts, I’ve discussed how RCTs have transformed the medical profession. In this case, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the tremendous success of randomized evaluation.

Although the drug has not yet been formally approved for widespread use, the results of the 2015 trial suggest that it could be soon. The study, which covered 11,841 people in the West African nation of Guinea, already has prompted increased production and storage of the vaccine. Why? Of the 5,837 people treated with the vaccine, none came down with Ebola after the standard 10-day waiting period for positive tests. Among the control group that did not receive the vaccination, only 23 people contracted Ebola.

The Ebola outbreak and the development of a vaccine amidst crisis makes for an intriguing case study. The 23 positive diagnoses among the control group, compared to the 11,000 lost lives in 2014, probably are a function of other drastic efforts at containing the virus. Although the disease had been around for some time, most attempts to combat Ebola’s spread followed a “contain and stifle” approach. But when thousands of people in Guinea and surrounding countries started contracting the disease, that resource-intensive strategy did not prove scalable.

Ebola dominated the news, and cases outside of Africa stoked additional fear. With the outbreak came a “[u]nique opportunity: Never before had the disease affected enough people to allow researchers to test Ebola drugs and vaccines in a real-world setting. As the number of cases exploded in mid-2014, they set in motion a vast research program that operated at breakneck speed.” The clinical trials encountered their own problems. Money dried up, and patient numbers fell as the outbreak waned. In other words the trials suffered from so-called “thin harvest,” making it difficult to conduct studies with adequate sample sizes.

The researchers who developed the new vaccine responded to this challenge with an innovative research method focused on randomizing “ring clusters,” by which entire circles of people closely connected to an Ebola patient are sorted into treatment and control groups. This study design not only increased the sample size, it also made sense in the light of how Ebola affects populations. The virus is communicated mainly through family and social networks, even among mourners who attend a deceased patient’s funeral. This approach “ensured that the study was undertaken in pockets of high incidence . . . despite the declining epidemic and an overall low attack rate.”

Funding and pooling service providers to conduct RCTs in the legal field of course encounter similar obstacles. Variation in the numbers of cases and types of services offered is analogous to the fluctuating numbers of Ebola patients for a drug trial. As mentioned in our series on triage, legal resources and services will always be scarce. More people than the system can accommodate need legal services. This fact will remain a constant. The silver lining is that, as resources are spread thin or do not reach everyone in need, such scarcity lays some of the ethical foundation for experimentation. And randomized methodologies, as we know, are the optimal strategies for discovering how best to help the underserved.

In addition, when considering the phenomenal Ebola vaccine account, legal RCTs might present opportunities beyond just learning about a specific intervention. We might also gain insight into new legal rules and how to construct preventative (or ex ante), rather than just prescriptive services. That said, we don’t kid ourselves by hoping for 100% effectiveness in any A2J Lab study, but we are heartened by the continued success of medical RCTs and the promise of similar discovery in our randomized legal studies. 

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New Year, New Activity


Blob celebrating all the access to justice related RCTs that 2017 may bring.

Happy New Year from the A2J Lab! The start of 2017 coincides with many exciting research developments and a longer-term campaign to introduce our work more broadly. Practitioners and scholars often ask us about the issues that we care about and how we commit ourselves to randomized interventions in legal services. Thankfully, the Center for Court Innovation, an organization committed to justice reform through rigorous experimentation and data analysis, shared the same questions. Aubrey Fox hosted our very own Jim Greiner on the New Thinking podcast to discuss the A2J Lab’s mission and current projects. Listen here:

On Your Mark, Get Set, Triage

Part 2 of “To Triage of Not to Triage? That is NOT the Question.”

Last week I took another dive into the world of triage- specifically focusing on some common questions and sticking points that were raised in RadioLab podcast entitled “Playing God.” As was mentioned in the previous blog post, we don’t think triage is really about playing god, rather about facing limited resources and making decisions. Last week we talked mostly about the value implications of such discussions of who lives and who dies. This week we’ll touch upon two other points. First, the reaction to not want to make triage decisions, and the second is the multitude of ways to triage and therefore the importance of RCTs in knowing which way is best in a given situation.

“To Triage or Not to Triage?” That is NOT the Question

Part 1

The Radiolab podcast from WNYC Studios is as close to appointment listening as we have in 2016. One of the show’s recent episodes, entitled “Playing God,” takes up a topic directly in the A2J Lab’s wheelhouse: triage. In a stark bit of commentary, the host characterizes the practice not as deciding how to allocate scarce resources; rather he described it as an “inhuman act which humans are trying to do.”

Power Pose


Blob, from our Financial Distress Project, is ready to go to court!

Feel confident walking into that interview! Raise your hands up, hold your chest high, and, whatever you do, don’t cross your arms as you wait. You want to make sure the pose you’re striking inspires confidence and communicates that confidence to your (hopefully) future employer.

Why RCTs? Part 6

How helpful is that Head Start?


Lady Bird Johnson Visiting a Classroom for Project Head Start, 1966

Education reform is tricky no matter the level or issue targeted. But one area of reform subject to fairly constant momentum is Head Start, especially under the Obama Administration. This program, established in 1965, addresses some of the early developmental and school readiness gaps for low-income children, from birth to age five. The million-dollar question (for a many million-dollar program) is: does it work?

Reimagining Reversals

Beyond the extraordinary “Why RCTs?” examples

If you’ve been following our “Why RCTs?” series, you’ve read about some drastic examples across several fields of study- many in the medical field- where RCTs have turned common knowledge and practices upside down. These examples are meant to be shocking; they show us the very real and serious implications that can follow from not testing interventions at all or with non-randomized interventions. The accounts I’ve highlighted in the series illustrate several things: