January 18, 2018


What is randomized evaluation?
The same type of studies used to test new drugs and treatments in medicine, randomized control trials (RCTs) are often referred to as the “gold standard” of empirical research methods. An RCT tries to remove, as much as possible, the effects of countless background factors—things like gender, age, education, knowledge, etc.—that might also drive the outcomes in question. More information is available here.

Are these studies ethical?
Our RCTs follow many of the same ethical principles applied in medicine. There are two primary reasons why legal RCTs can, ordinarily, be administered ethically:

1. Resource scarcity and over-enrollment
When there is not enough to go around, it is fair to use a lottery. In fact, many people prefer a lottery to a professional judgment when a resource is scarce. The United States has used lotteries in numerous settings (e.g., organs for transplant, the draft) in which a lucky or unlucky few must be chosen for something. In all but a few instances, the Access to Justice Lab’s studies involve using a lottery to distribute a scarce resource. Such a distribution system would be ethical even if we learned nothing from it.
2. Equipoise
Equipoise is the state of uncertainty, in which we lack solid evidence of whether option A or option B would be either better or more cost-effective. Because of the lack of evidence-based data in the law, equipoise is unfortunately our state of knowledge for most questions in law. The few rigorous studies that have been done in law (and RCTs done in other fields that involve professional judgment) have shown the assumption that professionals know best to be flawed. In law generally, and in access to justice specifically, equipoise is our everyday state.

Additional information about the ethics of RCTs in law is available on our blog.

How does the Lab decide what to study?
Our research is highly collaborative. We respond to the interests of those on the ground (legal service providers, court administrators, and innovators in the field) to design and test interventions to help them better understand the impacts of their work. We also work with law school students to identify areas of high access to justice need and design our own pro se self-help materials to test.

I have an idea for a study. Will the Lab work with me?
We’d love to hear from you! Even if we can’t take on the project for development, we might be able to connect you with someone who can. Please contact our Associate Director for Research Innovations, April Faith-Slaker, at afaithslaker[at]law.harvard.edu.

I’m a student. Is there a way I can work with the Lab?
The Lab has a number of research opportunities available each semester and over the summer for non-Harvard students. If you’re interested in learning about open opportunities, please contact the Lab’s staff at a2jlab[at]law.harvard.edu, subject line: Research Assistant Positions, and include a current copy of your resume.