The Lab’s New Guardianship Service of Process Study Has Launched!

As of yesterday, September 5, a new A2J Lab study is in the field at the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse in downtown Boston!

CSC staff attorney Jorge Cólon couldn’t be more excited to have our hard copy self-help materials.

Together with our partners at the Boston Court Service Center (“CSC”) and the Volunteer Lawyers Project (“VLP”) of the Boston Bar Association, we are evaluating (via RCT, of course) whether self-help materials can make a difference for court users seeking guardianship over incapacitated adults or minors. CSC and VLP reported high rates of return visits from users they assisted with filling out petitions. Why? Those petitioners often got stuck trying to navigate the often-labyrinthine service of process requirements.

A previous blog entry revealed just how confusing the process of service can be. Petitioners, most of whom are not lawyers, have to:  (1) identify “interested parties,” many of whom are not obvious candidates; (2) determine the proper method of service; (3) effectuate service; and (4) return proof of service to the Probate and Family Court. Completing the process exactly as described is equally important. Unless parties complete all the steps in the correct order, the guardianship matter cannot proceed.

Cólon and his CSC colleague Carolin Hetzner are already distributing (randomly!) Blob’s latest adventures to guardianship petitioners.

Because the process is complicated and the constituencies served have limited access to legal resources (beyond the excellent help of the CSC and VLP), the Lab’s familiar promotion and development of self-help materials seemed like a natural response. The associated RCT will lead to randomized provision of printed materials (developed in large part at our first hackathon) for both adult or minor guardianship cases and in English or Spanish. Once again, Hallie Jay Pope, the intrepid leader of the Graphic Advocacy Project, designed vivid flowcharts, “happy maps,” and new manifestations of the Lab’s favorite humanoid, Blob, to enrich the paper product. In addition, minor guardianship petitioners randomized to receive the hard copy booklets will also gain access to an online tool developed by Bill Palin, the Access to Justice/Technology Fellow with Harvard Law’s clinical programs. That site walks users through their unique legal needs, much like the software pioneered by TurboTax and other online service providers. The RCT will compare rates of successful service, among other outcomes, between the treatment and control groups.

What happens now? The first steps are randomizing cases and letting users go forth with service of process; that’s the part that began yesterday. We’ll start collecting data later this month. Stay tuned here for continued updates on the project!

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Public Safety Assessment Featured on NPR’s Planet Money

Our first RCT studying the Public Safety Assessment (“PSA”), the pre-disposition release assessment tool developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, is well underway in Dane County, WI.

Madison is far from the only place the PSA currently is in use; this recent piece from the Planet Money podcast highlights the implementation of the PSA in New Jersey.

The PSA is up and running in New Jersey, as well as the entire State of Kentucky and scattered counties from Santa Cruz, CA to Volusia, FL. Although the PSA has been scientifically validated, only the results from our Dane County RCT—and, hopefully, upcoming trials in other locations—will give us a good sense of how well the PSA really works for a given jurisdiction.

If you have some time on your commute (or whenever you listen to the news), take a listen. It’s about twenty minutes long, and it will give you a great sense of what we’re studying in the PSA trials. Prefer to read the story? The full transcript is also available online.

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Assessing Pretrial Risk Assessment

Of Scores and Simulations

Evidence-based practices in criminal law proceedings are rapidly gaining traction. Some high-level officials and scholars have voiced concerns about their use in sentencing, as the empirical turn in judicial decision-making continues to gain momentum. A significant portion of the A2J Lab’s mission is to take the practice community’s concerns seriously and then rigorously evaluate solutions to procedural problems.


The Problem

For the past 30 years, an increasing number of people come to court without a lawyer. As more people come to courts to access their legal rights, they are met with fewer free or low-cost legal services to help. Across the country, legal practitioners, scholars, and appellate courts have begun to question whether court procedure is effectively preventing access to justice.

Current Solutions

Courts, legal services providers, and state and local Bars have responded to the flood of people without lawyers in numerous ways, including:

  • amending ethical rules to legitimate already-existing forms of lawyer representation
  • self-help centers
  • uniform court forms
  • self-help materials
  • technology
  • and non-lawyer representation.

In 2015, the Conferences of Chief Judges and State Court Administrators passed a joint resolution adopting “the aspirational goal of 100 percent access to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs.”

Some of the efforts to stem the tide of pro se, self-represented, or unrepresented litigants have focused on connecting people with lawyers: by increasing pro bono efforts and leveraging different technologies to connect people with free legal aid or low-cost representation. Recent efforts, however, primarily focus on alternatives to representation, and very few efforts address changes to court processes themselves.

The Study

Field operation

During the study, potential clients seeking a divorce underwent a 45-60-minute interview to determine eligibility and learn more about the details of their case.

After the interview, consenting study-eligible individuals were randomized to one of two groups:

  • Treated group: an effort by the service provider to find a pro bono attorney to represent her;
  • Control group: a referral to existing self-help resources and an offer to answer questions by telephone.


We reviewed the court case files for all study participants, to review which cases successfully (a) filed for divorce in court, and (b) got divorced.


The Research Team

Jim Greiner, Faculty Director, The Access to Justice Lab; Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Ellen Degnan, Law Student, University of Miami School of Law

Tom Ferriss, Quantitative Analyst, Google

Roseanna Sommers, JD/PhD candidate, Yale Law School and Yale University


More Information

About divorce proceedings and legal rights


Housing Court Study

D. James Greiner, Cassandra Wolos Pattanayak, and Jonathan Philip Hennessy, “How Effective are Limited Legal Assistance Programs? A Randomized Experiment in a Massachusetts Housing Court”  (2012).

We persuaded entities conducting a civil Gideon pilot program in summary eviction cases to allow us to randomize which potential clients would receive offers of traditional attorney-client relationships from oversubscribed legal aid staff attorneys and which would be referred to a lawyer for the day program. We examine outcomes related to whether matters not yet in litigation reached court, possession of the unit, monetary consequences of non-payment of rent cases, and court burden. We find no statistically significant evidence that the Provider’s offer of full, as opposed to limited, representation had a large (or any) effect on any outcome of substantive import. We explore several possible interpretations of our results, and we caution against both over-interpretation and under-interpretation.

District Court Study

D. James Greiner, Cassandra Wolos Pattanayak, and Jonathan Hennessy, “The Limits of Unbundled Legal Assistance: A Randomized Study in a Massachusetts District Court and Prospects for the Future,” 126 Harvard Law Review 901 (2012).

We persuaded entities conducting two civil Gideon pilot programs to randomize which potential clients would receive offers of traditional attorney-client relationships from professional service provider staff attorneys and which would receive only limited (“unbundled”) assistance. In both pilot programs potential clients were defendants in housing eviction proceedings, and both programs were oversubscribed. In this Article, we report the results of one of these two resulting randomized control trials, which we label the “District Court Study,” after the type of the court in which it took place. In the District Court Study, almost all study-eligible eviction defendants received limited assistance in the form of help in filling out answer and discovery request forms, and most also attended an instructional session on the summary eviction process. After receiving this limited assistance, each member of a randomly selected treated group received an offer of a traditional attorney-client relationship from one of the legal services provider’s staff attorneys; each member of the corresponding randomly selected control group received no such offer. We compare outcomes for the treated (offered traditional representation from a service provider staff attorney) group versus the control (no such offer) group on a variety of dimensions, focusing primarily on possession of the unit, financial consequences of the litigation, and measures of court burden.

At least for the clientele involved in this District Court Study, a clientele recruited and chosen by the service provider’s proactive, timely, specific, and selective outreach and intake system, an offer of full representation mattered. Approximately two thirds of defendants in the treated group, versus about one-third of defendants in the control group, retained possession of their units at the end of litigation. Using a highly conservative proxy for financial consequences, treated group defendants received payments or rent waivers worth a net of 9.4 months of rent per case, versus 1.9 months of rent per case in the control group. Both results were statistically significant. Meanwhile, although treated cases did take longer to reach judgment, the offer of representation caused no increase in court burden as measured by other, more salient metrics.

Read more

Unemployment Representation Study

James Greiner and Cassandra Wolos Pattanayak, “Randomized Evaluation in Legal Assistance: What Difference Does Representation (Offer and Actual Use) Make?“, 121 Yale Law Journal 2118 (2011).

We report the results of the first of a series of randomized evaluations of legal assistance programs. This series of evaluations is designed to measure the effect of both an offer of and the actual use of representation, although it was not possible in the first study we report here to measure constructively all effects of actual use. The results of this first evaluation are unexpected, and we caution against both over-generalization and under-generalization.

Specifically, the offers of representation came from a law school clinic, which provided high-quality and well-respected assistance in administrative “appeals” to state administrative law judges (ALJs) of initial rulings regarding eligibility for unemployment benefits (these “appeals” were actually de novo mini-trials). Our randomized evaluation found that the offers of representation from the clinic had no statistically significant effect on the probability that an unemployment claimant would prevail in the “appeal,” but that the offers did delay proceedings by (on average) about two weeks. Actual use of representation (from any source) also delayed the proceeding; we could come to no firm conclusions regarding the effect of actual use of representation (from any source) on the probability that claimants would prevail. Keeping in mind the high-quality and well-respected nature of the representation the law school clinic offered and provided, we explore three possible explanations for our results, each of which has implications for delivery of legal services.

Read more


Social Security Disability

The Study

Field operation

To be eligible for the study, an individual must be an adult seeking to appeal an adverse decision regarding eligibility for disability benefits to an administrative law judge (“ALJ”).  The decision might have been either a denial of a request for reconsideration (under the traditional Social Security Administration (“SSA”) system) or an adverse ruling from a federal reviewing officer (under the new Disability Service Improvement (“DSI”) process).  The applicant might be seeking benefits under either the Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) program or the Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) program.

After a thorough screening and intake process, consenting individuals are randomized into one of two groups:

  • Treated group: representation by student advocate in a law school clinic
  • Control group: a self-help packet on disability appeals, as well as referral to other legal services providers, and a copy of their own intake information (to streamline the information-gathering that another legal services provider would need).


Randomization is currently active. When the field operation is over, we will analyze the following outcomes for both groups:

  • Were benefits awarded or denied?
  • If awarded, what amount?
  • Compliance with the randomization: did individuals in the control group obtain representation elsewhere? Did individuals in the treatment group continue with their representation?

The Research Team

Jim Greiner, Faculty Director, The Access to Justice Lab; Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Federal Court Mediation

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)

Almost every court system in the nation has an ADR program, and for most courts, at least some classes of litigants are compelled to use it before or during formal litigation.

The most common forms of ADR are:

  • Mediation: sessions in which the parties and/or their lawyers meet with a neutral (the “mediator”) who attempts to find common ground.  Mediation format can be caucus or non-caucus, depending on whether (or not) the mediator meets each party outside of the presence of the other.  Mediation can be evaluative or facilitative, depending on whether (or not) the mediator provides her views as to the merit of the dispute.
  • Judicial settlement conference: similar to mediations in the goal and the format, but the neutral is a judge or other decision-maker. Judicial settlement conferences are evaluative.

The Debate Surrounding ADR

Proponents of ADR clam that it furthers social welfare on at least four separate dimensions:

  1. conserving judicial resources,
  2. conserving party resources,
  3. increasing party satisfaction, and
  4. increasing party compliance with the decision or outcome.

Opponents, meanwhile, claim that direct negotiation can achieve these same benefits, and that the high cost of litigation provides a strong incentive for parties to settle on their own. The question, therefore, is whether the presence of the ADR neutral (a mediator, a judge) is really necessary to help the parties do what they could do on their own via direct negotiation.

Who is right? We do not know. There is little reliable evidence of any kind, and no reliable evidence at all from the past 20 years, to assess ADR effectiveness along any of these four dimensions discussed above.

The Study

The present study is the first of any kind to evaluate rigorously all of the dimensions ADR proponents cite in advocating such programs. We conducted a randomized control trial in one setting: civil rights cases brought by inmates in one federal correctional facility in Nevada.

Field operation

After a thorough screening and intake process, consenting individuals were randomized into one of two groups:

  • Treated group: mediation
  • Control group: strong suggestion to negotiate


Randomization has closed, and more than half of the cases have reached final resolution. Data we will analyze:

  • Federal court case records
  • Number of hours spent by state attorneys general per case
  • Case outcomes, in both settlements and court orders
  • Inmate plaintiff surveys
  • Future complaints

The Research Team

Jim Greiner, Faculty Director, The Access to Justice Lab; Professor of Law, Harvard Law School