A dispatch from Sophie, Chris & Erika
Over the last month, the A2J Lab decamped from snowy Boston to the rainy climes of Portland, OR for the National Association for Court Management (NACM) Midyear Meeting and blustery San Francisco for the first stand-alone Self-Represented Litigation Network (SRLN) conference. The former gathered court administrators from around the country to improve the public’s trust and confidence in the judiciary–a goal near and dear to the Lab. The latter opened with a keynote from Judge Lisa Foster, former Director of the DOJ Office for Access to Justice. She encouraged attendees to “create, innovate, [and] demonstrate” over two full days of discussions, research panels, and workshops regarding critical SRL issues.
The NACM midyear was the Lab’s first opportunity to reach and educate a national audience about our activities. At the session “Evidence-Based Practices and Access to Justice,” Erika and Chris offered a brief tutorial on RCTs and explained how better evaluations can shore up confidence in the judiciary and the legal system writ large. They then walked the audience through two Lab studies, framed as hypotheticals, asking them to brainstorm research questions and randomized innovations as if they were leading the field operation.
It was inspiring to see this group, mostly unfamiliar with conducting any sort of rigorous research, embrace the benefits of the RCT and get excited about the possibility of deeper collaboration.
The SRLN conference was an exciting opportunity to learn from innovative researchers, clerks, law librarians, judges, court administrators, and law professors committed to improving outcomes for pro se litigants. Topics ranged from the role of artificial intelligence in legal services to making online triage more effective. The A2J Lab contributed twice to the conference. The first was an engaging design workshop led by Margaret Hagan, where mini-teams went through (in greatly abbreviated form!) the real work of the user-focused designer. Participants were tasked with creating a new solution to, among other legal issues, service of process in guardianship petitions. The enthusiasm in the room was palpable; methods that once were only at the frontier of legal services provision are now making their way into the mainstream.
Day 2 included a research methodology session led by University of Illinois Professor Becky Sandefur. Chris and Erika contributed commentary on . . . . yes, RCTs to a group mostly unfamiliar with field operations in a legal context. The key takeaways of the research panel session were twofold. First, research in the legal field thus far has been backward-looking rather than focusing on the effectiveness of new ideas. Second, the legal community truly wants to know, in a world of scarce resources, what ideas will work and which are worth investment. Both of these themes, along with the trend toward more paradigm-shifting innovation were readily apparent throughout the SRLN proceedings.
In our “Why RCTs?” blog series, Sophie has compared the culture of randomized testing in the medical field to the decided lack of such evaluation in the legal profession. Not only did this comparison come up in Becky’s panel, the broader conference conversation emphasized interdisciplinary learning opportunities. For example, we can learn from the research physician’s difficulties and successes with conceptualizing patients’ needs, valuing their input, and crafting a responsive system. Those lessons can then inform our efforts toward achieving access to justice for all, not just those with the means or know-how.
These gatherings were just the first in what will be an exciting spring and early summer for the A2J Lab. Look out for Sophie, Erika & Chris coming to a town near you!