Using empirical research to make the U.S. justice system work better for everyone.
The portion of the U.S. justice system that deals with people is in permanent crisis. 80% of family cases have a lawyerless litigant. Average caseloads can require state public defenders to initiate, investigate, bargain or try, and/or appeal two cases per day. For individuals and families without lawyers, courts are complex, full of jargon, hard to navigate, and scary. The good news is that there are already many proposed solutions to these challenges. The problem is that we don’t know which of those solutions make a difference.
What We Believe
Providing decision makers in law with credible evidence about what works—the kind of information that comes from randomized control trials and rigorous qualitative evidence—will allow them to implement solutions that will provide better access to justice for individuals and families. When we say law needs to become evidence-based, we mean that law needs to use lessons learned from randomized (not observational) evaluations and strong qualitative investigation. These techniques will give decision makers confidence that the interventions they deploy will create the impacts that they want.
What We Do
The Access to Justice (A2J) Lab advances the required transformation by creating randomized control trials to evaluate potential solutions in access to justice and then generalizing results into actionable lessons. The A2J Lab creates knowledge, constructs best practices, and trains current and future scholars and practitioners to transform the U.S. justice system.
The A2J Lab has a four-pronged approach to transforming law into a profession founded in empirical research. The core pillars of our method are:
Randomized control trials (RCTs)
We work with a variety of partners, including academic researchers, legal service providers, and courts, to design randomized control trials to test access to justice programs in areas of civil and criminal law.
Pro Se Self-Help Materials
Because so many access to justice issues coalesce around pro se representation, we also design our own self-help materials to test in the field. Informed by a variety of disciplines that test their methods, we test our materials to make sure they really work.
Each study is a joint effort between courts, legal service providers, and researchers. The Lab works with everyone to create studies that work for everyone.
RCTs have a long life cycle. To produce rigorous data, RCTs can take several years to develop and several more to field. The Lab’s commitment to rigorous evaluation and empirical data means that we never take short cuts. We never implement an intervention without a test.
Publications and Conferences
We publish as often as possible to maximize the impact of our work. We make all of our publications and, as much as legally possible, all of our data publicly available. To assure that our methods and data reach the lawyers and judges who can transform the U.S. legal profession, we speak at major conferences and hold our own events.
We can’t do it alone. The A2J Lab works to build relationships with other distinguished scholars and mentor young researchers in order to increase the amount of rigorous evidence in law.
Research Methods Short Course
Most legal professionals don’t have experience with randomized evaluations or integrating credible evidence about what works. Most researchers don’t have experience working with legal professionals. We bridge this gap through our specialized short course to share best practices with both sides of the divide and through events and meetings that bring researchers and professionals together to launch more studies in the field than we could complete alone.
The Next Generation
There are no quick fixes to changing how professionals think. Our best hope for transformative change is equipping the next generation of leaders in the field with the belief in research and the skills to implement credible data in their work. The Lab works with teams of student researchers at Harvard Law School and beyond to seed shoots of knowledge in students poised transform the system.
In no field is resistance to rigorous, empirical data stronger than in United States legal practice. For more than a century, U. S. legal and adjudicatory practices have reflected an ethos of professionalism in which individual lawyers and judges purport to make irreducibly complex judgments about each client’s or litigant’s legal needs and the merits of their claims. The belief is that only a lawyer knows what is best for a client, and the only person a lawyer should listen to about her client’s legal needs is another lawyer. As a result, law currently recognizes only two sources of truth about what works and what doesn’t: (i) the pronouncements of legal elites, and (ii) each individual lawyer’s or judge’s own personal experience.
Almost a century ago, U.S. medicine was the same. In the 1920s and 1930s, doctors thought that they alone, as professionals, knew what was best for patients, and that no non-physician could say anything useful to improve professional medical judgments. In this time period, medicine recognized only two sources of truth about what worked: (i) the pronouncements of medical elites, and (ii) each physician’s own personal experiences with “his” particular patients.
Medicine transformed itself from an art into (more of) a science. Law is a field equally charged with making life-or-death decisions and is also equally capable of changing into a research-based profession.