In a draft essay, Service Delivery, Resource Allocation and Access to Justice: Greiner and Pattanayak and the Research Imperative, Tony Alfieri, Jeanne Charn, Steve Wizner, and I reflect on Jim Greiner and Cassandra Pattanayak’s provocative article reporting the results of a randomized controlled trial evaluating legal assistance to low-income clients at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. (The Greiner and Pattanayak article was the subject of a Concurring Opinions symposium last March.) Studying the outcomes of appeals from initial denials of unemployment insurance benefit claims, Greiner and Pattanayak asked, what difference does legal representation make? Their answer is that “an offer of HLAB representation had no statistically significant effect on the probability that a claimant would prevail, but that the offer did delay the adjudicatory process.” That is, not only was an offer of legal assistance immaterial to the case outcome, it may have harmed clients’ interests.
The Greiner and Pattanayak findings challenge our intuition, experience and deeply-held professional belief that lawyer representation of indigent clients in civil matters is fundamental to the pursuit of justice. Our first reaction is that the study must have fatal conceptual or methodological flaws – the researchers studied the wrong thing in the wrong way. Even when we learn that the study is credible and well designed, we doubt that this kind of research is a worthwhile use of our time or money relative to serving needy clients. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we worry that the published results will only serve as fodder for the decades-long political assault on legal services for the poor.
If replicated across venues, however, studies like Greiner and Pattanayak’s can tell us a great deal about individual representation, program design and systemic access to justice questions. In fact, we cannot make genuine progress in any of these areas – much less marshal the case for more robust legal aid investments and the right to counsel in some civil cases – without better evidence of when, where and for whom representation makes a difference. Fortunately, developments in law schools, the professions and a growing demand for evidence-driven policymaking provide support, infrastructure and incentive for such research. For these reasons, we urge legal services lawyers and clinical law professors to collaborate in an expansive, empirical research agenda.