The Yale Law Journal

June 2012

Randomized Evaluation in Legal Assistance: What Difference Does Representation (Offer and Actual Use) Make?

D. James Greiner & Cassandra Wolos Pattanayak

121 Yale L.J. 2118 (2012).

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 overgeneralization and undergeneralization.

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 unemployment claimants would prevail in their “appeals,” 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.

We also conduct a review of previous quantitative research attempting to measure representation effects. We find that, excepting the results of two randomized studies separated by more than thirty years, this literature provides virtually no credible quantitative information on the effect of an offer of or actual use of legal representation. Finally, we discuss disadvantages, advantages, and future prospects of randomized studies in the provision of legal assistance.