Boston Globe Does “Ideas” Piece on Randomized Studies of Legal Aid

The Boston Globe has just run a valuable and sensible piece on the Greiner et al randomized studies.  The headline sums it up:  Free legal advice—but does it work?.

The article will be very helpful in showing the value of these studies to a broader audience, and, above all, putting them in the context of the value and need for whatever it takes to provide access to justice in the real world.  A sample of the tone:

Given the noble intentions and tireless dedication of the individuals who staff legal clinics around the country, it feels almost indecent to question the effectiveness of the help they’re providing. But from where Greiner sits, the sanctity of these efforts—and the fact that the system provides for just two attorneys per 10,000 low-income people—is precisely why it matters. In particular, as he sees it, we know very little about how legal service providers ought to determine which clients to take and which to turn down; in many cases, he argues, they may be wasting precious time and money on cases where they’re unlikely to have an impact.

“Most folks have concluded that we’re never going to be able to give a full attorney-client relationship to every person who has a legal problem,” Greiner said last week. “The funding is just never going to be there. So you have to take steps short of that, in an attempt to meet the need.”

There is a good overview of the legal aid field:

What Greiner found when he began studying legal services was a complex, decentralized, and woefully underfunded endeavor that was helping only a fraction of the people in need. Across the country, hundreds of organizations worked more or less separately, without sharing information in any systematic way about the kinds of people who were coming to them for help and what exactly they needed. Most importantly, Greiner noted, no one had ever done any rigorous tests to see how much good these organizations were actually doing.

The article includes detailed discussion of the process that led up to the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau unemployment study, and a summary of the results and implications.

The overall conclusion:

Ultimately, Greiner and his allies hope to reform the legal services industry from the ground up. One thing Greiner suspects his work will ultimately show is that lawyers, per se, are not needed to handle all legal problems. Instead of trying to raise money to hire more lawyers, he said, we ought tackle the scarcity problem by identifying the types of cases that are less complex and thus could be competently handled by people whose time is less expensive—like paralegals.

Getting there will require a lot more randomized testing, Greiner said. And more testing will require an open mind on the part of the overworked, underfunded industry it is putting under the microscope.

“It really comes down to political will and the desire to find out the objective truth,” Greiner said. “It’s hard to persuade people who have invested so much time and money into constructing something that they think works…that it may not be doing what they think it’s doing.”

Some of us have long argued that these studies and this general approach not only have the potential to increase the efficiency of legal aid, but also its political viability in the funding area.  It will be very interesting to see how reaction and impact the Globe piece has, and in what environments.  Obviously Massachusetts is an environment in which one can be more optimistic about having a relatively rational discussion on these topics.   I would encourage readers of this blog to consider the potential value of spreading links to this article around.  It might be that journalists in other states might be interested in similar articles.

Such articles might help change the narrative from the current highly limited one of “we need much more money,”  and its discouraging subtext — “nothing you give us will ever be enough.”


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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2 Responses to Boston Globe Does “Ideas” Piece on Randomized Studies of Legal Aid

  1. Steven Eppler-Epstein, Executive Director of Connecticut Legal Services and member of the Board of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law (Shriver Center) recommended that there may be lessons to be learned from the Greiner studies. See his article “The Greiner Studies: Randomized Investigation of Legal Aid Outcomes”, 46 Clearinghouse Review 43 (2012), published by the Shriver Center.

  2. John Blake says:

    When a judge refers pro-se litigants to a court approved program in which lawyers must take their cases, if at all possible, they naturally and rightfully expect the court to abide by the terms of that program.

    Who investigates that judge and the lawyers if they lie and actually prohibit participation in the very program they offer? No one. Lawyers are very good at doing research. They are very good at identifying problems, discussing them and proposing solutions. They write well. They debate endlessly, articulately and thoroughly. However, when they see an allegation like this one, immediately they judge it as the typical response of a frustrated, slightly daft, litigant. No merit to it. She doesn’t understand complex procedures and it is never looked in to. Besides, no one takes on judges (except Mark Lane.)

    The result? The pro-se is blocked from using the services for which he’s paid all his life, while judges become more emboldened to cheat and steal and destroy a sacred institution. And, when James Greiner conducts studies on the efficacy of legal aid, this type of fraud remains undetected.

    Nothing has changed and nothing will change until lawyers begin to listen to what people are saying and resolve to do their duties as court officers.

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