Passion, Caution, and Evolution: The Legal Aid Movement and Empirical Studies of Legal Assistance

By: Steven Eppler-Epstein Published by: Harvard Law Review. Published in February 2013

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Steven Eppler-Epstein, Executive Director of Connecticut Legal Services, evaluates the legal aid community’s response to randomized empirical studies. In response to the community’s reaction to two studies, performed by D. James Greiner, Cassandra Wolos Pattanayak, and Jonathan Hennessey. Eppler-Epstein explores the legal aid community’s traditional indifference to randomized empirical studies and explains why the community’s interest will grow in the future. He writes, “while the reaction from the legal aid community to these studies has ranged from fascination to outright hostility, the predominant response has been in the realm of mild interest, or even a sense that the studies don’t matter much.”

The community’s indifference stems from historically bad ties with private bar associations and routinely threatened funding. While relations with bar associations have improved, empirical studies have often been seen as a way for legal aid opponents to attack the legal aid community. This hostility, as well as regular attacks on funding streams on the federal, state, and local levels, have encourage legal aid organizations to view studies only through the lens of validating their work. Constant pressure created by decreasing available time and shrinking resource pools have limited the community’s opportunity to use studies to improve services provided.

He predicts the community’s interest in empirical studies will increase as the studies become more useful in evaluating strategies, resource usage, and clients. Current studies are too broad to suggest ways to improve services, but studies will become more specific as the research field develops. There will be costs, including the material price of performing studies as well as potential fallout from studies with negative findings taken out of context.

He concludes that randomized research is a necessary long-term investment for improving services provided by legal services. “In the long run, legal aid programs’ investment in randomized study will not only improve services and help direct scarce resources, but will also build public support, because the willingness of the legal aid movement to question itself and change in response will demonstrate to the wider world that our work is, in the end, focused on doing the best we can to help very poor people, in often-desperate circumstances, to improve their lives.”

Categories: Legal Aid Practitioners, Researchers and Academics

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