A Syllabus for Empirical Methods in Law

From The Practice September/October 2017
Training a new generation of legal scholars

The application of rigorous empirical research methods in the law is increasingly moving from the journals and into the classrooms, and the Access to Justice Lab (A2J Lab) is at the forefront of facilitating this process. Most notably, the A2J Lab is in the process of designing a short course dedicated to randomized control trials (RCTs) for an audience of legal researchers. The course, which is still in its development and testing phase, aims to provide researchers and students with the basic skills needed to conduct field-based RCTs. It is designed to span a day and a half with six modules, the combination of which cover the central issues any researcher will most likely face in running a RCT:

  1. Fundamentals of RCTs. To familiarize students with the mechanics, terminology, and purpose of RCTs, the course starts with the basics. Discussion ranges from defining core concepts to walking through examples of RCTs juxtaposed with less rigorous studies.
  2. Persuading stakeholders. Legal RCTs still require buy-in from stakeholders in the field, many of whom are very likely to be skeptical of interventions and/or empirical research methods that measure the effectiveness of such interventions. This module explores the roots of this skepticism in the legal profession.
  3. Interacting with institutional review boards (IRBs). Research involving human subjects is often reviewed by IRBs to ensure ethical standards. The course explains the process involved in obtaining IRB approval as well as professional responsibility as it relates to randomization in the legal field.
  4. Types of outcomes and measurement. The course then moves on to common sources of information in the law, such as court documents and other administrative records. But the question remains: What are you measuring for? In other words, what do you want to know? Types of outcomes range from socioeconomic impact to cost reduction to specific adjudicatory outcomes.
  5. Analytical techniques. By the fifth module, the course explores more complex (albeit fundamental) concepts relating to data analysis. These include types of outcomes and inference methods, avoiding deep discussion around the math behind the techniques in favor of one focused on practical application in legal randomization.
  6. Common problems. The course ends with a review of common logistical and analytical hurdles and roadblocks.

To see a draft schedule of the course, click here.

As Professor Jim Greiner noted in the lead story of this issue of The Practice, the underlying purpose of the A2J Lab is to transform U.S. law into an evidence-based profession by implementing and publishing rigorous, empirical studies to create credible evidence about what works and what doesn’t in access to justice and court administration. However, the Lab knows it cannot go it alone. Someone needs to train the next generation of scholars on how to use RCTs and similar tools and demystify the process to the on-the-ground practitioners who are critical to proper implementation and testing. And that runs to the core of the short course’s purpose: to educate the next cadre of empirical researchers on how RCT field operations can be applied to legal questions—and to add to the ever-growing body of evidence that these rigorous research methods can improve U.S. legal practice.

Comments are welcome! If you would like to pass along a note about the proposed course, email [email protected].