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Does legal representation help you win?

July 10, 2012

Not according to this trial

Two researchers, James Greiner and Cassandra Pattanayak from Harvard Law School wondered whether having legal representation in court helps you win. A good question!*

They studied 207 people who were appealing a ruling that they were not entitled to unemployment benefit on the grounds of unfair dismissal.

Each plaintiff was randomised to be offered representation by a student from the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB), or not.  HLAB is a scheme where 2nd year law students, under the supervision of a professor, offer free legal advice.

Representation did not alter the rate of a sucessful verdict, i.e. one favouring the legally assisted person. It was 76% with the offer of representation v. 71% without (difference 5%, adjusted 95% CI -6 to 9%), but it did delay the verdict by 53 v 37 days, a statistically significant difference. Since most claimants eventually won, representation overall harmed them by delaying the benefit to which they were entitled.   Wow!

If this was medical research ripe-tomato.org would be picking holes in the methodology – there are a few.  HLAB capacity varied over the academic year, so plaintiffs were randomised in a variable ratio that led to all the places being taken up (78 offer, 129 no offer).  The uneven ratio is not a problem in principle, but this one caused a non-random seasonal difference between the groups, which might have introduced bias. Also the trial was not registered, so we cannot be sure that the sample size, primary endpoint or analysis plan were pre-specified.

But much else was good.  Despite a few plaintiffs failing to take up the offer and about a third of controls eventually obtaining representation from other sources, the authors analysed results by whether or not they got the offer, i.e. by “intention to treat”.  And it’s one of the first ever randomised trials of any legal intervention, so who’s quibbling?  Not me.

Apparently the authors plan more such trials.  I’m looking forward.

Jim Thornton

Here is a direct link to the paper in  Yale Law Journal (2012) page 2118, and here Greiner & Pattanayak a copy for those with paywall problems.

* The following may inspire those lawyers whose names are not Greiner or Pattanayak. Medicine used to be where law is now.

One day when I was a junior medical student, a very important Boston surgeon visited the school and delivered a great treatise on a large number of patients who had undergone successful operations for vascular reconstruction. At the end of the lecture, a young student at the back of the room timidly asked, “Do you have any controls?” Well, the great surgeon drew himself up to his full height, hit the desk, and said, “Do you mean did I not operate on half the patients?” The hall grew very quiet then. The voice at the back of the room very hesitantly replied, “Yes, that’s what I had in mind.” Then the visitor’s fist really came down as he thundered, “Of course not. That would have doomed half of them to their death.” God, it was quiet then, and one could scarcely hear the small voice ask, “Which half?

—Dr. E. E. Peacock, Jr., University of Arizona College of Medicine; quoted inMedical World News (September 1, 1972), p. 45, as quoted by Tufte

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