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Posted at 12:39 PM ET, 12/23/2010

Beware Harvard law students bearing gifts

By Ezra Klein

So long as I'm annoying doctors, I may as well annoy lawyers, too. D. James Greiner and Cassandra Wolos Pattanayak ran a series of controlled experiments to test whether free legal representation really helped claimants who were suing to receive unemployment benefits. "The results are startling," they write. "A service provider’s offer of representation to a claimant had no statistically significant effect on the claimant’s probability of a victory, but the offer caused a delay in the proceeding." Because that meant a delay in benefits, it actually left the claimant worse off. And for you Yalies out there, Maya Sen's spin on this will make you happy:

A basic summary of the results: an offer of free legal representation by an elite cadre of Harvard Law Students does not increase the probability that a client will prevail in his or her claim. (There was a .04 increase in probability of prevailing, not statistically significant.) What the offer of free legal representation does do, however, is increase the delay that clients experience in the adjudication. (The mean time to adjudication for the treated population was 53.1 days versus 37.3 days for the control group, a statistically significant sixteen-day difference.)

This doesn't say much about legal representation in other contexts, but it is interesting. It also reminds me of a story I read earlier today, in perhaps the greatest Wikipedia entry ever:


In common with many misers, [John Elwes] distrusted physicians, preferring to treat himself in order to save paying for one. He once badly cut both legs while walking home in the dark, but would only allow the apothecary to treat one, wagering his fee that the untreated limb would heal first. Elwes won by a fortnight and the doctor had to forfeit his fee.

Expertise isn't always what it's cracked up to be.

(Study via John Sides.)

By Ezra Klein  | December 23, 2010; 12:39 PM ET
Categories:  Legal  
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Comments

This one has a pretty obvious retort. Who says law students -- even an elite cadre of Harvard students -- can do as good a job as actual lawyers?

Posted by: Dan_Daoust | December 23, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

yeh, as a newly sworn in lawyer I can tell you that a law student, especially one from Harvard, has basically no knowledge or experience that would help them in obtaining unemployment benefits for a client. The more prestigious universities place less emphasis on practical experience and more emphasis on theoretical knowledge. I'm not knocking it. I didn't go to Harvard and I basically have no idea what I'm doing half the time. My school taught me almost nothing about practicing law.

Posted by: efcdons | December 23, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

It seems you didn't even read the abstract carefully - the population whose result was not improved, but whose claim was delayed were those who were offered legal representation not those who used the legal representation offered.

It is unsurprising that merely being offered help, whether or not you take it, does not improve your chances of achieving a better result.

Secondly, actually reading the study, it seems that being offered representation resulted in a slight increase in the chances of success. This suggests that either (or both) (a) law students are not much more effective advocates; or (b) the appeals system is fair and effective, so legal representation is only of marginal help; or (c) the appeals system is so inflexible that nothing can affect their decision.

Over all, this was a very, very lazy blog post.

Posted by: albamus | December 23, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

And another thing: the study does not appear to control for whether representation was subsequently received elsewhere. Someone who gets their third choice of representation is probably still much better off than someone who gets no representation.

Posted by: albamus | December 23, 2010 6:37 PM | Report abuse

"Expertise isn't always what it's cracked up to be."

Yet you demand we pay for unlimited amounts of it at the hypochnodriac patient's request. We misers should be allowed to reap the benefits of our misery.

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Posted by: sdgashasdg | December 28, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Greiner's study (if you care to read it) does not measure representation v. no representation. In actuality, it measures an "offer" of representation. Thus, he includes in his "offer" group some 9% of potential clients who never actually accepted the offers of representation from HLAB (i.e. did not receive representation). Even more disturbingly, 49% of his "control/no offer" group actually received representation from other legal providers to which HLAB referred them (and he does not measure or control for the win rate of this 49%), meaning that half of the "no offer" group actually received representation elsewhere. Your snarky comments regarding law students' efficacy aside, this study simply does not measure what you all think it does, since his proxies of offer and no-offer do not actually equal representation or no representation. My suspicion is that the wording is intentionally deceiving so that people will read it to mean exactly what Mr. Klein thought it meant and start questioning the value legal services in general. Sorry guys to rob you of a chance to lambast HLS law students, but don't worry, I'm sure another opportunity will come round soon enough.

Posted by: MH13 | December 30, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Greiner's study (if you care to read it) does not measure representation v. no representation. In actuality, it measures an "offer" of representation. Thus, he includes in his "offer" group some 9% of potential clients who never actually accepted the offers of representation from HLAB (i.e. did not receive representation). Even more disturbingly, 49% of his "control/no offer" group actually received representation from other legal providers to which HLAB referred them (and he does not measure or control for the win rate of this 49%), meaning that half of the "no offer" group actually received representation elsewhere. Your snarky comments regarding law students' efficacy aside, this study simply does not measure what you all think it does, since his proxies of offer and no-offer do not actually equal representation or no representation. My suspicion is that the wording is intentionally deceiving so that people will read it to mean exactly what Mr. Klein thought it meant and start questioning the value legal services in general. Sorry guys to rob you of a chance to lambast HLS law students, but don't worry, I'm sure another opportunity will come round soon enough.

Posted by: MH13 | December 30, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

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