Empirical Legal Studies: A Brief Overview

Over the past two decades, empirical legal studies (ELS) has become an increasingly hot research and teaching field in law schools. ELS involves the use of data and statistics to analyze and understand the law, predict judicial behavior, and explore the interactions of law and economics. With its deep connection to the social sciences, ELS thus requires a very different set of skills and competencies from the strongly humanistic orientation of traditional legal studies.

But as empirical analysis becomes increasingly relevant to the study and practice of law, legal information professionals in all settings can benefit from a basic familiarity with the field and with the types of questions to which it applies.

This short piece is designed to provide law librarians who have no previous experience with ELS with a lay of the land and some of the basic resources for newcomers to the field. It is based on my work as a practicum student at the University of Chicago’s D’Angelo Law Library, where I worked on creating finding aids and research guides for ELS research.

ELS adds the statistician’s tools to the traditional methods of legal instruction such as casebooks and the Socratic method. Leading researchers in this field give us new ways to understand and predict legal outcomes. For instance, a great deal of research has been done predicting federal judges’ behavior based on the political party of their appointing president. This research can, for instance, show if judges are more or less likely to vote “with their party” if they are sitting on panels with judges who share the same party.

One of the most interesting pieces of research I found explored divorce and personal injury litigation in Japan. After a lengthy statistical examination, the author concluded that income and education levels had little impact on the rate of divorce and personal injury trials. Rather, the one solid predictor of how likely a divorce or traffic accident case is to go to trial is the number of lawyers in the community!

Just as in many other fields (from baseball to chess to poker to the stock market to election prediction), the data revolution is replacing or supplementing decision making based on hunches and intuition with hard evidence. This can be valuable to practitioners as well as to legal academics, particularly in complex and costly litigation.

To get started with empirical legal studies, I would recommend checking out the Society for Empirical Legal Studies. The Society sponsors a journal, blog, and annual conference.

Illustration Data Slide by Tom Woodward, used with Creative Commons License