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Dalié Jiménez, D. James Greiner, Lois R. Lupica & Rebecca L. Sandefur, Improving the Lives of Individuals in Financial Distress Using a Randomized Control Trial: A Research and Clinical Approach, 20 Geo.J. on Poverty L. & Pol'y 449 (2013).

Abstract: This article describes a proposed randomized control trial (RCT) involving individuals in financial distress, specifically, individuals sued on a credit card debt collection case by a debt buyer or creditor. The aim of the RCT is to evaluate the effectiveness of two interventions often proposed to help individuals in financial distress improve their financial health. We intend to test, inter alia, whether (1) an offer of legal representation in the debt collection case, (2) an incentive to undergo the same financial counseling required in bankruptcy, or (3) a combination of both treatments have an effect on the financial health of financially distressed consumers. Our primary outcome measure will be credit scores and reports, although we also aim to survey study participants about other outcomes such as changes in health, assets, and general well-being. We describe in detail not just the methodology of the study, but also the mechanics of how we have gone about executing this complex field experiment so far. The objective in doing so is to demystify the process for scholars, legal aid lawyers, and clinical professors who have not had direct experience with empirical methods, and to encourage them to think about conducting RCT evaluations of their own programs. The article also describes three other goals we seek to advance through the project. The first is a deeper understanding of debt collection in the courts. Allegations of abuse abound about the industry generally and legal collections specifically, but to date, the evidence is largely anecdotal. We will be uniquely positioned to learn about whether the allegations are more than anecdotes. The second is increasing access to justice for unrepresented defendants in collection cases. Along with a team of dedicated law students, the study team is developing an attorney litigation manual and pro se materials, including court forms and scripts, for debt collection litigation. Before making the pro se materials available, they will be field tested with individuals in similar situations to those facing study participants. The third goal is developing an innovative pedagogical approach to legal instruction that combines doctrine and practice. A majority of the law students participating in the project are doing so in the context of a seminar which incorporates both doctrinal instruction about the consumer credit system and clinical experience. We hope that this article provides our readers both with ideas for future research projects and with ideas about how to incorporate diverse goals in a single study design.