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The Harvard Empirical Legal Studies (HELS) Series explores a range of empirical methods, both qualitative and quantitative, and their application in legal scholarship in different areas of the law. It is a platform for engaging with current empirical research, hearing from leading scholars working in a variety of fields, and developing ideas and empirical projects.

HELS is open to all students and scholars with an interest in empirical research. No prior background in empirical legal research is necessary. If you would like to join HELS and receive information about our sessions, please subscribe to our mailing list by completing the HELS mailing list form.

If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact the current HELS coordinator, Tiran Bajgiran.

All times are provided in U.S. Eastern Time (UTC/GMT-0400).

Spring 2024 Sessions

Empire and the Shaping of American Constitutional Law

Aziz Rana, BC Law

Monday, Mar. 25, 12:15 PM
Lewis 202

This talk will explore how US imperial practice has influenced the methods and boundaries of American constitutional study.

Historical Approaches to Neoliberal Legality

Quinn Slobodian, Boston University

Thursday, Mar. 28, 12:15 PM
Lewis 202

Fall 2023 Sessions

On Critical Quantitative Methods

Hendrik Theine, WU, Vienna/Univ. of Pennsylvania

Monday, Nov. 6, 12:30 PM
Lewis 202

Economic inequality is a profound challenge in the United States. Both income and wealth inequality increased remarkably since the 1980s. This growing concentration of economic inequality creates real-world political and societal problems which are increasingly reflected by social science scholarship. Among those detriments is for instance the increasing economic and political power of the super-rich. The research at hand takes a new radical look at media discourses of economic inequality over four decades in various elite US newspapers by way of quantitative critical discourse analysis. It shows that up until recently, there was minimal media coverage of economic inequality, but interest has steadily increased since then. Initially, the focus was primarily on income inequality, but over time, it has expanded to encompass broader issues of inequality. Notably, the discourse on economic inequality is significantly influenced by party politics and elections. The study also highlights certain limitations in the discourse. Critiques of inequality tend to remain at a general level, discussing concepts like capitalist and racial inequality. There is relatively less focus on policy-related discussions, such as tax reform, or discussions centered around specific actors, like the wealthy and their charitable contributions.

Spring 2023 Sessions

Jessica Silbey, Professor of Law at Boston University
Yanakakis Faculty Research Scholar

Friday, March 31, 12:30 PM
WCC 3034

This session explores the benefits and some limitations of qualitative research methods to study intellectual property law. It compares quantitative research methods and the economic analysis of law in the same field as other kinds of empirical inquiry that are helpful in collaboration but limited in isolation. Creativity and innovation, the practices intellectual property law purports to regulate, are not amenable to quantification without identifying qualitative variables. The lessons from this session apply across fields of legal research.

Fall 2022 Sessions

Holger Spamann, Lawrence R. Grove Professor of Law

Friday, September 13, 12:30 PM
WCC 3007

As legal scholars, what tools do we need to read critically and engage productively with quantitative empirical scholarship? In the first session of the 2022-2023 Harvard Empirical Legal Studies Series, Harvard Law School Professor Holger Spamann will compare and discuss different quantitative studies. This session will be a first approximation to be able to understand and eventually produce empirical legal scholarship. All students and scholars interested in empirical research are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Tom Zur, John M. Olin Fellow and SJD candidate, HLS

Friday, November 4, 2:00 PM
WCC 3007

The law and economics literature on specific deterrence has long theorized that offenders rationally learn from being caught and sanctioned. This paper presents evidence from a randomized controlled trial showing that offenders learn differently when not being caught as compared to being caught, which we call a “non-occurrence bias.” This implies that the socially optimal level of investment in law enforcement should be lower than stipulated by rational choice theory, even on grounds of deterrence alone.

Florencia Marotta-Wurgler, NYU Boxer Family Professor of Law
Faculty Director, NYU Law in Buenos Aires

Monday, November 14, 12:30 PM
Lewis 202

Using a series of examples, this discussion will focus on strategies to conduct empirical legal research and develop a robust research agenda. Topics will include creating a data set and leveraging to answer unexplored questions, developing meaningful methodologies to address legal questions, building on existing work to develop a robust research agenda, and engaging the process of automation and scaling up to develop large scale data sets using machine learning approaches. 

Resources for Empirical Research

Past HELS Sessions

  • 2021-2022 (Coordinator: Brenda Dvoskin)

    Holger Spamann (Lawrence R. Grove Professor of Law) – How to Read Quantitative Empirical Legal Scholarship?

    Katerina Linos (Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law) – Qualitative Methods for Law Review Writing

    Aziza Ahmed (Professor of Law at UC Irvine School of Law) – Risk and Rage: How Feminists Transformed the Law and Science of AIDS

    Amy Kapczynski and Yochai Benkler –(Professor of Law at Yale; Professor of Law at Harvard) Law & Political Economy and the Question of Method

    Jessica Silbey – (Boston University School of Law) Ethnography in Legal Scholarship

    Roberto Tallarita – (Lecturer on Law, and Associate Director of the Program on Corporate Governance at Harvard) The Limits of Portfolio Primacy

    Susan S. Silbey – (Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities, Sociology and Anthropology at MIT) HELS with Susan Silbey: Analyzing Ethnographic Data and Producting New Theory

  • 2020-2021 (Coordinator: Gali Racabi)

    Cass R. Sunstein (University Professor at Harvard) – Optimal Sludge? The Price of Program Integrity

    Scott L. Cummings (Professor of Legal Ethics and Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law) – The Making of Public Interest Lawyers

    Elliot Ash (Assistant Professor of Law, Economics, and Data Science at ETH Zürich) – Gender Attitudes in the Judiciary: Evidence from U.S. Circuit Courts

    Kathleen Thelen (Ford Professor of Political Science at MIT) – Employer Organization in the United States: Historical Legacies and the Long Shadow of the American Courts

    Omer Kimhi (Associate Professor at Haifa University Law School) – Caught In a Circle of Debt – Consumer Bankruptcy Discharge and Its Aftereffects

    Suresh Naidu (Professor in Economics and International and Public Affairs, Columbia School of International and Public Affairs) – Ideas Have Consequences: The Impact of Law and Economics on American Justice

    Vardit Ravitsky (Full Professor at the Bioethics Program, School of Public Health, University of Montreal) – Empirical Bioethics: The Example of Research on Prenatal Testing

    Johnnie Lotesta (Postdoctoral Democracy Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School) – Opinion Crafting and the Making of U.S. Labor Law in the States

    David Hagmann (Harvard Kennedy School) – The Agent-Selection Dilemma in Distributive Bargaining

  • 2019-2020 (Coordinator: Gali Racabi)

    Cass R. Sunstein (Harvard Law School) – Rear Visibility and Some Problems for Economic Analysis (with Particular Reference to Experience Goods)

    Talia Gillis (Ph.D. Candidate and S.J.D. Candidate, Harvard Business School and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Law School) – False Dreams of Algorithmic Fairness: The Case of Credit Pricing

    Tzachi Raz(Ph.D. Candidate in Economics at Harvard University) – There’s No Such Thing as Free Land: The Homestead Act and Economic Development

    Crystal Yang(Harvard Law School) – Fear and the Safety Net: Evidence from Secure Communities

    Adaner Usmani(Harvard Sociology) – The Origins of Mass Incarceration

    Jim Greiner(Harvard Law School) – Randomized Control Trials in the Legal Profession

    Talia Shiff (Postdoctoral Fellow, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and Department of Sociology, Harvard University) – Legal Standards and Moral Worth in Frontline Decision-Making: Evaluations of Victimization in US Asylum Determinations

  • 2018-2019 (Coordinators: Elena Chachko & Gali Racabi)

    Francesca Gino (Harvard Business School) – Rebel Talent

    Joscha Legewie (Department of Sociology, Harvard University) – The Effects of Policing on Educational Outcomes and Health of Minority Youth

    Ryan D. Enos (Department of Government, Harvard University) – The Space Between Us: Social Geography and Politics

    Katerina Linos (Berkeley Law, University of California) – How Technology Transforms Refugee Law

    Roie Hauser (Visiting Researcher at the Program on Corporate Governance, Harvard Law School) – Term Length and the Role of Independent Directors in Acquisitions

    Anina Schwarzenbach (Fellow, National Security Program, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School) – A Challenge to Legitimacy: Effects of Stop-and-Search Police Contacts on Young People’s Relations with the Police

    Cass R. Sunstein (Harvard Law School) – Willingness to Pay to Use Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Snapchat, and More: A National Survey

    Netta Barak-Corren (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) – The War Within

    James Greiner & Holger Spamann (Harvard Law School) – Panel: Why​ ​Does​ ​the​ ​Legal​ ​Profession​ ​Resist​ ​Rigorous​ ​Empiricism?

    Mila Versteeg (University of Virginia School of Law) (with Adam Chilton) – Do Constitutional Rights Make a Difference?

    Susan S. Silbey (MIT Department of Anthropology) (with Patricia Ewick) – The Common Place of Law

  • 2017-2018 (Coordinator: Elena Chachko)

    Holger Spamann (Harvard Law School) – Empirical Legal Studies: What They Are and How NOT to Do Them

    Arevik Avedian (Harvard Law School) – How to Read an Empirical Paper in Law

    James Greiner (Harvard Law School) – Randomized Experiments in the Law

    Robert MacCoun (Stanford Law School) – Coping with Rapidly Changing Standards and Practices in the Empirical Sciences (including ELS)

    Mario Small (Harvard Department of Sociology) – Qualitative Research in the Big Data Era

    Adam Chilton (University of Chicago Law School) – Trade Openness and Antitrust Law

    Jennifer Lerner (Harvard Kennedy School and Department of Psychology) – Anger in Legal Decision Making

    Sarah Dryden-Peterson (Harvard Graduate School of Education) – Respect, Reciprocity, and Relationships in Interview-Based Research

  • 2016-2017 (Coordinator: Aluma Zernik)

    Charles Wang (Harvard Business School) – Natural Experiments and Court Rulings

    Guhan Subramanian (Harvard Law School) – Determining Fair Value

    James Greiner (Harvard Law School) – Randomized Control Trials and the Impact of Legal Aid

    Maya Sen (Harvard Kennedy School) – The Political Ideologies of Law Clerks and their Judges

    Daria Roithmayr (University of Southern California Law School) – The Dynamics of Police Violence

  • 2015-2016 (Coordinator: Netta Barak-Corren)

    Crystal Yang (Harvard Law School) – Empiricism in the Service of Criminal Law and Theory

    Oren Bar-Gill (Harvard Law School) – Is Empirical Legal Studies Changing Law and Economics?

    Elizabeth Linos (Harvard Kennedy School; VP, Head of Research and Evaluation, North America, Behavioral Insights Team) – Behavioral Law and Economics in Action: BIT, BIG, and the policymaking of choice architecture

    Meira Levinson (Harvard School of Education) – Justice in Schools: Qualitative Sociological Research and Normative Ethics in Schools

    Howell Jackson (HLS) – Cost-Benefit Analysis

  • 2014-2015 (Coordinators: Kobi Kastiel, Netta Barak-Corren)

    Michael Heise (Cornell Law School) – Quantitative Research in Law: An Introductory Workshop

    Susan Silbey (MIT) – Interviews: An Introductory Workshop

    Kevin Quinn (UC Berkeley) – Quantifying Judicial Decisions

    Holger Spamman (Harvard Law School) – Comparative Empirical Research

    James Greiner (Harvard Law School) – Randomized Controlled Trials in the Research of Legal Problems

  • 2013-2014 (Coordinator and founder: Netta Barak-Corren)

    Michael Heise (Cornell Law School) – Quantitative Research in Law

    James Greiner (Harvard Law School) – A Typology of Empirical Methods in Law

    Susan Silbey (MIT) – Interviews: An Introductory Workshop

    David Wilkins (Harvard Law School) – Mixed Methods Work and the Legal Profession

    Tom Tyler (Yale Law School) – Fairness and Policing