Stanford Law School’s Law and Policy Lab gives students the tools to impact policy
The air we breathe, water we drink, food we eat, land we build on, streets we drive on, medicines we depend on, and the relationships we engage in are all, in some way, at the intersection of law and policy. At every turn, our lives depend on effective laws and policies that regulate our actions, guide our decisions, and guarantee our safety. Those laws and policies, in turn, depend on the wisdom and skills of the lawyers and policy makers who serve as decision makers. A new initiative at Stanford Law School – the Law and Policy Lab – unites faculty and students with real-world clients and stakeholders in a mission to investigate and solve challenging policy issues through rigorous empirical methods.
The Policy Lab reached its one-year anniversary this past fall with now 44 projects shaping law and policy in fields as diverse as bone marrow donations, social impact bonds for mental health, and wildlife trafficking. Led by faculty experts, in partnership with real world clients, these policy practicums tackle complex problems and are already helping to improve policy procedures and shape outcomes. Law students with policy interests enroll in practicums to gain unique practical experience that engages with issues where they can make a difference with measurable results. Students build on the traditional legal analysis skills that they have honed throughout their law school training, extending those skills with a new toolkit – that of empirical policy analysis.
As the legal employment market continues to contract, lawyers remain in demand in the policy sectors, but their traditional legal skills may not be adequate to the rigorous empirical research and data collection demanded by policy analysis. Deeply steeped in logical analysis and advocacy, young attorneys find common cause with public interest non-profits, policy think tanks, and government agencies, but may need training in the skills required to analyze stakeholders, assess costs, benefits, and tradeoffs, develop regressions, and measure statistical data. They may bring to public interest organizations, government agencies, and the judicial system an acute eye for legal contexts, but not fully appreciate the policy tools that assess outcomes and incentivize public and private actors.
The Law and Policy Lab teaches Stanford law students a wide array of policy skills through experiential training and faculty mentoring, allowing students to serve as policy consulting teams with close access and oversight by clients. David Hayes (SLS ’78), former Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of the Interior, for example, taught students last spring how to conduct systematic stakeholder interviews of the competing players in wildlife trafficking. Professor Mark Lemley (Stanford ’88) and Lecturer Shawn Miller have tasked their students with coding a database that tracks patent “trolls,” or false litigants who file spurious patent cases. Professor Beth Van Schaack (Stanford ’91) and guest lecturer Col. Dwight Raymond (Ret.) led a U.S. State Department simulation tabletop where students played the roles of key stakeholders called together in a diplomatic roundtable to intervene in halting atrocities in the Syrian civil war. Paul Brest, in his Social Impact Bond practicum, asked students to develop logic models that help county decision makers understand how to implement a new bond initiative designed to enhance Santa Clara County Hospital’s capacity to accommodate mental health patients. Students may not end wildlife trafficking or pass international resolutions halting torture, but they do leave these practicums with the strategic skills needed to develop viable interventions in specific policy areas.
In tandem with training young lawyers to extend their legal skills by “thinking like policy analysts,” the Law and Policy Lab practicums offer vibrant think tank environments to support real-world decision makers. Building on their outsider perspectives, student research teams help such large agencies as the Office of Management and Budget step back to see relationships between the competing rules and regulations that define the current energy and environmental landscape. By helping OMB resolve redundancies in its funding of various energy and environmental programs, for example, students are able to help the agency spread federal funding more effectively across sectors.
In other instances, the Law and Policy Lab helps to fill gaps in policy making that have resulted from the loss of funding streams at the state and local levels. Following state budget cuts that drastically reduced staffing at county courts, for example, students are working with the San Mateo County Family Court to develop an automated, click-through, intake database that will allow possible claimants to determine whether their claims are better suited to mediation than litigation. Like the county courts, local nonprofits also suffered significant financial losses in the 2010 economic downturn, with many smaller groups shuttering their advocacy efforts. Such groups as Save the Otter, for example, once flourished as gadfly protectors of California coastal regions, but, now, without funding, many are mere specters in environmental decision making. Professors Deborah Sivas (JSD ’87) and Michael Wara (’06) mobilized a team of students to step into that void to offer empirical insights on the effects of stalled coastal remediation policies along the California coast. Similarly, the Coastal Mitigation practicum, led by Professors Meg Caldwell (Stanford ‘85) and Janet Martinez, have assembled a team of students from law, engineering, and environmental science to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, District IX, and the Nature Conservancy, to investigate competing decision processes that may impede the protection and mitigation of mixed-use coastal areas.
Cary McClelland (SLS ’15), the student director of the Mediation Confidentiality practicum, describes the process of policy making as “a necessary complement to legal study. Anyone thinking of a future in law making – with an agency, an NGO, or within the judiciary – needs to understand basic policy analysis and learn to think like a decision maker. The Policy Lab helps us ask the kinds of skeptical questions that go into developing strong law and policy.” From broad vision bridging silos to discrete solutions between competing actors, the Law and Policy Lab is facilitating effective policy making across the sectors that guide and regulate our lives. Like their faculty mentors, its graduates are the decision makers committed to making tomorrow better than today.