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Odd Couple

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What is a self-proclaimed “rogue economist” doing at a place like the American Bar Foundation?

Actually, Steven D. Levitt–who co-au­thored the best-selling book Freakonomics–and the bar foundation, which is the ABA’s re­search affiliate, are a pretty good match.

After all, says ABF Director Robert L. Nelson, the foundation doesn’t necessarily follow a traditional legal research agenda. Instead, the foundation’s 22 research fellows tend to take an outsider’s view of the justice system. They come from a wide range of academic fields, including psychology, political science, anthropology and history. Much of their research focuses on the sociology of the legal profession to help create a better understanding of what makes lawyers, judges and juries tick.

In one of the foundation’s current research projects, for instance, senior fellow Shari S. Diamond, also a law professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, is studying the effect of allowing jurors to discuss evidence throughout a trial. And ABF fellow (and former director) Bryant G. Garth is tracking the career paths of about 5,000 young lawyers.

That environment is just right for Levitt, an unconventional economist at the University of Chicago who also works as an ABF research fellow.

“Levitt is really special, but he fits right in,” Nelson says. “Steve is just one example of somebody whose research really opens up new levels of understanding about the law and about social phenomena that cause people to rethink how they approach questions.” In return, Levitt appreciates the ABF’s support for his research, which he says can take on a “freak­ish” quality as it “explores the hidden side of ev­erything” with often surprising results.

“A lot of what I do makes the bar foundation very nervous,” Levitt says, “but I have a lot of respect for the foundation because with every project I bring forward–usually loaded with tricky issues about race and class–the bar foundation has been willing to swallow hard and support me, knowing that my results weren’t necessarily going to be very popular.”

Lack of popularity has not been a problem for Lev­itt’s book. Freakonomics has been near the top of the New York Times best-seller list since it was published earlier this year. The book reflects the eclectic and sometimes offbeat nature of Levitt’s research. He wrote the book with journal­ist Stephen J. Dubner.

That research typically begins by seeking answers to “mundane” questions, says Levitt, the 2003 recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal, presented by the American Economic Association every two years to the most influential economist under the age of 40. “My research tends to be about the impact of rules when they change the impact on human behavior,” Levitt says. “Most of law and economics is about the efficiency of rules what is the right legal rule for the situation?”

Controversial Conclusion

In one of his research ventures, Levitt sought to answer the question “Where have all the criminals gone?” to explain a significant drop in the U.S. crime rate in the 1990s. His conclusion–predictably controversial–was that lower crime was largely a byproduct of the U.S. Su­preme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade 20 years earlier. His rationale was that legalized abortion resulted in fewer unwanted children with an inclination toward crime.

While the ABF is not a direct financial beneficiary of the brisk sales of Freakonomics (which has a commercial publisher), the book’s success has been a positive thing for the foundation, Nelson says.

“We are perhaps not as well-known as we might be, but I’m trying to work on getting the word out,” Nelson says. “I think [Levitt’s] success with Freakonomics is one big example of how our research can appeal to academic audiences, to the general public, and still have a significance that legal educators, lawyers and judges can easily understand.”

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