A Matter of Policy

SLS’s Law and Policy Lab Marks a Decade of Tackling Real-World Problems

Policy development, the work that happens before laws are passed or corporate practices are established or agency guidelines are set, is, for many, the fun stuff—where deep dives into the nitty-gritty of important issues take place and data is sifted through, turned over, and critically examined. It often requires an interdisciplinary approach, drawing on the natural and social sciences, engineering, and medicine, as well as law. The Stanford Law and Policy Lab has created, over the past 10 years, an expertise in just this—with law students and faculty joining forces with colleagues across campus to tackle some of the most vexing policy questions—and their research is often directed to policymakers, with very real results.

A major report came out in 2020 exploring federal agencies’ use of artificial intelligence to carry out administrative law functions. Government by Algorithm: Artificial Intelligence in Federal Administrative Agencies was the most comprehensive study of the subject ever conducted in the United States.

“We wrote what amounts to a book that looked at all the ways that the federal government was starting to use machine learning tools,” says David Freeman Engstrom, JD ’02, LSVF Professor in Law. Along with Dan Ho, William Benjamin Scott and Luna M. Scott Professor of Law, among others, Engstrom co-led a group of Stanford law students, computer science PhD candidates, engineering, and business students in the Stanford Law and Policy Lab project that resulted in the report.

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“Our report went to the desks of virtually every agency head and general counsel in the federal government,” Engstrom says. “It has since been cited thousands of times and laid the foundation of a conversation within the federal government that ultimately led to an executive order from President Biden a year ago regarding what the federal agencies need to do to both regulate AI out in the world and to think about their own use of AI to perform the work of government.”

Engstrom says he can think of few, if any, entities aside from the SLS Law and Policy Lab that could have pulled together a similar interdisciplinary brain trust to complete such a massive project in just a few months.

And the Government by Algorithm report is just one of hundreds that have come out of the Law and Policy Lab.

An Only-at-SLS Program

Marking its first decade this year, the Law and Policy Lab is an interdisciplinary, mini think tank-like experience that offers SLS students—along with students from all corners of Stanford University—something no other law school can: the chance to spend a quarter (sometimes longer) researching, thinking strategically, and writing about real-world policy issues for real-world clients. The topics covered are as diverse and complex as those facing policymakers everywhere.

Mitigating the harms of wildfire smoke, reforming the tax code, revising copyright software registration regulations, addressing illegal fishing, promoting open discourse on university campuses, confronting online misinformation, and furthering access to justice are just a small sampling of the more than 200 projects the Policy Lab has undertaken since its launch during the 2013-14 academic year. The clients are as diverse as the problems the students are tackling: federal agencies, nonprofits, charitable foundations, American Indian tribes, field-specific think tanks, and universities, among others.

“When you’re advising a real client on pressing questions, often with global significance, everyone sits up a little straighter,” Engstrom says. “This is a completely different experience from looking at a hypothetical problem in a classroom setting.”

The brainchild of former SLS Dean Larry Kramer, the Policy Lab was launched by Interim Dean Paul Brest—who has served as the Policy Lab faculty director for the last decade—along with Deborah Hensler, Judge John W. Ford Professor of Dispute Resolution, and longtime program director Luci Herman. Since 2013, more than 500 Stanford students, approximately two-thirds of them law students, with the remainder coming from every school in the university, have completed a policy lab.

Data analysis and empirical reasoning are key to effective policy analysis. However, these are not skills typically honed as part of the law school experience, Brest says, underscoring one of the reasons the Policy Lab was developed. “Where legal analysis is about analogical reasoning from precedent, policy analysis is empirical. It is about understanding the real world and how various policies affect behavior.”

It doesn’t get more “real world” than helping to change California election law.

"Every Vote Counts" Voter Verification Project (806Z)
Signature verification policy lab students on tour of the San Mateo County Elections Office in 2019: Garrett Jensen (MPP/MA ’20), Emily Postman, JD ’21, Will Janover, JD ’21, Zahavah Levine, and Tom Westphal, JD/MA’21
Moving the Needle on Mail-In Ballots

Just prior to the 2020 presidential election, California’s secretary of state announced new regulations establishing the first statewide standards for vote-by-mail signature verification. The rules made the verification process more consistent for the state’s registered voters, lessening the likelihood that mail-in ballots would be wrongly rejected for supposed non-matching signatures.

A team of 15 students from a 2019 policy lab cheered the new rules. Their research and resulting report, Signature Verification and Mail Ballots: Guaranteeing Access While Preserving Integrity, played a key role in the development of the state’s new signature verification rules. The students had taken a deep dive into the legal and political dynamics of signature verification and the process for fixing a non-matching signature, developing expertise in arcane areas of election protocols, and interviewing dozens of state and national elections officials before sharing their recommendations with California policymakers.

“I teared up when the new regulations were announced,” remembers Tom Westphal, JD/MA ’21, now deputy director for policy, plans, and strategic support for the city of San Jose. He was one of the students who had come up with the idea for the policy lab, taking it to election law expert Nathaniel Persily, JD ’98, James B. McClatchy Professor of Law, who became the policy lab instructor, along with program director Herman.

“I came to law school to learn what I could do to help strengthen and protect our democracy, but I didn’t dream of having such an impact so quickly,” says Westphal, a U.S. Army veteran. “We helped make elections fairer, more inclusive, and more transparent for over 22 million registered California voters—what an amazing thing. And now I use what I learned virtually every day in my career.”

Persily says the lab was a rare opportunity for students to experience firsthand such a rapid shift in statewide election policy. “Even under the best of circumstances, the wheels of policy change tend to move slowly, but what we have seen over and over through the Policy Lab is that a small, passionate group of students tackling problems that are usually quite complex can really move the needle.”

Persily also co-taught a 2019 lab with Brest, Ho, and Stanford political science professor Rob Reich, for Facebook to inform the design of a social media oversight board for the company. Law and engineering students engaged in interviews with Facebook personnel, representatives from NGOs, academics, and legal experts to assess tradeoffs to research and prioritize options across different adjudicatory and regulatory models for the social media company. Facebook announced its oversight board in May 2020.

The University as a Client
Evelyn Douek: Assistant Professor of Law
Evelyn Douek, Assistant Professor of Law

Stanford University’s leadership has also tapped the Policy Lab on several occasions to provide research and guidance relating to pressing questions facing the university and higher education more broadly. One current example is Assistant Professor of Law Evelyn Douek’s Spring 2024 policy lab, composed of four law students, that is advising the Stanford Office of the Provost on how to handle so-called doxxing, the practice of publicizing personally identifiable information about an individual or organization without their consent.

Originally intended to be held only over the Spring 2024 quarter, Douek will run a follow-on lab during the Fall 2024 quarter to continue to drill into “one of the genuinely most difficult and interesting normative and policy issues that I’ve had the pleasure of thinking about,” says Douek. “Ultimately, we hope to help Stanford develop a ‘gold standard’ policy that can serve as a guide for others. This is a critical, top-of-mind issue not just for universities, but for states and legislatures, which are quickly passing laws against doxxing and trying to work through the legal balancing act.”

Another recent lab confronted a related top-of-mind issue for universities: how to improve the climate for open debate and inclusion in an era of increased polarization. Brest, along with Norman Spaulding, JD ’97, Nelson Bowman Sweitzer and Marie B. Sweitzer Professor of Law, led a small group of law, undergraduate, and masters of public policy students in researching and writing Polarization, Academic Freedom, and Inclusion, which laid out steps universities can take to promote discourse and inclusion.

Developing Environmental Policy

Two back-to-back policy labs recently informed the Biden administration’s new national strategy for greenhouse gas measurement and monitoring. Professor of the Practice David Hayes, JD ’78, a former White House special assistant to President Biden for climate policy, led the lab. His students from SLS and the Doerr School of Sustainability didn’t have to read too far into the Biden administration’s report when it was issued last November to see a number of familiar data points and conclusions.

They had researched and developed those very points just a few months prior, taking a deep dive into greenhouse gas measurement, monitoring, reporting, and verification (known as MMRV in climate policy circles). Their data-rich reports—Data Progress Needed for Climate-Smart Agriculture (April 2023) and Measuring the Carbon (and Other) Benefits of Climate-Smart Forestry Practices (July 2023)—made their way not only to White House officials but also to members of Congress, federal agencies, and interested companies and trade associations.

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Paul Brest, Professor of Law, Emeritus, and Director of the Law and Policy Lab (Photo by Brian Smale)

The policy labs addressed critical knowledge gaps with which federal agencies currently are grappling, including how to best measure and monitor the climate benefits of certain incentive programs for farmers, ranchers, and foresters, explains Hayes, who also previously served as deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior for President Obama and President Clinton.

Lisa Lu, JD ’25, says Hayes’ practicum gave her a unique opportunity to gain greater insights into policy development. “In the span of just a quarter, we were able to learn so much from David, who has been in the trenches on these issues in DC, as well as our fellow students, guest speakers, and the research we engaged in. We’re heartened by the impact we’ve been able to make.”

Reciprocal Learning

The labs can be as much a learning opportunity for the instructors as they are for the students, says lecturer emeritus and former Gould Center for Conflict Resolution Director Janet Martinez, who has taught at least 13 policy labs over the last decade. Along with Professor Jim Leape, co-director of Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions, Martinez is currently teaching the Blue Foods Action Lab series that is advising the government of Indonesia on the implementation of a far-reaching ocean-based food system and economic development program.

“The policy labs give our students an opportunity to connect to real-world issues that we read about in the paper every day, but beyond that there is this really strong reciprocal energy and knowledge-sharing that happens among the students and between co-instructors,” says Martinez, who also recently taught a policy lab that analyzed, on behalf of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, the historical disenfranchisement of Black residents of San Francisco.

Nitisha Baronia, JD/MA ’21, agrees. She worked closely with Stanford University engineering students in the Engstrom/Ho artificial intelligence-in-government lab and says she felt like she got a mini-engineering degree as part of the experience. “We got to know one another’s disciplines so well that by the end of the policy lab, some of the engineers were asking legal questions and the lawyers were asking engineering questions,” says Baronia, now an associate at law firm WilmerHale.

“Many of our students have incredibly impressive backgrounds and real-life, highly relevant experiences,” Martinez says. Labs focused on global issues, or matters specific to a certain country or region, often draw on the experiences of students from those areas, she says.

Justin Bryant, JD ’21, leader of the Global Sandboxes Forum at the Datasphere Initiative, a nonprofit that fosters international collaboration on data-value creation, participated in a policy lab as an SLS student. That lab investigated various avenues for increasing policy-related offerings at SLS. A few years later, he and Martinez co-instructed the lab on Black disenfranchisement in San Francisco.

“Policy Lab is a fantastic experience for law students to really get into the weeds on an issue from a research perspective, not from the usual advocacy position of, say, writing a brief,” Bryant says. “There are so many avenues by which legal acumen can be used toward policy impact, and having that holistic understanding of how law and policy work together, and the levers being pulled in the background to develop policy, will help any lawyer in virtually any future role they play. You don’t have to want to go into policy work to benefit from a Policy Lab experience.” SL