Welcome to the Law Lab!

A lab for the study of law & language,

at Georgetown University Law Center.

The Law Lab conducts research in "experimental jurisprudence." For a short introduction to that field, see here. For a longer introduction, see here.

This research stems from the observation that law relies on many concepts that also appear in ordinary life:

  • Did he exercise reasonable care;

  • what caused the outcome;

  • did she intend the action;

  • what was their motive;

  • was there consent in the agreement; and

  • what is the text's meaning?


These concepts, like reasonablenesscausation, and intent, have long played a central role in law. As the annual number of U.S. cases grows, so too does citation of these concepts.

Image by Wesley Tingey

For each of these concepts there is a crucial question: How does the legal concept differ from the ordinary one?

This is fundamentally a "jurisprudential" or legal-philosophical question. Consider a passage from legal philosophers Tony Honoré and John Gardner (2010) on the notion of causation:



Our first question about legal causation is "whether and to what extent causation in legal contexts

differs from causation outside the law, for example in science of everyday life."

"The Jury"  (J. Morgan, 1861)

The Law Lab continues in this philosophical tradition: 

investigating legal concepts and their relation to ordinary concepts.

To do so, we take a unique approach to legal philosophy,

known as "experimental jurisprudence". This approach supplements traditional philosophical methods with empirical methods, to understand how laypeople and experts understand the law.

Why study laypeople?

  • They are subject to laws

  • They are also legal decision makers (e.g. jurors)

  • More broadly, conditions of legal legitimacy point to how ordinary people understand law: for example, many believe law should be public and provide notice -- to all people, not only legal experts.

For each legal concept there is a second crucial question: How should the concept be applied?

Of course, empirical study will not answer every important legal question. For example, consider Honoré and Gardner's second question about causation:

"What are the appropriate criteria in law for deciding whether one action or event has caused another?"

This is an important question that arises about many legal concepts: how should law decide what's reasonable, intentional, or causal?

Empirical studies cannot directly answer this type of question about what law should be. But, an empirical approach offers unique insight into these questions by providing new knowledge of the rich set of conceptual features to evaluate. By learning how concepts (legal and ordinary) actually operate, we achieve greater insight for debating how those concepts should be applied.


What Do Legal Theorists Believe?
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