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Human Capital in Court: The Role of Attorney Experience in US Supreme Court Litigation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2022

Michael J. Nelson*
Pennsylvania State University, USA
Lee Epstein
Washington University in St. Louis, USA
Contact the corresponding author, Michael J. Nelson, at


Human capital theory suggests that work experience acquired through on-the-job-training primes people to be more successful. Empirical validations of this hypothesis are numerous, but limited evidence of the relevance of human capital for courtroom advocacy exists. We examine whether the outcomes obtained by experienced attorneys are significantly better than the outcomes they would have obtained as novices. Adopting a strategy for credible causal inference that could be applied to almost any peak court, the analysis shows that attorneys with experience, relative to first timers, are significantly and consistently more likely to win their cases and capture the votes of judges.

© 2022 Law and Courts Organized Section of the American Political Science Association. All rights reserved.

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We are grateful to Adam Feldman and Timothy R. Johnson for sharing their data and to William M. Landes, Adam Liptak, Kevin McGuire, Eric Posner, and participants at workshops at National Taiwan University, the University of Bergen, the University of Chicago, and the University of Kansas for offering valuable insights. Epstein thanks the National Science Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation for supporting her work on judicial behavior. The data, code, and documentation to replicate all analyses in this article are in the JLC Dataverse at


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