When Law Reviews Compete, You Win!

Ok that’s actually a rip-off of the gimmicky slogan of “Lending Tree,” but I have been thinking recently (as many do at this time of year) about the law review submission process. In particular, I have been thinking about the expedite element, and why it happens. One answer is that we are all prestige-whores (er..lovers) and that the only thing we value is the rank of the school where the law review is housed.

That may be true, but here is a somewhat more charitable reading: from the point of view of the submitting authors Law Reviews offer authors a relatively undifferentiated product and thus we gravitate to the main axis of differentiation – law school/journal rank. I say “from the point of view of the submitting authors” advisedly, because there are many axes on which law reviews differ. Even in my short time as an academic, the reviews I have worked with have varied significantly as to the quality of substantive comments, the likelihood they would stick on timeline, whether they use track changes to make it easy to review their alterations, etc. The problem is that these are all things I have only discovered AFTER working with them.

This is in some ways similar to health care purchasing by an individual consumer – quality is opaque, and gathering the necessary information would be too costly to do on my own (there is a further problem with health care that even when information is available such as report cards for hospitals created by state agencies, as I discuss here, many patients tend to ignore them and/or privilege word of mouth appraisals). Further, there is an additional inter-temporal problem in that each law review’s board (and thus quality) and policies changes on a regular basis such that information becomes stale quite quickly. Even in an institutional-memory-obsessed journal like the Harvard Law Review with a long tradition, there is a period called “transition” when the 2Ls take the reigns and as a body can change many of the facets of the reviews process, including things like the number of stages of editing, etc.

Is this problem intractable? Yes, and no. Law reviews could advertise and contractually commit themselves to particular types of terms as soon as the submission season starts – for example, issues will come out within one month of issue date, to give one example.  (I put to one side other kinds of differentiation – for example accepting longer articles when other journals do not, since that will change at most to whom one submits, and even then most of us are risk-averse enough to be likely to shorten our papers to fall within the guidelines of the larger number of journals). True, it is very very unlikely that any of us would sue a law review over the failure to meet that term of publication date, but even the promise itself might be enough to satisfy us and set up a more desirable norm. Are there enough of these kinds of terms on which journals could compete that would counterbalance the incentive to merely pick the best ranked journals? I am not sure, it seems plausible it might matter within rough journal peer groups, but I would be curious if others have ideas of what kinds of terms they would like to see law reviews compete or converge on? Indeed perhaps some enterprising law review editors may be reading this very blog…

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1 Response

  1. Mark McKenna says:

    The Michigan Law Review heavily emphasized its “light editing” policy when we were considering a couple of offers, including one from MLR. It’s too early in the process to see whether that will turn out to be true, but they were at least trying to compete with peer journals in that respect.