Free Advice to Incoming Law Review Boards

While academics angst, law journal editors toil to manage the fire hose of submissions, real and fake expedites, and the uncertainty that comes with a new job.  Many journal editors now seem to have the goal of “improving their ranking“.  Seven years ago (!) I wrote some advice on that topic.  It seems mostly right as far as it goes, but I want to revise and extend those comments below, in letter form.

Dear Incoming Chief and Under-Chiefs!

Congratulations.  You’ve won the pie-eating contest. In a better world, you’d be paid in cash. You’ll have to take prestige.

Many people will tell you that, after running the show on time & not making anyone cry, your primary goal for the next year is to select articles that will be cited often, raising your prestige and brand.  But even now, at the beginning of your tenure, it should be obvious that your ability to move the needle on the historic citation numbers of your journal is low. Even if you could, W&L’s rankings are fragile, not everyone buys them, and it’s consequently not clear that they matter to authors.  Worse, it will be forever before your reforms (such as they are) pay off.  Given that your time in the sun is limited, you should focus on things you actually have control over.

Like what?  I’ve two basic pieces of advice.

For one, you need to open up that fire hose even wider: take articles regardless of who wrote them.  There’s no reason at all not to take student authors, unless you think you can’t tell good scholarship from bad and need letterhead to do picking for you. But that’s an irresponsible view.  Judges aren’t business experts, but they manage to judge very nicely all kinds of arguments that lawyers make with substantive grounding in particular areas of law. So too with you: if you can’t understand what the author is writing, then your first intuition shouldn’t be to blame your lack of knowledge, it should be that the writing is bad.  True, there are fields with specialized audiences, and consequently complex methods. But that’s not what your journal is for.  Is it?  If it is, stop reading here.

For a general law review, the most important criterion of a good article is that it is well-written and makes a compelling and interesting point. Given than primary goal, you shouldn’t be using proxies like letterhead.  You should just read articles, blindly.  If you are unsure if the article’s substantive point is right, approach faculty members for sanity checks; if none volunteer for a particular article, don’t take it. Perhaps you are worried that you might be too attracted to areas you understand – like con law, or corporations – and consequently your authors will not be representative of the academy, or the ideas you publish unduly narrow. If that’s the case, just pre-commit to publish a certain number of articles in particular fields that will stretch you a bit – family law, tax law, securities law, property law, transactional real estate.  But don’t use an author’s c.v. to decide whether their writing is good. If you do one thing this year, it should be to switch to some form of blind review.

Now that you’ve selected your preferred articles, what can you do to get them?  Well – and this is an admission against interest – but you should exert more pressure.  A week is fine, and maybe the norm. But you can offer less time too.  Consider this: Columbia routinely gives until the same-day close of business to make a decision. Why shouldn’t you?  The reason, obviously, is that you are afraid it’s going to be seen as presumptuous, or think it won’t work.  But you can always tell authors you are trying something new: you’ll do blind peer-assited review with them if they decide within 24 hours after acceptance.  This is a version of what Stanford does.  If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for you.  When you make the offer, remind them of their promise, give them 24 hours, and tell them that you are pre-committing to no extensions.  Even when  the author begs  that HLR or SLR is about to give them a board read and can’t they have 24 more hours.  Believe me, they should hope to have bigger problems in life than publishing in a slightly less prestigious journal than they dreamed of.

Heck, perhaps your blind review uncovered well-written articles by “outsiders”, who will be particularly excited to publish with you.  The point is that there’s no reason to encourage the expedite game if you don’t want to.   As sugar for the bait, consider: (1) promotion of the article through responses by faculty at your school or the primary “target” of the article if you can get them; (2) highlighting the article on your blog/online page, if you have one; (3) fast or slow publication, as the author desires; and (4) heavy or light editing as the author desires. In other words, don’t have a general format: tailor it.  I recently got an acceptance from a journal that said they did light editing.  But what if I wanted more commentary?  Give options, and make sure that you are known for your customer service.

Finally, if you do have time, personalize the letter with flattery directed at the merits of the argument.  Get one of your under editors to write a paragraph that reflects on some point the article makes – maybe applies it to an unexpected area, or wonders how it might influence a court in a pending case. Your authors are incredibly insecure peacocks who are waiting to be admired and told they are smart.  Tell them they are smart!

There are a million other ideas to consider, but I’m sure you are feeling overwhelmed.  Let’s boil this down to one thing you can do today to make your journal and the world better: blind review.

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