Ranking Law Reviews as the August Window Opens

It’s not so clear whether the recent spate of scholarship on ranking law reviews is a reaction to an emerging phenomenon or oblivious to it. Rankings of law reviews long predate the recent efforts and, indeed, long predate the US News & World Report ranking of law schools. However, judging from my younger colleagues, US News is a perfect proxy for law review ranks. (To that extent, I take an even stronger position than Professor Alfred Brophy’s recent posting on SSRN, which, after engaging in considerably more empirical research than I, finds a .86 correlation between citations to a school’s main review and USNews peer review ranking).

In short, I believe that, when engaged in window shopping during the Spring and summer submission seasons., both the submission strategy and the expedite strategy are pretty much dictated by where a particular review’s law school falls on the US News scale. There is almost no concern with whether a review is better (or worse) than its home law school, nor any effort to consult studies such as Professor Brophy’s.

To the extent that this view pervades legal academia, and I am confident it does, other rankings of law reviews are exercises in futility: if suppliers of “content” (sometimes still called scholarship), follow the USNews hierarchy, law reviews will have their choice of articles pretty much in that order. Unless the student editors screw up pretty badly (and maybe even if they do), the “best” scholarship will continue to be published in the “best” journals, and the “best” journals will continue to be those associated with the “best” schools, all as determined by US News.

Precisely why this has occurred is unclear. US News is the 800 pound gorilla of legal education, so maybe it is not so surprising that it ends up ranking things it doesn’t even purport to rank. In that sense, maybe “black hole” is the more appropriate metaphor. But legal scholars should make more informed judgments about law review quality than do 22 year olds as to graduate schools to attend, so it remains a bit odd thatwe don’t spend more time deciding what their assessments are.

I think the reasons are fourfold. First, scholarship is more specialized these days, maybe hyperspecialized. How can we judge the quality of a law review when we can only understand an article or two per volume?

Second, we used to actually see law reviews, or at least the covers. I could tell what Harvard or Baylor published at a glance. Now we get much of our information in more focused SSRN or CILP or Lexis/Westlaw searches and usually have no idea what other articles were published in the issue.

Third, the current crop of young scholars came to adulthood under the spell of USNews. At some deep level, they believe in the rankings as more-or-less accurate with respect to schools and expect that law reviews will follow suit. When challenged, they will point out that, even if that’s not completely accurate, bounded rationality justifies looking to USNews rather than sorting through competing rankings.

Fourth, and probably most important, why pick # 53 over #41 (I promise, I didn’t look to see who these schools actually are!) just because it’s a better review qua review when friends at other school, colleagues, tenure committees and (God help us) University Provosts won’t understand the “fall” in prestige?

In sum, and with apologies to those who have put in so much effort in this enterprise, we should give up ranking reviews. (Well, actually, there may be a niche for rankers — we seem to be confused as to how to compare a secondary journal from Elite School with a primary journal from Lower Tier school. While it’s my sense that Elite School Secondary prevails over Tier 3 or 4 Primary, it’s possible that ranking studies may solve this puzzle.)

For those who disagree and want to continue the enterprise, my next blog will offer a cost-effective way to go about doing it, and trot out a new ranking, which, with all due modesty, I describe as the Sullivan Scale.

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4 Responses

  1. Frank says:

    I think you’re right here; I’d add one more reason why people aren’t investing more time in rankings of law reviews independent of USN&WR. The real assurance of quality is beginning to be done post-publication, in the reception of articles among “scholars in the know.” Mike Madison proposes a way of memorializing or concretizing this process (via a version of “tagging” or “wiki’s”) in this piece:


    I think this responds to your sense that scholarship is now “hyperspecialized.”

    But I will say that I think there needs to be some sense of whether a law review has in the past actually:

    a) proofread

    b) edited

    c) given some substantive feedback

    d) published on time

    I’ve had a situation where none of the above was done, so I think there would be some value in setting up some sort of wiki where best (and bad) practices were praised (and criticized).

  2. Scott Moss says:

    I like Frank’s suggestion — sort of a Consumer Reports for law reviews? I think that’d be useful. One limit on its utility, however, is that student editors change every year, so today’s craptastic crop of editors may give way to a stellar board the next year. I think some journal strengths/weaknesses will carry over year-to-year, but I’m not sure of the exact extent.

  3. From the editors’ perspective, “rankings” become clear when we see to which journals authors expedite offers from us, and from which journals authors expedite offers to us.

    For the most part, Duke Law Journal has moved away from the “exploding offer”; we want authors to have an enjoyable experience publishing with us, and that starts from the minute we extend an offer. That may result in a few lost articles, but I think that cost is worth the benefit in collegiality.

    A related issue is timeliness. We recognize that even a well-regarded journal like DLJ becomes less appealing (particularly to younger authors, whom we seek) when the publication schedule can’t be relied upon. To that end, we’ve worked hard this summer to get back on schedule. We’ll publish the last three issues of Volume 55 in the next month, and then be on time in October.

    While I’m posting, I’ll draw your attention to the Call for Papers for our 37th annual Administrative Law Conference. Please take a look: http://www.law.duke.edu/journals/dlj/symposia.html

  4. Sam Bagenstos says:

    I still think it’s a bit silly for folks to use US News Law School rankings as a proxy for law-review quality. A lot of people read law reviews in print — they ask their library to circulate the new issues, or they read them in the faculty lounge. The law reviews that people ask to get circulated, or that appear in faculty lounges, don’t change with the US News rankings. So I’d bet, for example, that the William and Mary Law Review is more widely read than the Washington and Lee Law Review (though both are fine, fine reviews!) — even though W&L is ranked 5 places higher than W&M in the USNLS rankings. I’m not sure how much this matters, anyway, but I wouldn’t let US News dictate where I sent my pieces.