Why can’t you pitch Law Review pieces?

Everyone knows the law review submissions system is a drag. For authors, because they write to an empty process. To editors, because they have to read tons of bad stuff and compete for the good stuff.

Today, I started drafting a new piece, (“The Insecure Monopolist”) and I started thinking: this system could be different. Why these ridiculous submissions? Pitching would be better.

In a pitch system, you write up a decent summary of your idea, and send it to editors. If they like the idea, you’re on, with a deadline and so on. You get to stop thinking about submissions, and start writing something truly great.

I know as a writer, I way prefer the pitch system. For some reason, writing to a submission system is demotivating, even if you know you’ll land the piece somewhere.

Editors usually prefer the pitch system as well, even in academic publishing. One reason is that its a lot less work to go through proposals, as opposed to manuscripts. Another is that the editor gets to shape the piece as it is being written, which is more interesting than messing with footnotes on a completed piece.

I suppose this proposal goes against certain ideals of meritocratic blind reads, but that’s hardly a perfect system for reasons others have detailed.

I predict that perhaps the absolute so-called “top” journals might want to stay the way they are. But for the journals more in the middle, so to speak, taking pitches might be a great way to land good scholarship without reading tonnes of crap.

Maybe I’ll try it, let’s see how it goes.

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10 Responses

  1. But how would the “middle” law reviews know they will ultimately receive good scholarship, unless they simply use the pitcher’s status as a proxy? At least when a law review reads a finished essay, they know exactly what they are getting; in theory, this means that an unknown scholar or a scholar at a “lesser” law school can publish in the best journals by writing a superb essay. Pitching a good idea for an essay is one thing; delivering it is another. My guess is that higher-ranking law reviews would simply discount pitches (consciously or unconsciously) from the unknown scholar on the ground that, no matter how good the idea, he or she would be less likely to deliver a quality finished product than a well-known scholar.

    This is, of course, exactly what happens in the television industry in Hollywood, of which I was a part — as a staff writer on prime-time dramas — for four years before entering academia. The first thing your agent will tell you when you have an idea for a new show is that you should write the pilot, because studios only buy pitches from writers who have written good pilots before.

  2. Orin Kerr says:


    Don’t we have this already — or at least pretty close to it — in the form of symposium issues? When journals organize symposium issues, authors are invited to publish based on their reputation and prior work. The author’s reputation and prior work in the field is “the pitch,” in effect, and the author is then invited to write an article based on it.

    Granted, there’s the slight difference that the symposium author doesn’t have to submit a sketch of the idea beforehand. But that’s usually not much of a difference because the subject matter of the symposium significantly narrows what the sketch might look like: if there’s a symposium on subject X, the combination of the subject of the symposium and the author’s prior work comes pretty close to the pitch you have in mind.

    Notably, the top journals generally don’t have symposium issues: They don’t need them to get the best articles. “But for the journals more in the middle, so to speak,” symposium issues are designed with the hope that they will be “a great way to land good scholarship without reading tonnes of crap.” Of course, whether this works or not is another matter. Experience suggests that when authors have the acceptance before they write the article, they sometimes don’t write as good an article as they would if they did not know where the article might be published.

  3. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Nice pitch but it will never happen, for good reasons. It’s very common for people with good pitches to be incapable of delviering on them, perhaps especially law professors, as Orin’s last sentence more gently notes. That’s why commercial publishers who make bids on pitches condition their commitment on receipt of an acceptable final manuscript.

    Many disputes would arise in the imagined pitch system between professors and students about whether ultimate submissions were acceptable given the pitch. No student needs or deserves that. Law professors simply have to write their ariticles, submit them, and deal with not always getting their way.

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    This proposal lends credence to the notion that law reviews exist to serve the career needs of law profs to get published, rather than the needs of readers. The pitch idea is entirely for the convenience of the supply side. If you’re going to change law reviews, wouldn’t peer review be a better direction? (And BTW do American law review editors read “tonnes” of anything?)

  5. Chaim says:

    This proceeds from an erroneous assumption that top law reviews only publish good pieces.

  6. Former Law Review Editor says:

    As a former law review editor from a 15-30 ranked law school and law review, we accepted one piece this way while I was there (aside from Symposium article) and it was much harder to edit. Editors consider a number of factors in accepting articles including length, ease of editing, and quality of writing – which are all hard factors to determine ahead of time. Additionally, all too many to-be-written articles (both from pitches and for a symposium) are difficult to actually get. Writing finals, grading finals, starting classes, and vacations all get in the way of writing articles. When an editorial board reviews a completed draft, there is the additional assurance that they have something to go on if the author flakes and never has time to do further revision. Promising spots to uncompleted articles can push back entire publishing deadlines too. So if you do submit an article through a pitch, please please please get it in a week before your deadline.

  7. Matt Lister says:

    Editors usually prefer the pitch system as well, even in academic publishing.

    Is this so? I don’t know about lots of fields, but the impression I have from philosophy is that for most authors, they need to have a nearly-done manuscript before an editor will talk to them. There are exceptions- when someone is commissioned to write a book (often for a series), or when a “star” pitches an idea, but the strong impression I’ve received is that in the large majority of cases even fairly established authors need at least most of a manuscript before they’ll get a contract. I’d be interested to hear if that’s not so in other areas, or if people think it’s wrong.

  8. Bruce Boyden says:

    I’m all for reforms to the law review system. But I think we are kidding ourselves if we imagine student-run law reviews doing anything more than they do now to judge article quality. Judging the worth of a pitch with no footnotes and no “Part I” that explains the field seems to me to require too much of students. That sort of exercise is just not within their core competency.

  9. Tim Wu says:

    “This proposal lends credence to the notion that law reviews exist to serve the career needs of law profs to get published, rather than the needs of readers.”

    Magazines and book publishers care about readers way more than they care about authors; and that is why they depend on a pitch system. It gives them a chance to shape a piece as its being written.

    On the other hand, I accept the argument that maybe students could never pull this off. Which is why maybe we need a faculty-edited proposal / pitch based journal.

    The one I can think of that operates this way is Supreme Court review.

  10. A.J. Sutter says:

    Magazine and book publishers care about sales. They care about what sells to readers and advertisers, not about advancing scholarship. There already are non-scholarly professional rags in this vein like AmLaw for those who care about gossip and deals, plus the various bar journals and member magazines. I haven’t seen much evidence in the past 30 years or so that law school students have any idea of what’s useful to practicing lawyers, so even if one wanted to be optimistic about your proposal for a magazine-style system, it just isn’t plausible.

    In any case, that style isn’t the same as scholarly publishing. Scholarly journals in the natural and social sciences, including general interest ones like Science and Nature, depend on a peer review system. Or consider legal publications in, say, Germany, which have a more professionalized editorial board. E.g. JuristenZeitung, among dozens of others. That might be an even more apposite role model than the natural sciences.

    Of course, if you want to present legal ideas to a general readership rather than a scholarly one, mazel tov: you can always pitch directly to NYT Magazine, Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair.