Three Ideas to Improve Law Reviews (as Institutions)

Above all else, el al. must be destroyed.

Above all else, el al. must be destroyed.

This year, I’ve been tapped to be one of Temple Law Review’s faculty advisors.  I’m excited – the position will give me a platform to blather on to an even-more-captive audience on paramount importance  of avoiding use of et al.

Quite apart from that Cato-ian quest, the advising position has caused me to think a bit harder about some advice I’ve written on this blog to law review editors. While I once believed that law review editors could successfully strategize to maximize their W&L impact factors, I no longer think this is possible. I never was convinced it was a good idea on its merits.  Most law reviews–i.e., those outside of the top 20, variously defined–lack market power to reliably choose articles very likely to be cited. Therefore, strategies directed at W&L Impact, or citations otherwise measured, are unlikely to bear fruit. Neither the article-selection nor the article-citation markets are efficient: no one board can move the needle sufficiently to make it worthwhile. Worse, article selection strategies are going to make the people on boards feel terrible, because they are generally only tactical–reading only expedited submissions, looking at letterhead as a proxy for quality, applying short fuses on offers, focusing on random areas of law in an attempt to be counter-trend. But everyone is doing that now.  It’s like law review glossy publications seeking to bump USNWR reputation scores. The game is rigged. The only alternative is not to play. It has become so competitive that institutions are also reporting that competitors are leaving fake reviews on their Google Places platforms. Fake reviews can detrimentally hurt a business. Many institutions seem to spend an eternity learning how to delete google reviews – but it isn’t always a successful endeavour.

So what should you do? I’ve already suggested how boards can escape the citation rat race by opening up the fire hose and closing their eyes.  Now I’ll go further – what can the board to do improve the law review as an institution, not merely as an article selection and publication machine.  Here are three concrete ideas:

1.  Improve the student experience:  Since it’s often terrible, there’s tons of low-hanging fruit. Start by surveying staff and ask them the three worse things about being on law review. Fix one of things things.  For many, that’s going to be the process of writing mini-law review articles (often called “comments,”sometimes called “notes.”)  Stop encouraging students to write this overfootnoted, circuit-split-obsessed, dreck and mandate, instead, short pieces that summarize recent developments.  For other students, it going to be interactions with managing editors. You should train people how to deliver criticism, and how to take it. Most incoming law review editors haven’t yet learned how to be a good boss. Many never will unless you intervene.

2. Create Institutional Memory:  I’ll let you in on a secret: most law schools are out of touch with their intellectual pasts – they have little record of the work of professors who’ve left the faculty, they don’t know their own history or past purposes, and they have an even vaguer idea of what alumni are up to, outside of those who contribute heavily to the school.  Law Reviews can, but rarely do, serve the purpose of being an institutional memory, for at least the intellectual work of the school.  Today, they can do so online, bringing the past to life and displaying it for all to see.

What do I mean? If I were a law review, I would first digitize and free the entirety of the archive. (By “free” I mean free it from the limited duration of Westlaw, and the limited search functions of Hein.) Create “errata” features, which ask authors 10, 20, or 30 years after an article’s publication to revisit it with a more critical eye, thus excavating it from the pile. Highlight other past articles by finding editors who worked on those volumes and asking them to comment on them in podcasts or in video chats. Experienced lawyers reading articles might have a vastly different perspective than the green articles editors they were – and could, not incidentally, reflect on the value (or lack thereof) of the skills that Law Review teaches. I would host video from speeches on campus – on the off-chance that your school’s website changes or is “upgraded”, losing past content, the Law Review can save the video. I would record interviews with older/emeritus faculty about their scholarship and teaching, and post them on the website as a different form of scholarly engagement.

3. Network: The primary reason that students join, and work on, law review is to get better jobs. So, rather than let that end be a byproduct of membership, work it into the life of the Law Review. Invite former editors to come to campus and give talks, host cocktail parties and receptions for class years, and generally develop the law review’s alumni network so that current students – and past ones – can benefit in a way that goes beyond a line on the resume.


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