October 21, 2013

"Law reviews are not really meant to be read."

Writes Adam Liptak at the meant-to-be-read New York Times:
They mostly exist as a way for law schools to evaluate law professors for promotion and tenure, based partly on what they have to say and partly on their success in placing articles in prestigious law reviews. The judge, lawyer or ordinary reader looking for accessible and timely accounts or critiques of legal developments is much better off turning to the many excellent law blogs.
Well, that should get some links from blogs to the NYT, which needs traffic and isn't going to get much from law reviews. The on-line game is so much more energetic and invigorating than the tedious slog to write the unreadable stuff that can be placed — placed, like an unread book is placed on a shelf — somewhere prestigious.

Ever stop in the middle of trying to read a law review article and say to yourself: What am I reading? What this is is a line on somebody else's resume. It wasn't meant to be read. It was meant to be a title with a citation that would be a line on someone else's resume.

And how many law review articles will you write before you rankle at perversely worrying 100 pages into a conventional style and form to be edited by students who will strain to eradicate whatever shred of personality made it through to your final draft? At what point will your earnest effort decline into the cynical production of verbiage to be condensed into a single line on your resume?

Liptak cites a new survey of "2,000 law professors, lawyers, judges and student editors," which found that "Law professors were more critical than any other group." Guess who the lawprofs blamed? Students. I've been through this before. I told you 7 years ago about an article I wrote back in 1994 called "Who's to Blame for Law Reviews?" You can read that if you want, but it is a law review article — albeit a very short one — so I'm sure you don't want to read it. The link on "I told you 7 years ago" goes to a blog post, summarizing what I will now compress even further: Don't blame the students, professor. They're your students.

24 comments:

Paddy O said...

Is there any other field where students are the editors and gate-keepers of the academic production of scholars?

In other fields, being the editor of a major journal is a post of very high esteem for a scholar at the peak of their career.

In handing it off to students, it's almost like the scholarly goal is really diminished. Adding even more curiosity to the idea that a JD really is a doctorate. No dissertation, scholarship determined and edited by those who haven't even graduated from the professional school.

Not to diminish the scholarship or intelligence of law professors, but it does seem to be self-limiting and indeed ludicrous way of suggesting real scholarship.

Imagine if science journals had to go through 3rd year Masters students in order to find the light of day?

Ann Althouse said...

"Is there any other field where students are the editors and gate-keepers of the academic production of scholars?"

Is there any other field where the professors have a 3-year degree that is not built on any necessary undergraduate credentials, based on classroom courses that would be accessible to a high school graduate, and nothing even close to a dissertation.

The students are better than the professors because they have a very strong incentive to do an intense and careful job. Law professors won't do it.

The law journals are a kind of writing and scholarship clinic for the students.

Lyssa said...

The law review I served on (U. Tennessee) does make a point of trying to be "relevant" to practicing lawyers. I was an articles editor one year (did the first read and flagged ones we should consider as they came in - it was an interesting job), and we definitely were ditching the theoretical and overly-academic ones (of which there were many). I don't think that we were the norm, though.

Since I've been out, I do refer to law review articles on occasion, when asked to say "what is the law on X," they can be very helpful to lead me to case cites. But I wouldn't sit and read them, and I don't know any lawyer who does.

Ann Althouse said...

"Is there any other field where students are the editors and gate-keepers of the academic production of scholars?"

Is there any other field where the professors have a 3-year degree that is not built on any necessary undergraduate credentials, based on classroom courses that would be accessible to a high school graduate, and nothing even close to a dissertation? (I have a fine arts undergraduate degree, and I never took a single college course in economics, political science, statistics, science, or history.)

The students are better than the professors because they have a very strong incentive to do an intense and careful job. Law professors won't do it.

The law journals are a kind of writing and scholarship clinic for the students.

Ann Althouse said...

Let's remember that Barack Obama's career-launching achievement -- and possibly his only executive experience before becoming President -- was running the Harvard Law Review.

(I say "possibly" because he argued that running his own campaign was executive experience.)

Roger Sweeny said...

Many of these problems aren't limited to law reviews. Here is John Hawks two years ago, commenting on an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education criticizing research in the humanities:

"Bauerlein ran the numbers on citations for research articles and books written in the humanities. What he found was sobering. Scholarly books are rarely cited -- he describes one that received only one citation, even though more than a dozen other books were later written about the same subject (an author). ...

"I agree most strongly with his description of the "human cost" of the current system. Smart, conscientious people, as he writes, should not be asked to "labor their lives away on unappreciated things." Embalming so much thought in a journal distributed only to a few libraries would in the best case be a waste of postage. As Bauerlein shows, the thoughts themselves amount to a university-subsidized vanity press for scholars, because a name on a book spine is academic wampum.

"... Research papers may never be read, but they are assiduously counted. ...

"Many departments have effectively abdicated their undergraduate mission. Engaging students in reading and analysis is hard work, for which there are few rewards and no pay incentives. Having a high publication count, in contrast, has become the only way to keep up with the current job market."

http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/teaching/humanities-publication-worthless-2011.html

He has since said, "Some of the same criticism can be applied more generally outside the humanities."

http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/metascience/pinker-scientism-dennett-2013.html

BDNYC said...

I would also add that the "3-year degree" could easily be shortened to 2 years. No dissertation. No lab work. No original research necessary. Just coursework.

Carl said...

I hate to tell you, but even in the hardest of hard sciences, editing journals -- as well as managing the government's disposition of grant money, by the way -- is a job typically left to those whose actual ability in the field is low.

Why would it be different? As they say, those who can, do. Those who can't....teach, review, edit, manage, and so forth. If you've got the talent, you want to use it, and sifting through manuscripts and applications is incredibly boring.

It isn't completely obtuse, as genuinely clever stuff can penetrate the plodder's consciousness well enough, so it's in little danger of suppression. And on the flip side, if you did somehow dragoon the Best 'n' Brightest into editorship, that makes you vulnerable to going off the rails in the grips of some intellectual delusion that is attractive to your priesthood. The same argument can (and has) been made for keeping the final arbiter of the law in the hands of ignorant yokels -- voters and juries. Missing hard-to-understand brilliance is much less dangerous in the long run than falling prey to sophisticated delusions that appeal to intellectuals. Much of the history of the 20th century demonstrates that.

FleetUSA said...

The President was the "elected president" of the Harvard journal. I am not sure he really did much management activity because as I have heard it is a "title" more than a roll up your sleeves law journal job. I think it was in his "wheel house" a popularity contest.

Balfegor said...

Sometimes I read law reviews in areas I'm unfamiliar with because they give the major relevant laws, regulations, and cases in the footnotes. Or rather, I read drafts on SSRN.

Jupiter said...

I ran into a guy I hadn't seen in twenty years at a funeral. He told me had gone to the University library, found my thesis (Vacuum Ultraviolet Resonance Raman Spectroscopy of Acetylene), and read it in its entirety. I am fairly certain he is the only person who has ever done so, including my thesis committee.

rhhardin said...

A coauthor who likes to publish is the answer.

madAsHell said...

...and in Obama's case, law reviews were not meant to be written.

Richard Dolan said...

"Ever stop ... and say to yourself: What am I reading? What this is is a line on somebody else's resume. It wasn't meant to be read. It was meant to be a title with a citation that would be a line on someone else's resume."

When talking to myself, I try not to be quite so repetitive. And, on the occasions when I have read law review articles in recent years (almost always when working on an appellate brief, and needing something persuasive to cite to the law-review-editors-now-turned-law-clerks who will probably be the only court-associated personnel to actually read the brief), I've been more focused on finding a money quote that happily coincides with whatever the theme of my argument happens to be.

"Is there any other field where the professors have a 3-year degree that is not built on any necessary undergraduate credentials, based on classroom courses that would be accessible to a high school graduate, and nothing even close to a dissertation?"

That a law degree is "not built on any necessary undergraduate credentials" doesn't strike me as much of a criticism, credentials being a seriously overrated commodity in academia generally. Nor is it even close to true that law school classes are "accessible to a high school graduate," at least the ones I recall.

Paddy O said...

"The law journals are a kind of writing and scholarship clinic for the students."

That makes entire sense and supports the idea that they aren't meant to be read. Even more it seems curious that professors will spend a whole lot of hours to be graded (essentially) by students.

Maybe this is why the best bloggers tend to be lawyers. They have much more incentive for public conversation and less incentive for private journal oriented scholarship.

Carl, I'm not in the hard sciences but in the fields I'm around (history, theology, religious studies), the journals tend to be edited by tops in their fields. Maybe because there aren't research grants for other projects, and journals and monographs really are where the field is advanced and summed up.

Sunslut7 said...

Ann,
Lets just abolish tenure. There is no tenure for most workers outside of the groves of academia, so why should we continue to maintain it? Lets abolish the tenure practice.

if we drop tenure I think the law journal issue will resolve itself.

Lets bring back apprenticeships in legal education. Maybe a 3+5 and then the bar.use the five years of apprenticeship to weed out the under-performers in a real world environment.

Sunslut7 said...

Ann,
Lets just abolish tenure. There is no tenure for most workers outside of the groves of academia, so why should we continue to maintain it? Lets abolish the tenure practice.

if we drop tenure I think the law journal issue will resolve itself.

Lets bring back apprenticeships in legal education. Maybe a 3+5 and then the bar.use the five years of apprenticeship to weed out the under-performers in a real world environment.

Dr Weevil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr Weevil said...

It's not just Law that lets grad students edit journals. In Classics (my field) the journals are all edited by professors, so I was very surprised years ago when a friend become editor of a major Philosophy journal while still an ABD grad student. (He never did finish his PhD.) I blogged one of his experiences as editor almost ten years ago, with a comment from Michelle Dulak, though I don't seem to have mentioned that he was only a grad student.

Left Bank of the Charles said...

I was an Articles Editor at the Michigan Law Review, back in the 1980s when the manuscripts were submitted on paper, but after it had become economical to run off copies to submit to multiple publications.

When we were lucky enough to have an article topical to a Supreme Court case, we'd have to scramble to get page proofs that could be sent to the Court for possible citation, usually to some clerk.

I think I read around 100 law review articles during that year. A great many of them I read at the laundromat.

I remember one article by Richard Posner that the president of the law review summoned us to read so we could make a quick decision. When we called a couple of hours after we received it to accept it, we found it had already been placed at another review. They got the article by not bothering to read it first.

We did have one issue a year that was actually read, the book review double issue. That was fun because the book reviews were short. Still, having a review of your legal academic book published meant that your book had been read at least once. And I don't mean by the reviewer.

One of the quaint editing practices was to check out all of the books cited in each article we published, and cite check not only that all the quotes were accurate and verbatim but also to read the sections being cited to see that they actually said the things the article author said they said.

Because no single student could be trusted to do that up to the level of quality the law review was seeking, a second student would also cite check each article. The final editor would then compare the two sets of cite check notes in making edits.

When I got into the software business, I built our QA processes around that idea of having two different people test everything. It is too bad that the President didn't apply that level of quality review to the Obamacare website rollout.

YoungHegelian said...

@Dr. Weevil,

Our mutual friend was not the only grad student to be editor of The Review of Metaphysics. He was followed in the position by several other ABD grad students. I, too, often found it strange to hear of our friend getting to say "aye or nay" to articles by major names in philosophy. I really doubt that he got to say "nay" very often without higher faculty approval.

There was often a big name attached to the Review during its history, e.g. its founder Paul Weiss. It's now edited by Prof. Jude Dougherty, who is Dean Emeritus of the Catholic U School of Philosophy. Prof. Dougherty is not a young man, to say the least, so I imagine some grad students are doing the heavy lifting as before.

David said...

Back in the late 1960's, when I was an editor at a supposedly top law review, a large percentage of the articles we received were very badly written. This from people teaching at top law schools, including our own. We rejected a lot of these articles, but some had been solicited from name professors in their fields. Those we spiffed up and published. They should have fallen over with joy, and maybe they did, but never where we could see or hear it.

But also there were the gems, which made us wonder if we ever could come cllose to the skill of the authors.

Law review was a great experience. We took it very seriously but also had a ton of fun.

So long ago. So far away.

Joe said...

Carl's comment reminds me of an observation I've made about computer science writers. Their early articles are really grounded in the reality. Then they start to drift, making it increasingly difficult to translate what they write into practical, working solutions. The articles also get much longer while simultaneously getting shorting on actual content, even if largely hypothetical.

From the few law articles I've read, the same thing seems to infect lawyers. Take three paragraphs of content and pad it endlessly.

Doug H. said...

Law review articles can be a great source of in depth coverage of specific legal doctrines and issues. I love it when I'm researching an issue and I find a law review article on topic.

Part of the problem is that few law review articles are available online. Even when you find a law review article on a relevant topic, it often is not available on westlaw, on ssrn, or anywhere else.