Law Scholarship’s Lackluster Reviews

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Adam Liptak, Washington – “Would you want The New England Journal of Medicine to be edited by medical students?” asked Richard A. Wise, who teaches psychology at the University of North Dakota.

Of course not. Then why are law reviews, the primary repositories of legal scholarship, edited by law students?

These student editors are mostly bright and work hard, but they are young, part-time amateurs who know little about the law or about editing prose. Yet they are in charge of picking the best articles from among many hundreds of submissions written by professors with authentic expertise in fields the students may never have studied.

James T. Lindgren, a law professor at Northwestern, once put it this way: “Our scholarly journals are in the hands of incompetents.”

It shows. Law reviews are such a target-rich environment for ridicule that it is barely sporting to make fun of them.

It is hard, for starters, to improve on the classic critique by Fred Rodell, a law professor at Yale, in his 1936 essay, “Goodbye to Law Reviews.”

“There are two things wrong with almost all legal writing,” he wrote. “One is its style. The other is its content.”

And those were the good old days, when it was not unusual for legal scholars to write about topics useful to lawyers and judges.

Now, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said at a judicial conference, “Pick up a copy of any law review that you see and the first article is likely to be, you know, the influence of Immanuel Kant on evidentiary approaches in 18th century Bulgaria, or something, which I’m sure was of great interest to the academic that wrote it, but isn’t of much help to the bar.”

Judge Dennis G. Jacobs, of the federal appeals court in New York, was similarly dismissive.

“I haven’t opened up a law review in years,” he said in 2007. “No one speaks of them. No one relies on them.”

That is only mild hyperbole. About 43 percent of law review articles have never been cited in another article or in a judicial decision.

Law reviews are not really meant to be read. 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.

Law reviews, Professor Wise said, are “a very odd system.”

He and several colleagues have just published the results of a survey of the legal community’s views on law reviews in The Loyola Law Review, compiling responses from about 2,000 law professors, lawyers, judges and student editors.

There was broad dissatisfaction, and it was led by the people who benefit the most from the current system and are in the best position to change it. “Law professors were more critical than any other group,” Professor Wise said.

The four groups agreed that three kinds of changes could make a difference: blind screening, peer review and more training for the student editors.

Law professors were particularly critical of how students selected articles to publish, saying they lacked the knowledge to pick the best articles and relied instead on authors’ reputations and the prestige of the law schools where they teach.

The students also favor professors from their own schools, according to a second new study, this one from Albert H. Yoon, a law professor at the University of Toronto. This bias makes sense as a matter of self-interest, as the student editors are probably wise to accommodate people who have power over their futures.

But such home-school favoritism hurts the quality of what is published, Professor Yoon found. Articles by professors at the law review’s own school, he found, are cited less often than ones from outsiders.

Law professors seem to know they can dump their lesser work onto their own school’s students, Professor Yoon wrote, so they “systematically publish their lesser-cited articles in their own journal relative to outside journals.”

Professor Yoon’s study will be published in the Journal of Legal Analysis, a rare peer-reviewed law journal.

The general debate on how to improve law reviews is an old one, and there is little prospect of change. Law reviews will continue to publish long, obscure and dated articles, and their readership and influence will continue to drop.

In the 1970s and 1980s, about half of all Supreme Court opinions cited at least one law review article, according to a study by Brent E. Newton last year in The Drexel Law Review. Since 2000, the rate is just 37 percent — even as Supreme Court opinions have grown longer and more elaborate.

The more liberal justices were more likely to cite academic work, and all of the justices showed a kind of aversion to the academic mainstream. Almost 40 percent of the cited articles in recent years were not by full-time law professors but by students, practicing lawyers and others outside the more elite parts of the academic establishment.

The leading Supreme Court advocates know that law review articles carry almost no weight with the justices. “Only a true naïf,” Seth P. Waxman, a former solicitor general said in 2002, “would blunder to mention one at oral argument.”

(Source: The New York Times, Published: October 21, 2013


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