Monday, July 21, 2014
A couple of weeks ago, I posted a review of an article on mutual fund fee litigation. In my post, I apologized for reviewing the article “late.”
I thought about the use of the word “late” after I posted. The article has been available on SSRN, the Social Science Research Network, since March, but it has not yet been published in a law review. But, in the world of blogs and instant access to everything, waiting until publication in print truly is late.
Most legal articles are now posted on SSRN as soon as they are finished, and I, like many other law professors, don’t wait until publication to read articles in my areas of interest. I pull those articles straight off SSRN. SSRN helpfully provides subject-specific emails with abstracts and links to newly posted articles.
My first crowdfunding article had hundreds of downloads before it appeared in print. It came out in a law review at almost the same time the final crowdfunding bill passed Congress; if I had not posted it on SSRN, it would have had no chance to affect the debate. (I’m not sure it had much effect anyway. The drafters of the final bill may have heard some of the notes of my composition, but they certainly missed the melody.)
So, in a world where articles are publicly available and read long before they appear in law reviews, what exactly is the value of law reviews? Most of their content is stale by the time it’s published.
Law reviews as filters
Law reviews certainly don’t do much to filter “unworthy” publications. Law reviews have proliferated to the point that almost anything can be published in a law review somewhere.
Law reviews as signals of quality
The law review in which an article appears may signal the article’s quality; if so, that signal usually comes too late. By the time an article appears in print, I and many others have already decided whether to read it. And reading an article’s abstract and introduction usually provides a much better sense of its quality than the journal name attached to it. Faculty members and expert practitioners are much better judges of the quality of articles in our fields than a student editor without significant expertise in the area. I know this is heresy, but even Harvard and Yale sometimes publish crap.
Law review placement also shouldn’t be used as a quality signal in evaluating untenured faculty members. Tenured faculty members who cede judgments of quality to second and third year law students, even the law review editors at prestigious law schools, aren’t doing their job.
Law reviews as editors
Law reviews provide editing, but, in my experience, that editing is as likely to reduce the quality of an article as to improve it. I can think of several instances where student editing made my article marginally better—including one brilliant addition to a footnote in a humorous article I wrote. (Thank you, Northwestern Law Review editors.) But I can also think of several edits inserted at the last minute without my approval that made articles significantly worse. I can’t think of a single instance where student editing kept me from making a serious substantive mistake.
Law reviews and accessibility
Once articles are published in law reviews, they’re available on Westlaw and Lexis, and thus more broadly accessible. But there’s no reason why availability needs to be tied to law review publication. If law reviews didn’t exist, Westlaw and Lexis would find a way to tie into the SSRN system. Or the free, publicly available SSRN system might eventually supplant Westlaw and Lexis, at least for law review articles.
Law review as an educational experience
I have been focusing on the needs of authors and readers. But what about the student editors? Don’t law reviews provide them with a valuable educational experience?
I see little value in educating students in the fine minutiae of Bluebook citation form, and most actual editing is done by students with little or no professional instruction or supervision. Advanced courses in writing, editing, and legal research could provide better instruction more efficiently.
So I repeat—what’s the value of law reviews?