Law Firms Take Note: Law Reviews Aren’t All They’re Cracked Up to Be

By  | 

Somehow, I only recently encountered Adam Liptak’s scornful treatise of American law reviews in the New York Times (and, I must confess, my Law Street Media colleague Peter Davidson’s indignant response to it). Frankly, I agree with the criticisms of many judges and attorneys and even some law professors: law reviews really do produce far too much intellectual masturbation with precious little useful application in legal practice. It is rather odd that law reviews, unlike journals in other professional fields, are compiled and edited by relatively untutored, inexperienced students rather than by seasoned practitioners. I would add that much of the content of the average law review is—like so much else in the legal field—unconscionably dull. I remember having an easy time deciding whether to try out for a journal or Moot Court as a 1L: all I had to do was peek inside back copies of my school’s various journals and see how long it took for them to put my lights out.

Yet I see all of those complaints as reasons for law students to think twice before trying to claw their way onto Law Review, not reasons for journals not to exist (or to be edited by students) at all. Ultimately, in my mind, those flaws take a backseat to different questions. I fear that law review membership does too little to prepare students for legal practice, and that law firms are too preoccupied with journal membership as an indicator of student applicants’ potential to be great lawyers.

What, after all, do students on law reviews do? Not having touched a journal with a ten-foot pole myself, I have only secondhand familiarity with this question; but I’m confident that research and interaction with schoolmates who were on journals have led me to the right answer. Typically, journal members edit and cite-check articles that the editors have decided to publish, ensuring that references actually provide proper support for authors’ claims and that footnotes are properly Bluebooked. They also write “notes” or “comments” of their own that may end up being published in the journal alongside law professor’s contributions. The journal editors generally review submitted articles and select them for publication and supervise the editing and note-writing processes.

Perhaps such endeavors would help make real lawyers out of law students if either the content of law review articles or the process of writing and editing them bore much resemblance to what most attorneys do on the job. Unfortunately, that resemblance is scant at best. The system gives professors no incentive to write articles — and gives student editors no incentive to publish pieces — that are consistently relevant to real-world legal practice or useful to real-world practitioners. For professors, law reviews serve primarily as expositions of academic mettle in the quest for adjunct and tenured professorships. For students, journals serve mainly as signaling mechanisms to law firms, padding their resumes with credentials that they know employers want to see.

Therein lies the problem. It makes no sense for law firms to put as high a premium on journal membership as they do, especially in these times, with competition so stiff and clients demanding so much more — and more experienced — bang for their bucks. Firms seem to view the challenging process of making law review as an effective way of separating the academic wheat from the chaff, and the research, writing and editing that journal members do as critical to their development into lawyers. Yet this view is largely mistaken, if only because it doesn’t apply to all journal members. 1Ls in the top five, ten or 15 percent of their classes who grade on to law review do so due to their skill at spotting and analyzing issues in turgid and fanciful exam fact patterns, not because they are skilled at doing the kind of research, writing or editing that academia and legal practice require.

More importantly, although law review editing definitely hones students’ proofreading, Bluebooking and cite-checking skills, in terms of formatting and content, it is a far cry from the kind of day-to-day work attorneys do. Editing treatises of groan-inducing intellectual abstractions — such as “the influence of Immanuel Kant on evidentiary approaches in 18th-century Bulgaria, or something,” as Chief Justice John Roberts once wittily put it — bears little or no resemblance to performing pretrial discovery, negotiating plea bargains, drawing up contracts or doing real estate closings. Perhaps law firms themselves deserve much of the blame for the unpreparedness of so many law school graduates for actual lawyering. What do they expect, when they so strongly incentivize students to participate in a painstaking and time-consuming extracurricular activity that does precious little to teach them how to practice law?

Law firms would be wise to look further and wider for extracurricular experience in their prospective law student hires. Any number of other activities available to law students would inculcate real lawyering skills in them far better than editing law reviews’ tedious treacle would. I’ve already written in this blog about how my Moot Court experience disabused me with the idea of practicing law, but those misgivings were due to my own skills, interests and idiosyncrasies. Anyone who decides, for the right reasons, to become an attorney — and particularly a litigator — should eagerly welcome the opportunity to learn the vagaries of brief-writing and oral argument. Certainly no law review teaches how to format and structure briefs for maximum persuasive effect, how to give straightforward answers to judges’ questions, or how to keep one’s cool when being bombarded with hostile questions from a “hot bench” (or, for that matter, how to fill up 15 minutes of allotted speaking time in front of a quiet, “cold” bench).

Nor does any law journal editor learn experientially how to negotiate deals and mediate disputes or how to exonerate wrongfully convicted prison inmates and secure their release. Yet a number of my classmates were able to do so, through bar association competitions and clinics like Cardozo Law School’s Innocence Project. These tournaments provide the opportunity to be judged by experienced lawyers and judges and to win accolades, and clinics like the Innocence Project involve providing support in real-life cases. Such advantages only makes these activities even more deserving of prioritization over the glorified grunt work one is relegated to doing on even the most prestigious law reviews.

The moral of the story is that many extracurricular activities can prove far more valuable to a law student’s training as an attorney than journal membership. Law firms and other employers ought to take note. In this jarring period of change and adjustment, it’s not only law schools that need to think outside of the box.

Featured image courtesy of [Nic McPhee via Flickr]

Akil Alleyne, a native of Montreal, is a graduate of Princeton University and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. His major areas of study are constitutional and international law, with focus on federalism, foreign policy, separation of powers and property rights. Akil is also a member of Young Voices Advocates, which connects students and young professionals with media outlets worldwide to facilitate youth participation in political and social discourse. Contact Akil at

Send this to friend