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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Why Law Reviews Don’t Go Gently Into That Good Night

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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In a strange, to some infuriating, subversion of the typical law school social order (student is to prof as pawn is to queen) the venerable academic publication of any law school, the law review, is almost entirely student run. In this horrifying academic bizarro-world it’s a gaggle of toe-headed 2Ls who pass judgment on whether or not the esteemed professor will fill their journal with his or her intelligence and (*gasp!*) may even ask for revisions.

In Now Professors Get Their Star Rankings, Too, the NY Times Noam Cohen delves into the Web 2.0 version of scholarly publication, SSRN (Social Science Research Network) which presumably obviates the point of law reviews, allowing academics to self-publish to comparatively huge audiences… and yet law reviews lives on.

Sam Kamin ponders this inscrutable development in NYT Discovers SSRN — DEVELOPING!:

You post on SSRN before (often long, long before) your article sees print, but aren’t most people still seeking placements for their articles in old-fashioned journals? If so, why? I understand that untenured faculty still need the stamp of approval that comes with law journal acceptance. For those of us with tenure, though, what makes us continue to seek such acceptance?

to which Lawrence Solum offers several explanations in Kamin Asks Why SSRN Hasn’t Displaced Law Reviews all of which dwell on comparative advantage of law reviews as a platform.

I’ll hazard my own explanation as someone on the receiving end – the secret to law review’s longevity is simply the comparative advantage of conscripted labor. In return for the prestige of the activity, law students put in untold hours editing these works, some of which come in as, let’s put it diplomatically, diamonds in the rough. In what peer-reviewed journal’s office would a footnote that says the equivalent of “find something that says this” pass for substantiation? Students do the work in the mines, below the line, for free – work that would be prohibitively expensive to acquire on the market.

There are alternatives that try to take this into account, see Anthony Ciolli’s proposal Law Review Innovation: The Peer-Assist System, and the Criminal Law Conversations project at Penn, but until substantially similar leverage is found, law reviews will continue to be the primary avenue of publication.

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