Student-edited law journals have been something of an anomaly in scholarly journal publishing. In other disciplines, the editor of a journal is typically an expert in the field, as are the peer-reviewers who scrutinize and recommend articles for publication. According to the 2012 STM (Scientific, Technical, and Medical) Report (sec. 2.9) on scholarly journal publishing, the peer-review process is typically blind (reviewer identity is hidden) or double-blind (reviewer and author identity are hidden), with open peer review (no secrets) being less common. In contrast, student-edited law journals have traditionally used known, non-expert students to evaluate and select articles for publication, often without faculty input. The disciplines do have their differences.
In this predominantly student-edited state, law journal scholarship has managed to flourish, growing from a single inward-looking student journal in 1875 to nearly 1,000 U.S. law journals indexed on Washington & Lee University School of Law’s website as of 2012. More than that, these journals have groomed over a century of lawyers, judges, professors, legislators, and policymakers, and at least one U.S. president, who have had the benefit of that experience. It’s a good thing for law students.
So how did we get here? For those just stepping up to the plate as law journal editors, a little context is important. Standing on the admittedly narrow shoulders of two law professors, Swygert and Bruce, who wrote an excellent historical piece about law journal publishing, I offer this brief retelling. A full reading of their article is well worth your time. Also, for further exploration, check out this Short Bibliography from the Charlotte School of Law on the history of American legal publishing.
Early commercial law journals
Beginning in 1808, several legal periodicals were commercially published in America before the earliest incarnations of the student-edited law journal appeared. According to Swygert and Bruce, the conceptual predecessors of the student-edited law journal included academic “lead articles,” a format that most closely resembles the lengthy, intellectually solid articles currently found in law journals. These periodicals, along with the more informative commercially published professional journals, set the stage for student-edited law journals “by developing formats for legal writing, by demonstrating that legal periodicals could be useful to the profession, and by creating a widespread audience for articles combining scholarly insights with a professional focus.”
The first student-edited law journal
Swygert and Bruce credit the Albany Law School Journal—published and perished in a single academic year, circa 1875—as being the first student-edited law journal. Conceived by law students, the journal published brief articles, including a discussion of study methods, and reported on moot court results and law school clubs. Not quite the faculty-generated legal scholarship that swells PDF files today. For that reason a reference librarian who was able to lay hands on the last surviving copy of the journal, hanging behind glass in the Albany Law Review office, characterizes it more as a “modern student newspaper than . . . an academic law review.” Nonetheless, the journal was celebrated by the commercially published, practitioner-oriented, and unaffiliated Albany Law Journal as “ ‘encouraging an endeavor among law students toward a higher legal education.’ ”
The weekly Columbia Jurist
If the Albany Law School Journal was the first student-edited law journal, then the second was the Columbia Jurist, started by law students at Columbia Law School in 1885. Six law students determined that if other disciplines within Columbia College were producing their own journals, so too would the law school, as stated in the introduction to volume 1, number 1 (p. 2) of the Jurist. In addition to reporting on law school news and reproducing lecture notes in its weekly installments, the journal also contained notes on recent cases and essays by one of the law school’s professors.
By volume 2, part 1, of the Jurist (p. 1), the journal expanded its scope to include the interests of law students and legal practitioners across the United States, and contributions were sought from students and graduates of the law school. While in volume 3, number 1 (p. 25), solicitations were also extended to “friends” of the school, by number 18 (p. 213) there was a marked but familiar change: contributions were solicited from those “interested in the work of teaching and studying law.” That was the last issue ever published (January 1887). Apparently, the journal’s grueling weekly publication schedule is the reason the Jurist ceased.
Before its sudden death, the Jurist managed to rankle the editorial pages of the commercially published Albany Law Journal and American Law Review and to capture the attention of Harvard law students, who would start a journal of their own.
Harvard Law Review emerges
A group of eight third-year students at Harvard Law School started a club called the Langdell Society in 1886. It was to be a forum for “serious” discussion of the law and the reading of essays penned by its members. But society members wanted to give their work a broader audience and floated the idea of a student-edited journal to faculty. With faculty support and alumni funding, the Harvard Law Review emerged in 1887 as a vehicle for the publication of Harvard faculty and student scholarship, accompanied by lighter fare: school news, lecture summaries, case comments, and book reviews. The Harvard Law Review continues to be student-edited—quite a feat with approximately 2,000 pages in each volume. Issues are published in the academic months, from November to June, and include articles by professors, judges, and practitioners; various types of student works; and book reviews.
Some early faculty-edited law journals
Within 20 years, by 1906, five other leading laws schools would publish journals (Yale, Pennsylvania, Columbia, Michigan, and Northwestern), but not all of them student-edited. The Michigan Law Review, established in 1902, was initially managed and edited by faculty. Students assisted and were gradually given more responsibility. By the late 1930s the reins had largely been handed over.
The Illinois Law Review—a joint, faculty-run effort of the law schools at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, and Northwestern—was launched in 1906. Students at Northwestern increased their involvement until in 1932, Northwestern took over the journal and selected its first student editor-in-chief. The journal was renamed the Northwestern University Law Review, as it is known today.
Student editing flourishes
Once the student-edited-journal meme had found its ideal host in the leading U.S. law schools, its replication in law schools across the nation was rapid. By 1930, 43 law schools had a law review with varying levels of student and faculty involvement. By 1996, there were more than 400 law journals, most of them student-edited. Today there are approximately 1,000 law journals in the U.S., about 66% of which are student-edited (and not refereed), 16% of which are refereed (and either student- or peer-edited), and 18% of which are peer-edited (and not refereed), based on data from the Washington & Lee University School of Law’s Law Journals Submissions and Rankings for 2012.
Even with its share of critics and unconventional editorial model, the student-edited journal has had staying power and is recognized as a value-added (and résumé-padding) experience for students in legal education. While it remains the lone-ranger of editorial models in scholarly journal publishing, the inherent benefits for student editors, along with the low-cost of digital publishing, have inspired graduate and undergraduate student-edited journal entrants in fields such as economics, political science, health sciences, psychology, and the humanities. For an exemplary list, see this Wikipedia page listing more than 123 academic journals that are tagged as being edited by students, most of them law journals.
Follow the industry, make good books
This law school legacy continues to be a great opportunity for students, whether on law review or editing a specialty or refereed journal. So make the most of your term, and make the most of your journal. Learn about the industry, consider setting new directions for your journal that extend beyond the immediate term, and listen to what folks are blogging about it. Future installments of this blog will discuss law journal publishing currents of potential interest to student editors. My intention is to cover developments and ideas in journal publishing; to cull and suggest methods for enhancing a law journal’s reach; and to push news and helpful lists and videos your way.
Before you go
Have an interesting tale to tell about your student-edited journal’s origins? Post it here, and consider creating a page for your journal on Wikipedia.
 Michael I. Swygert and Jon W. Bruce, “The Historical Origins, Founding, and Early Development of Student-Edited Law Reviews,” Hastings Law Journal 36 (1984-1985): 739–91.
 Ibid., 751.
 Ibid., 753–58.
 Ibid., 763.
 Ibid., 763–64.
 Ibid., 764–65.
 Robert A. Emery, “The Albany Law School Journal: The Only Surviving Copy,” Law Library Journal 89 (1997): 463-64, 466.
 Swygert and Bruce, “Historical Origins,” 765-66 (quoting the “Notes,” Albany Law Journal 13 (1876): 31).
 Ibid., 766.
 Swygert and Bruce, “Historical Origins,” 766–67.
 Ibid., 768.
 Ibid., 767–69.
 Ibid., 770.
 Ibid., 773–74.
 Ibid., 779.
 Ibid., 783–84.
 Ibid., 784-86.
 Ibid., 787.
 Michael L. Closen and Robert J. Dzielak, “The History and Influence of the Law Review Institution,” Akron Law Review 30 (1996): 15, note 3.