Student-edited law journals: Let’s keep a good thing going

A recent essay by Adam Liptak in the New York Times criticizes law journals on several fronts, including the fact that they are largely student-run. “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.”[1]  Liptak questions why students are responsible for defining the body of legal scholarship.  The essay goes on to criticize law journals as under-cited, irrelevant, obscure, and plagued by bias in the selection process.

“In-house” student editorial work

The fact that students edit and select a large proportion of the articles written by law faculty and other experts is indeed something that is not done in other fields, making it an easy target for criticism.  Law journal publishing is also unique in that operations have mostly been retained in-house, compared to other disciplines where journal publishing is concentrated in a few large commercial publishers.[2]  By contrast, law journal publishing is a non-commercial enterprise that is supported in part by extracurricular student editorial work.  Many students find the experience educational, rewarding, and practical, with the added benefit of improved employment prospects.

Journal service benefits students

WPA Poster with a group of young people holding sign reading "Be Kind to Books Club, Are you a member?" Arlington Gregg, artist (Chicago: WPA Illinois Art Project, 1940). Library of Congress Work Projects Administration Poster Collection. No known restrictions on publication.

Arlington Gregg, artist (1940)
WPA Illinois Art Project
Library of Congress
WPA Poster Collection
No known publication restrictions

Students have been editing law journals since the late 1800s.  There are probably many reasons this became the dominant model, but in the process students have become important beneficiaries.  Some would now argue that “the law review’s primary purpose is educational”—the experience not only “teach[es] students to write, edit, and think critically” but faculty-author interaction with students throughout the editorial process is in turn an “additional teaching responsibilit[y].”[3]  The skills learned by journal editors are also quite practical and are particularly useful in appellate or federal trial court practice, judicial clerkships, specialized practice areas, or any work involving extensive legal analysis and writing, including academic professions.

Then-editor-in-chief of the Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution remarked last year in another cycle of law journal criticism that not only do students “grow[] tremendously” by editing the work of faculty and other authors, they benefit from the experiences of both producing their own scholarly works and “of managing a large team, controlling a significant budget, and interacting with leading scholars from around the world.”[4]

More recently, the senior notes editor of Michigan State Law Review responded to Liptak by highlighting the educational quality of journal participation and the resulting improved employment prospects.  A student editor’s work is

a significant learning experience. Members of the journal spend two years of their law school careers working tirelessly to produce well-written and well-researched articles.  Legal recruiters even seek out law review editors, in part because of the amount of time dedicated to the journal.  A New York City attorney was quoted in U.S. News saying that large law firms are looking for the “smart workhorses,” student editors who are used to devoting 20 hours per week (or more) to their law review tasks on top of the demanding work of a law student.[5]

Also in response to Liptak, editor-in-chief of the NYU Law Moot Court Board journal focused on networking and the practical experience gained in serving on a journal:

We network with alumnae and peers, judges and practitioners. We produce a final product. We foster mentorships with advisors and professors. We work on tight, often high-pressure deadlines. We explore fascinating issues of law. We vastly improve our research, writing and editing skills. In short, it prepares us to be lawyers.[6]

Editors-in-chief of the N.Y.U. Review of Law & Social Change countered some of Liptak’s charges with a description of the journal’s practitioner-oriented focus and highlighted student opportunities for collaborative article writing with practitioners.[7]

Undergraduate research journal motif

Universities around the world are increasingly publishing undergraduate journals that provide students with opportunities to conduct research and write within their disciplines, collaborate with faculty on research and scholarship, and edit a scholarly journal.[8]  The growth of this phenomenon is some indication that the experience is significant in education.

The best time for law students to learn to write and publish within their discipline is in law school.  Some colleges may offer pre-law programs along with opportunities to serve on undergraduate student-edited law journals.  There is, however, no set pre-law path, and students come to law school with majors from a variety of fields.[9]  A juris doctor is also a terminal degree in the sense that it is generally the degree pursued to practice law in the United States.[10]  That makes law school the appropriate place for students to experience journal participation before going into practice.

The problem, as perceived by Liptak and many others, is that law students are not only selecting and editing the work of their peers but also that of faculty, practitioners, judges, and other authors.

Student-edited journals and peer review

Of the 999 law journals published in the United States 66% are student-edited with no formal peer review, according to data from Washington & Lee University School of Law’s Law Journals: Submissions and Rankings for 2012.[11]  While peer review was a feature of some early law journals,[12] it currently only characterizes about 16% of U.S. law journals, some of which may also be student-edited or peer-edited.  The remaining 18% are peer-edited by legal professionals (but not peer-reviewed).[13]

These statistics notwithstanding, many of the 600+ student-edited journals do involve experts and faculty in the article selection process.  Not reflected in the Washington & Lee listing are the 19 student-edited journals that utilize the peer-review services of PRSM (the Peer Reviewed Scholarship Marketplace)[14] and other student-edited journals that expressly use some form of peer review[15] or that more informally receive faculty input on selections.  So peer review is being used to some extent, it is just not yet well-documented.

In the absence of peer review, student editors have been defended as being quite capable of selecting logically sound articles based on their substantive interests without having subject-matter expertise,[16] and there are some faculty, student editors, judges, and attorneys who maintain that peer review is not necessary.[17]

Evaluating the need for editorial change

Criticizing student-edited law journals seems like an age-old tradition, but many journals have been responding to the critiques with new policies and procedures.  As calls for reform persist[18] evaluating the need for change to established editorial processes might be something for some journals to consider. If systemic reforms are proposed, I would hope that they keep in view the student-editor perspective on law journal publishing.


[1] Adam Liptak, “The Lackluster Reviews That Lawyers Love to Hate,” Sidebar, New York Times, October 21, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/22/us/law-scholarships-lackluster-reviews.html?_r=0.

[2] Mark Ware and Michael Mabe. The STM Report: An Overview of Scientific and Scholarly Journal Publishing, 3rd ed. (The Hague: International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers, 2012): 33, http://www.stm-assoc.org/2012_12_11_STM_Report_2012.pdf.

[3] Cameron Stracher, “Reading, Writing, and Citing: In Praise of Law Reviews,” New York Law School Law Review 52, no. 3 (2007/08): 360.

[4] Brian Farkas, “Fixing Law Review Critics,” Inside Higher Ed, November 30, 2012, http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/11/30/student-run-law-reviews-have-much-contribute-legal-education-essay.

[5] Katie Wendt, “Shaping Legal Scholarship: A Student Perspective,” Michigan State Law Review Blog, October 27, 2013, http://www.msulawreview.org/shaping-legal-scholarship-a-student-perspective/.

[6] Amanda Levendowski, “Why Law Journals Matter,” Oh Snapski (blog), October 21, 2013, http://ohsnapski.com/2013/10/21/why-law-journals-matter/.

[7] Nicholas Melvoin and Andrew Neidhardt, “How Law Reviews Can Get It Right,” RLSC Blog, October 23, 2013, socialchangenyu.com/2013/10/23/how-law-reviews-can-get-it-right.

[8] The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) lists 119 undergraduate journals internationally.  The journals listed by CUR not only publish undergraduate student research but some may also publish graduate student and faculty work.  The journals may be exclusively edited and reviewed by students or have faculty involvement in the editorial process, including some with peer review.

[9] Pre-Law Committee, ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, “Pre-Law: Preparing for Law School,” accessed November 2, 2013, http://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_education/resources/pre_law.html.

[10] The educational requirements for sitting for a state bar may also include foreign law degrees and other forms of education or prior bar admissions.  National Conference of Bar Examiners and American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements 2013: 8–16.

[11] Washington & Lee School of Law, Law Library, “Law Journals: Submissions and Ranking, 2005–2012,” accessed November 3, 2013, http://lawlib.wlu.edu/LJ/index.aspx.  Search U.S. and Student-edited.  Note that online supplements are included in this list.

[12] 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): 783–786.

[13] In Washington & Lee’s law journal listing, search U.S. and Refereed and then U.S. and Peer-edited to obtain these statistics.  Unfortunately, the listing does not identify which Refereed journals are also student-edited.

[14] Peer Reviewed Scholarship Marketplace, “Current Members,” accessed November 5, 2013, http://www.legalpeerreview.org/members/.

[15] Stanford Law Review (peer review amenable to shortened selection time frames), Harvard Law Review (faculty peer review), University of Chicago Law Review (occasional peer review), and New York University Review of Law & Social Change (expert practitioner review), among likely others.

[16] Stracher, “Reading, Writing, and Citing,” 355 and note 45 (for the proposition that students are capable of “identifying articles that make valid and logical points,” citing Natalie C. Cotton, “The Competence of Students as Editors of Law Reviews: A Response to Judge Posner,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 154 (2006): 958).

[17] Richard A. Wise, Lucy S. McGough, James W. Bowers, Douglas P. Peters, Joseph C. Miller, Heather K. Terrell, Brett Holfeld, and Joe H. Neal, “Do Law Reviews Need Reform? A Survey of Law Professors, Student Editors, Attorneys, and Judges,” Loyola Law Review 59 (Spring 2013): 68.

[18] Wise et al., “Do Law Reviews Need Reform?”

Student-edited law journals: A brief history, a long legacy

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,[1] 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,[2] 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.[3]  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.”[4]

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.[5]  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.[6]  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.”[7]  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.’ ”[8]

Digital clip of Cosmopolitan Saloon advertisement for “Best and Coolest Lager in the City” from the Albany Daily Evening Times on November 9, 1878, similar to an ad that appeared in the Albany Law School Journal, April 13, 1876

Cosmopolitan Saloon advertised in the Albany Law School Journal (April 13, 1876), boasting “the Best and Coolest Lager in the City” (see note 7 below, Emery, “Surviving Copy,” 464). This ad appeared in the Albany Daily Evening Times (Nov. 9, 1878). (Digital clip from http://www.fultonhistory.com.)

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.[9]  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.[10]

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.[11]

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.[12]

Front Matter from vol. 2 of The Columbia Jurist (1885-86), “Devoted to the Interest of Students of the Law and Legal Practitioners” published by The Columbia Jurist Publishing Company, digitized by Google Books and personally and non-commercially shared using its clipping tool

Front matter, The Columbia Jurist, Vol. 2 (1885-86). (Columbia Jurist Publishing Co., New York, NY. Digitized by Google Books; personally and non-commercially shared using its clipping tool.)

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.[13]  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.[14]  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.

Photo of Austin Hall, Harvard Law School (ca. 1883-1895), where the Harvard Law Review offices were initially located. Photo is owned by Cornell University Library and made freely available by owners on Flickr Commons.

Austin Hall, Harvard Law School (ca. 1883-1895), where the Harvard Law Review offices were initially located (click “offices” for cite link). (A. D. White Architectural Photographs. Cornell University Library, Cambridge, MA. Retrieved from Flickr Commons, http://hdl.handle.net/1813.001/5sb9.)

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.[15]  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.[16]

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.[17] 

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.[18]  By 1996, there were more than 400 law journals, most of them student-edited.[19]  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.


[1] 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.

[2] Ibid., 751.

[3] Ibid., 753–58.

[4] Ibid., 763.

[5] Ibid., 763–64.

[6] Ibid., 764–65.

[7] Robert A. Emery, “The Albany Law School Journal: The Only Surviving Copy,” Law Library Journal 89 (1997): 463-64, 466.

[8] Swygert and Bruce, “Historical Origins,” 765-66 (quoting the “Notes,” Albany Law Journal 13 (1876): 31).

[9] Ibid., 766.

[10] Swygert and Bruce, “Historical Origins,” 766–67.

[11] Ibid., 768.

[12] Ibid., 767–69.

[13] Ibid., 770.

[14] Ibid., 773–74.

[15] Ibid., 779.

[16] Ibid., 783–84.

[17] Ibid., 784-86.

[18] Ibid., 787.

[19] Michael L. Closen and Robert J. Dzielak, “The History and Influence of the Law Review Institution,” Akron Law Review 30 (1996): 15, note 3.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: