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Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Is Publishing a Book Review in a Law Review Still a Worthwhile Pretenure Endeavor? (Jr. Law Prawfs FAQ)

Following up on my post from Monday on whether it's worth writing a response to a law review article as a junior scholar, I thought I'd turn to the somewhat related question of whether as a junior scholar it's worth doing a full-length book review in a law review. To provide a little background, I still remember some advice a professor gave during my aspiring-professor legal studies workshop in law school over a decade ago (paraphrasing as my memory isn't that good):

Publishing a book review in a law review is an excellent way to introduce yourself to the field because you can interact with a respected senior scholar's work and then let your own voice and ideas come through as well.  There's the additional value that it's easier for a junior scholar to place a book review (especially of a book by a respected scholar in one's field) in a top-tier law review than a traditional law review article. So you build your CV with a top-tier book review placement, which helps you place your first full-length article. And, moreover, scholars in your field are more likely to read a book review from a junior scholar than a traditional article from that same previously unknown junior scholar.

Assuming this advice was good a decade ago, is it still good advice today? Do many law reviews still publish these long-form book reviews? Is it really easier to place a book review than a traditional article in a law review? Is it more likely that scholars will read the book review than a full-length article from an unknown junior scholar in the field?

To be sure, the Michigan Law Review still does its Annual Survey of Books. As Paul Horwitz noted on this blog last year, the Tulsa Law Review also has had a long tradition of publishing a book review issue, though I didn't see a submissions option on their website for this year. And I see the Harvard Law Review and others still publish book reviews on occasion. In fact, Kathryne Young  and Joan Petersilia just published a fun books review in the Harvard Law Review that's definitely worth a read, especially because it reviews, among other books, Alice Goffman's On the Run that has been the subject of some controversy -- though Young and Petersilia conclude (at 1330 n.36) that "[t]he allegations that [Goffman] fabricated data or exaggerated claims have received a fair amount of media attention, but at this point strike us as so poorly founded that they are not worth debating here." [HT Orin Kerr]

I have little insight to offer on this question, as I've never written a long-form book review for law review submission. Sure, I've blogged about books over at the Yale Journal on Regulation, including a contribution yesterday to our symposium on Peter Conti-Brown's terrific new book The Power and Independence of the Federal Reserve. And it's definitely on my bucket list to publish a book review over at The New Rambler (one of my favorite academic websites out there). But blog and website short-form book reviews strike me as a different beast than the long-form law-review book review. The cost-benefit analysis for these online book reviews seems similar to writing responses to law review articles (which we discussed in Monday's post).

With that disclaimer of ignorance, I'm a bit skeptical about the pretenure value of long-form book reviews. Again, it comes back to opportunity costs. It takes a long time to read and digest a book and then come up with something smart to say about it, and an even longer time to then build on the book in a way that furthers one's own research agenda. To be sure, there may be times when the stars align and the book ends where your brilliant research agenda begins. There may also be opportunities to coauthor a book review with a senior scholar in your field, which produces additional benefits (and costs). In other words, there may be exceptions to the general rule. Conversely, I'm not convinced that a junior scholar has a better chance of placing a book review than a traditional law review article, perhaps because I'm not sure law reviews are publishing book reviews as often as they may have been in the past. Nor am I persuaded that scholars in the field are more likely to read a new scholar's book review than her first full-length article.

Do folks agree that the general pretenure rule is probably to focus on other forms of scholarship? I'm quite curious to crowdsource this question and hear the experiences of others (both pre- and post-tenure).



Posted by Chris Walker on April 6, 2016 at 09:03 AM in Jr. Law Prawfs FAQ, Teaching Law | Permalink


I published a book review pre-tenure, but the circumstances were somewhat exceptional. I was asked to be on a panel on the book. The book and panel were interesting in their own right and, being a first-year prof, I said yes to pretty much anything. It turned out I enjoyed thinking and writing up the ideas, so I polished it further to make it a full-dress book review. Also, it was a jurisprudence paper and review essays are much more common in legal theory journals, which are peer-reviewed. As a pup in that field, review essays are a good way to dip your toe in the water.

[C Walker Note: Jeff was too modest to include a link to the review, but I think it is helpful, especially for junior and aspiring profs, to see examples, etc. So here's the link: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2153844. At least for this series, please don't hesitate to link to examples.]

Posted by: Jeff Pojanowski | Apr 6, 2016 10:10:46 AM

Love this series!

FWIW, I was advised against it when I was just starting.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Apr 6, 2016 10:15:23 AM

To follow up on Matthew's comment and to clarify my post in light of Dave Hoffman's twitter response that "this is an easy call: no" (https://twitter.com/chris_j_walker/status/717701406170476544), I obviously agree that this is the general rule. But I raise the question because I still on occasion hear this advice from more senior law professors, and junior scholars still ask about whether it's good advice.

Posted by: Chris Walker | Apr 6, 2016 10:25:38 AM

I share Chris's skepticism about pre-tenure book reviews. In fact, I think the whole genre is becoming outmoded.

During my pre-tenure years (1984-1988), faculty editors at two peer-reviewed journals asked me to write book reviews. My faculty mentors made clear that a book review would not count as one of the two scholarly articles required for tenure--and they were right. I nonetheless wrote the reviews (while finishing my other scholarship), because I didn't want to say "no" to the editors at the peer-reviewed journals.

Writing the reviews did me no lasting harm, but I'm not sure it did me (or the world of scholarship) much good either. Among other things, it's hard to critique a senior scholar's work without a body of one's own work as a credential; I think both reviews were pleasant plugs that drew little attention.

Today, with so many symposia built around books or important papers, I think there's even less reason for a junior scholar to write a traditional book review. An online essay or a published comment as part of a structured symposium is much more likely to allow junior scholars to develop insights while interacting with others in their field.

My most important advice on this topic is for senior scholars: Do NOT ask junior scholars to write book reviews! If we want to preserve book reviews, they are much more appropriate for senior scholars to write. Those scholars can more easily place a book in context and offer any negative comments.

If junior scholars want to write book reviews, that's fine. But sometimes, I think, senior scholars press juniors to write these reviews in order to help a journal round out its volume or provide a favorable review for another colleague's book. It's hard for junior scholars to say "no," and there are much better opportunities that we can offer our junior colleagues.

Posted by: Deborah Merritt | Apr 6, 2016 10:40:16 AM

I did a review essay for the Michigan book-review issue (and also a few others, in Const.Comm and Green Bag) before tenure: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=758429 They were fun to write. That said, I was advised (correctly, I now appreciate) to be careful about such projects, and to be clear-eyed and informed about whether, or to what extent, the pieces "counted" toward tenure requirements. It seems to me that if a pre-tenure scholar is otherwise in good shape -- that is, making good progress toward meeting his or her school's requirements with papers that he or she has reasons to be believe will be well-reviewed -- then a book review could still be a rewarding project (as Jeff describes, above). But again, I'd urge pre-tenure folks to make sure such a piece isn't distracting from the "path to tenure."

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Apr 6, 2016 10:50:34 AM

Thanks for a thoughtful post, Chris. I tend to agree, and think a book review can be useful if it informs your other scholarship rather than distracting you from it. The HLR review allowed me to think more deeply about books that relate to my other scholarship. The format also gave Joan and me a chance to make larger arguments about the social processes underpinning our current criminal justice ails. While we "reviewed" the books in a traditional sense, we also used our discussion of them to engage with a few bigger trends in scholarship and policy. For me, this engagement was the most intellectually useful part.

Posted by: Kathryne Young | Apr 6, 2016 11:46:35 AM

My first published article after my student note was a book review of the then-new Eskridge/Frickey casebook on Legislation, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2718979 . It was very pre-tenure, in that I was not even on the market yet when I published it. The review was based on a series of memos I wrote as a law student for Jerry Mashaw when he was thinking of adopting the book. After I'd written a bunch of them he said to me, "You've written a book review. Publish it." It would never have occurred to me otherwise that you could publish a review of a casebook. But, as he understood, a lot of the work was at that point a sunk cost, so the extra needed to publish it was much less than starting from scratch.

Texas Law Review took it, and I thought it helped me get interviews and a job. Coincidentally, a student in a Legislation course (taught by a colleague who uses the most recent edition of the book) told me yesterday that he'd dug up the review online and found it helpful in studying for his final. It could be the first time I've ever heard that about an article.

PS. You don't ask whether writing reviews of books or articles on Jotwell, http://jotwell.com, is good for junior scholars. I hope that's because it so clearly is?

Posted by: Michael Froomkin | Apr 6, 2016 12:05:57 PM

As I was anticipating based on his prior post about book reviews, Paul Horwitz has responded with a thoughtful post entitled "Yes (With Caveats), Publishing a Book Review is Still a Worthwhile Endeavor for Untenured Law Professors." http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2016/04/yes-with-caveats-publishing-a-book-review-is-still-a-worthwhile-endeavor-for-untenured-law-professor.html

Just adding the link to the comments here, so that it tracks back on the FAQ thread.

Posted by: Chris Walker | Apr 6, 2016 2:30:09 PM

I think this is largely the same as what others have said but I would just say it more definitively: never as a substitute for an article. As an additional piece, fine but no one should expect a book review to play a meaningful role in a tenure file, particularly one that will have to be approved by a central administration.

Posted by: MLS | Apr 6, 2016 3:35:01 PM

What MLS said.

I think a lot of these "what should you do as a junior scholar" questions have to be answered by asking whether you're exclusively focused on getting tenure or you feel comfortable enough with your tenure prospects that you can experiment with other things. If you feel confident about tenure -- either because your school tenures pretty much everyone, or because you already have a few good articles under your belt -- you then have the luxury of thinking about other goals like developing a national reputation or having an impact outside your institution.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 6, 2016 10:26:14 PM

I agree with MLS and Orin, and I didn't intend these couple questions to be about whether book reviews, responses, etc., will count for tenure. Tenure is so institution-specific. These questions go more to whether these are worthwhile endeavors for a junior scholar to become a voice in one's field -- comparing the payoff between a book review, for instance, and another form of scholarship.

Posted by: Chris Walker | Apr 6, 2016 10:40:12 PM

Incidentally, I do agree that a book review is not a substitute for an article for tenure purposes. I didn't include my book reviews for tenure review purposes other than as part of my bibliography. Where the review is serious and not just short and descriptive, and/or appears somewhere "impressive," voting faculty may be more willing to treat it positively, as evidence of the range and depth of the candidate's work. But including it as one of the three or four(!) main pieces for review won't fly. And I hope I was clear that I don't *disdain* practical considerations. If you're struggling to get to the minimum number of pieces worthy of tenure, for instance, obviously you ought to focus on that first. I just wanted to push back against what I worry is a tendency for practical concerns to so dominate that we think in terms of two categories of scholar, untenured and tenured, instead of thinking in terms of scholarship and then asking what's a worthwhile endeavor for legal scholars, period, and about some of the practical advice being reified and treated by people as dominant normative conclusions about scholarship, rather than as rebuttable practical considerations secondary to the question what good scholarship should be or include.

Chris's comment directly above is useful and clarifying. I'd divide it in two: whether book reviews can be a worthwhile activity for a junior scholar seeking to become a voice in his or her field, and how the payoff between an article and a book review compares for those purposes (and not, say, tenure purposes). I think the first question can pretty confidently be answered "yes" under the right circumstances and for various reasons. A good engagement with a major author in one's field can at least draw the attention of the author (and I have some varied and interesting personal experiences with that). Readership of book reviews is, I think, lower than readership of articles, but major people in the field who are interested in that book are sufficiently well-read may pay attention to that review, in part because good reviews are shorter and sharper so there's less to skip over in reading it. A well-placed review may draw more attention just because of the placement, as well as carrying the (silly) signaling value that placement there has that this is a serious person in the field. And occasionally a review is so good or attention-getting that it draws greater attention and respect--I'm thinking of Tushnet's reviews in his first decade or so of writing--and the shorter length of the article allows for more serious reading of the piece, factoring in the lower readership (alas) for book reviews, than one might get for a full-dress piece with all the risks of people reading only the introduction and conclusion and maybe an operative substantive section. And then there's the more indirect possibility that developing a "voice" in one's field can extend to the value of learning to take different approaches and try different formats, and developing a picture of being an overall "serious" scholar with a body of work of different kinds and a history of active engagement in various ways: looking like the "compleat scholar," in short, rather than like a by-the-numbers toiler who's just doing what's required of him or her for tenure. (For the same reason, better that the articles show an interest in the field and/or a developing idea or methodology that appears across the various articles rather than being a set of one-offs.)

On the second question, subject to some caveats related to the points above, I certainly agree that as a general matter, the payoff from an article is bigger than from a book review.

Chris, you might also ask about book-writing itself: when an untenured prof is ready to engage in such an exercise, the obvious concerns about time management, what kinds of book-length projects contribute to reputation and which ones don't, and whether books are sufficiently unread by law faculty generally (alas) that such a publication might not get the person as far as a couple of articles, even if he or she has the time to do the book and still write his or her "three tenure-worthy pieces." This is an area where the sense of what's required to be a "serious" scholar, the extent to which scholars in a discipline read books or not, and the sense of where reputations are made, arguably is different between law and many other academic disciplines. These days, more entry-level faculty come in with a list of publications and some time in the academic trenches rather than entering from zero out of practices or clerkships. Thus, I think this is one area where not only a) the legal academic scholarly culture should change to pay greater attention to books, but b) changes in the means of production of legal scholars make such a change in norms more practicable that was once the case.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Apr 7, 2016 5:30:32 AM

I am pre-tenure, and wrote a book review essay, knowing full well it wouldn't substitute for a law review article for tenure purposes. I'm happy I did so. The book I reviewed was written by a senior scholar and was a broader take on a subject (criminal records) I had addressed more narrowly in a recent law review article (juvenile criminal and delinquency records). The format of the book review essay was liberating to me. I wasn't burdened by the requirements of the more extended law review form; instead, I got right to the point, and was able to say things that felt a bit beyond the bounds of my law review piece. It also allowed me to get more out of my law review article, especially with regard to linking and contrasting my scholarship to that of a leading senior scholar. And while Paul says that law review articles get read more widely (insert joke here about law professor definition of "widely read"), when I put the book review essay on ssrn, it got a decent bit of attention from various criminal law blogs and the Marshall Report, and currently has more downloads than my tenure file piece on Databasing Delinquency.

All in all, I found it worthwhile, especially in my development as a scholar.

Posted by: Kevin Lapp | Apr 7, 2016 1:22:09 PM

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