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Wednesday, August 01, 2012


The first of August!  My 2L classmates and I are wrapping up our summer jobs, beginning warily to eye our fall course / externship / clinic schedules, and -- in my case, anyway -- helping to get chlorine out of three daughters' hair and tuck them in.

And, mirabile dictu! The first of August:  Law professors all over the country are beginning to e-mail me in increasing numbers.  They want my attention.  They deserve more of it than they will, on average, get.  -- But my crackerjack colleagues and I are going to do our best.

I am the Submissions Editor of the Cleveland State Law Review (among other things).  I hope this month to offer some perspective as a student and student-editor, with occasional reference to the professional worlds I have known and more than half an eye on the profession I am seeking to join.  In addition I have a number of thoughts about proceduralism, institutional identities, and the historic legal event of the summer, the power of which we are only beginning to appreciate.  I thank Dan for inviting me to the special occasion that is every day on PrawfsBlawg.

This is the proper place for me to say that the job of Submissions Editor fills me with humility.  But in fact, for all of us, receiving cover letters and c.v.'s from highly accomplished people seeking our approval has a sadly predictable opposite effect.  We read critically, especially at first:  noting to each other before anything else sections that can be profitably cut, and particular footnotes that seem just a tad scanty.  -- But with your help, we do become readers; and with your help, perhaps more than anyone else in the profession, we learn from your work.

I am not sure how much it occurs to you that we editors (we callow self-credentializers who, through various wretched historical accidents in the development of legal academia, are perennially granted inordinate power over your career opportunities) -- we editors, I say, even as we seem to hold your work hostage, are a captive audience.  We read what you write.  And we are grateful for it.

So let me start on that note -- gratitude for the intellectual generosity manifested in the manuscripts we are receiving by the half-dozen.  

And let me begin with the first thing I've noticed:  cover letters are a tremendous, and often squandered, opportunity to win us over.  Much as we care about thorough scholarship, lucid explanation, and practical significance, we are also, like everyone else, apt to slip into motivated reasoning.  And decisions get made subconsciously perhaps before they are made consciously.  So first impressions matter a lot.

I suggest that you relax us with your cover letters.  Write cover letters for the human reader.  That first sentence should showcase a little personality, and tell us about the article in casual terms.  For example (and I'll use my student Note as an example all month):

"The attached article makes an implicit prediction:  In the near future, the Supreme Court will issue an opinion that says to lower courts, in effect --  'Iqbal, Iqbal, Iqbal.  Give it a rest already, now and then, would you?' "

The following sentences then would need to make crystal-clear why such a prediction is, unflippantly, justified (spoiler:  it's all about jurisdictionality).

No student will be troubled by the casual nature of that sentence, as long as the heft is elsewhere in the submission to back it up.

There is, in a word, no reason that the staid, methodical writing voice that gives your article scholarly credibility should also constitute your self-introduction.  In the cover letter you are speaking to students, not the judge who might eventually be persuaded by your doctrinal advocacy once the article propagates through Westlaw.  We students want to like and trust you before and as we learn from you.  (And I suspect the judge does too, although she is trained not to need that factor.  Even so, it matters, for everyone:  surely his style is a big part of the reason everyone defers to Judge Posner so much.)

Allow me to add, before signing off for day one, that this advice is not meant to be easy to follow.  There is nothing harder to achieve than effectively casual writing.  I believe, in fact, that I spent longer just now on that sample cover-letter sentence than on any single sentence in the main body of my student Note.  And yet I am not sure that it works.  I should probably sleep on it, and before sending in such a cover letter I would probably scrap and rewrite such a sentence several times.

But this is a blog, and as such ephemera.  A blog post is fleeting (isn't it, Dan? I have professional constituencies to be aware of).   It's all right if it's disorganized, and essayistically repeats itself...

To recap:  The cover letter seeks a certain emotional, not cognitive, effect.  Cover letters do not embody the article, but they create the context in which it is read.   

I suggest that formal epistolary disquisitions, like painstaking persuasive briefs, have their place; but the cover letter is much more like voir dire.  If the jury doesn't like you, personally, after voir dire, you've wasted a golden opportunity, and no amount of motion practice can make up for it.

Please take this item as an invitation to post the best introductory sentences with which you, or someone you know, has introduced a piece of scholarly writing from the outside.  The poets call such a text an envoi:  an accompanying ambassador, not the monarch herself.  It is personable, not stately; it does no work of its own; yet it makes possible the encounters of state.  

Examples please!


Update:  Having slept on it, I now think a better first opening for my Note cover letter would be

"However imperfectly we understand the case, law students and attorneys generally agree that Iqbal now sets the standard for a motion to dismiss a federal lawsuit.  In one important respect, this consensus is wrong."

Posted by Jim von der Heydt on August 1, 2012 at 11:15 PM in Law Review Review, Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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As a law student, I also have the same of kind of life. I have become worried about me and want to have some fun! But I can't. A lot of pressure, exams, tutorials have surrounded my area!

Posted by: sleep sounds | Aug 17, 2012 2:30:04 PM

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