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Tuesday, March 14, 2023

A Useful Opportunity for Golden-Rule Law Review Reform

There are two likely standard responses to a story in which law students demand pay for working on law review. The first is more or less reflexive support. ("At a time when lots of law schools are talking about diversity in legal academia, this is a concrete step that could go pretty far in making a material difference for those who don’t come from a privileged background.") The second is more or less reflexive ridicule. ("But rather than quit the law review, they want money because these are the days that law schools, law deans, acquiesce to the demands of students because they either can’t or won’t say no.") Let's bypass both of those and go for a somewhat sunny-sided Door Number Three.

It should be noted first that the NYU students who have launched the petition reported on above are actually demanding that "all contributors to the journals be able to choose whether to receive compensation in hourly wages or credit hours." One might reject the full demand but find it reasonable that students receive credit hours for law review work. I do. My law school offers one credit for law review work and two credits for work by a few top editors. Other law schools offer variations on this credit-granting approach. When last I wrote here about law reviews, I wrote in the assumption that this was common but discovered in correspondence that it might not be as prevalent as I had assumed. The person who wrote me indicated his school was looking to add credit hours for law review work, so perhaps it is becoming more common--or perhaps the demand is becoming more common, or both. In any event, it hardly seems crazy to me. 

But for schools who don't offer credits, or who contemplate seriously the possibility of offering pay, perhaps we should think of this as an opportunity. Seeking official compensation of either sort is also a recognition of official authority. And it's an excellent opportunity for law schools to provide the kinds of conditions that a) might naturally accompany both authority and compensation and b) make sense regardless. For instance:

1: It seems appropriate, if law students are going to be offered credits or financial compensation for this work, that all students be eligible for it. This would be an excellent opportunity to insist that if such a plan is to move forward, any student who wishes to serve on law review--on any law review, including the flagship journal--be allowed to do so. This makes sense because it makes little or no sense to restrict admission to law review in the first place. What Above the Law (and just about everyone else) refers to as "grunt work" does not require an unusual amount of talent. Top editorship might, and it certainly requires an unusual level of commitment of time and effort. But I am unaware of any empirical work showing that top first-year grades correlate with excellent work as an editor. In any event, the skills required for that editorial work are not involved in the general work that occurs at the wide end of the funnel.

The only cost to the journals or the students of general admission would be the possible, and perhaps over time inevitable, loss in prestige. But the prestige that attaches to working on a law review is both silly and artifactual. It is prestigious not because of the thing in itself, but because admission to law review is restricted, and admission thus serves potential employers as a proxy for academic achievement. That proxy is unnecessary, since employers can look directly at grades. In countries with sensible law review practices, working on a student-run law review, where they exist alongside faculty-run journals, carries no unusual level of prestige--certainly not higher than clinical work, mooting, or other extracurricular activities--because it is not a proxy for grades. The people who work on either sort of journal do so because they want to work on a law journal.  

In the absence of prestige, fewer students might opt to serve on a law journal at all, instead of doing some other activity. But that's a feature, not a bug. Not all students are interested in or have a vocation for scholarly editing (or editing of any kind); more of them might do something else for which they're more suited or which would provide better and more relevant professional training; some of those alternative activities might be more socially beneficial, such that both they and everyone else would be better off if more students did those activities instead; and a reduction in staff might lead to a winnowing of functions and a focus on core editing rather than citation busywork. Finally, if the concern is with diversity, allowing anyone who wishes to do so to work on law review--albeit with a relative loss in prestige--would achieve that aim far more fully than tinkering around the edges with law review admissions, in ways that seem almost calculated to change the composition of the editorial staff on the margins while maintaining a cashable system of prestige and elitism.

2: It would also be appropriate for law schools to insist, in exchange for the pay and/or credit, that part of the redesign involve faculty editorship of law reviews and a properly instituted system of genuine peer review. Under this modest reform, law students working on a law journal would become what they are elsewhere in the world and are supposed to be: editorial assistants, serving the professional faculty who exercise the ethically indefeasible disciplinary function of running and editing their field's academic journals. Such a reform would marry nicely with the demand for financial compensation. I was not paid for my work as an editor of the student-run law journal at the University of Toronto's law school, but I was most certainly paid for my work as an editorial assistant on the faculty-edited Canadian Business Law Journal, just as I was paid when I worked as a research assistant to an individual professor. 

3: I think number two should be non-negotiable. But at a minimum, if law schools are to hand out credit, with grades (likely pass/fail, but grades nonetheless) and/or pay for work on a school's law journal, I think it is entirely appropriate that those schools exercise their authority to insist that those journals meet high professional standards. After all, law schools already insist that credit come only for meaningful achievement in academically sound law school courses. And when law schools outsource that teaching function, with things like externships, the schools and the ABA insist that those activities be scrutinized to make sure they are meeting high standards.

Among other things, this would entail that those journals not pursue idiosyncratic or political editorial projects or policies that the faculty consider to be inconsistent with the general professional standards and duties of an academic journal; that they welcome excellent articles (and only excellent articles) on all subjects within the discipline and representing all viewpoints; that symposium issues represent a full range of scholarly views on the subject; that they reject funding from special interests of any kind for symposia or other projects; that they institute at least some form of peer review, including review by academics in other disciplines when an article draws on that other discipline; that their articles acquisitions be subject to some level of transparency and faculty approval or ratification; that any substantive edits insisted on for articles meet scholarly standards and serve only scholarly purposes, that mere gamesmanship in articles acquisition be eliminated; and so on.

As it turns out, I think law schools should insist on all of this anyway. I'm currently writing a jot on Tarunabh Khaitan's fine article on scholactivism in constitutional studies. In working through the issue, Khaitan posits an author who, because she is seeking to influence policy on a short-fuse issue, departs from what he considers basic scholarly standards by, inter alia, submitting an article on the topic "to a non-peer-reviewed student-run law review known for its quick publishing decisions." It is a mark either of Khaitan's parochialism or of our own insanity that his example of a departure from what he considers a baseline marker of academic soundness is, in this country, just standard practice. Law schools should insist on and impose all of these things because they assert that they are an academic enterprise and that their faculty are scholars--and they should act like it. The professional duty to do so is, again, indefeasible. It is revolting to maintain the current system, laughable in the eyes of any other discipline, for no better reason than that that's how they did things when Henry IV, or the faculty, or some donor/alumnus, were law students. Regardless, if law schools are going to award credit or offer financial compensation, this is a particularly good occasion to insist on these changes. (I note that schools that already allow credit for law review don't necessarily insist on any of these things. They should.) None of this, incidentally, entails a belief that peer review is perfect; only that it is the professional norm for academic disciplines (including law, anywhere else in the world) and that it makes far more sense than what we have at present.   

I don't see anything in any of my suggestions which is inconsistent with the student demands for pay or credit for working on a law journal. Indeed, insisting that any willing student be eligible to serve on the main law review is not only consistent with the students' demands but more in the spirit of their demands than the demand itself. I see only three counter-arguments. The first is that it would involve more work by the faculty, but this is work we're supposed to be doing in the first place and that harder-working faculty in lower-paid disciplines do already. The second is that it would involve a loss in prestige and independence for these journals. But neither of those things is justifiable from a disciplinary standpoint, the prestige is a pure artifact that is not worth preserving in itself, and, to put things in modern lingo, making it clear that there is a potential tradeoff between compensation and prestige would merely unmask the power and status relations that are already implicated by the United States' unique and bizarre law review system as it currently exists, with or without pay or credit. The third is that it would involve the assertion of authority by law schools over law students, insofar as the schools would be insisting that credit or compensation be accompanied by the kinds of reforms that would make our disciplinary journals look like those of every other academic discipline. But that authority is already there. It's present every time a law school does something like give or deny credit for coursework. And it's implicit in the students' own demands. Im short, instead of greeting this story with reflexive support or reflexive ridicule, we should see it as an opportunity to do the kinds of things we ought to be doing in the first place. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 14, 2023 at 12:48 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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