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Thursday, February 05, 2004

Student law review editors

A post by blawger Scheherazade entitled "Why Law Review Is A Waste Of Time" prompted a number of responses on her own blawg and elsewhere, many of which she's thoughtfully linked. UCLA Law Professor Stephen Bainbridge in turn quotes from one of those responses, from blawger Evan Schaeffer:

So to answer Sherry's question, what was valuable about the experience? Once you got over the initial cite-checking hurdle, all of the third year editorial staff, from the editor-in-chief on down, learned skills like these: how to manage large projects to completion, how to take a small budget and use it to accomplish large things, how to manage a distracted staff, each working on a little piece of a giant puzzle. These lessons were in addition to all the good that came from learning about editing and fact-checking (skills often learned the hard way, since even some of the best stuff we accepted for publication had to be substantially rewritten. The authors of the articles, by the way, gladly accepted this "student editing").

In the dissenting voice of someone who has dealt with one too many young whippersnappers, however, Prof. Bainbridge allows:

I was nodding in agreement until I hit the parenthetical. Early in my career, I had law review editors try rewriting my articles. They never improved the article; to the contrary, they often introduced serious errors of substance or grammar. The higher the law review was ranked, the more serious the problem seemed to be. Once I got tenure, and getting published in a hurry was no longer at issue, I began putting a clause in the publication agreement giving me the right to pull the article from the journal if I disagreed with the editors. I've never had to use it, but I have had to threaten doing it a couple of times.

My own history as a member and editor of the Texas Law Review more than two decades ago puts me firmly into Schaeffer's camp regarding the pros and cons of law review service. The year I spent as an editor did more to improve my own writing, legal and nonlegal, than anything before or since (although my immediate post-graduate experience as a law clerk for a Fifth Circuit judge would run a close second). In particular, going through the editing process on my own law review note, and then spending a year as an editor myself, taught me how much anyone's writing can be improved by a fresh set of critical eyes — something that, unfortunately, my blogging gets only after it's published, if then.

But I certainly can appreciate and sympathize with Prof. Bainbridge's aggravation. And our unwritten, unacknowledged editorial policies back then on the TLR dove-tailed with the personal experience he reports from an author's perspective: How aggressively we student editors wielded our colored pencils (in those pre-PC, typewriter-dependent days) had quite a bit to do with whether we were editing manuscript from a student writer, a junior law faculty member, or an acknowledged superstar of the celestial legal-academic firmament. We were keenly aware with whom we had leverage — and the leverage was (a) inversely proportional to how badly we wanted that author's work in our journal and (b) directly proportional to how badly that author needed to be published by us.

I was our journal's book review editor. Our strategy at Texas was to make copious use of contacts and recommendations from our own faculty members — combined with heavy flattery and a light editorial pencil (both my job) — in soliciting book review projects from famous law professors who could get their articles published in the half-dozen or so most prestigious law reviews, and who therefore wouldn't usually submit those articles to us. Our journal's national reputation was sufficient that publishing with us was not beneath the dignity of those heavy hitters; and even the meaty, substantive book reviews we sought were easier to write than a stand-alone article.

"Dear Prof. A___," I'd write. "I was just discussing with Professor B___ of our faculty (who sends his regards to you)" — shameless namedropping, always with the permission of Prof. B___ — "the new book just published by Prof. C___," who would always be another big-name heavy-hitter. "Prof. B___ speculated that you, Professor A__ — in particular out of all the law faculty in America — would likely have an interesting, even compelling, reaction to Prof. C__'s work! Using Prof. C___'s book as a springboard for your own thoughts, would you consider writing a book review for the Texas Law Review?" We'd explicitly promise light editing and quick publication as additional bonuses. The strategy worked pretty well for us.

Prof. Charles Alan WrightProf. Bainbridge's lament, though, particularly brought to mind a book review written by our campus' resident superstar, the late and truly great Prof. Charles Alan Wright, that I had the privilege of editing. All of my lawyer readers will recognize Prof. Wright as the senior co-author of the definitive multi-volume treatise on federal practice and procedure, along with leading handbooks on the federal courts and on constitutional law, and one of the last century's most distinguished professors, scholars, and appellate lawyers — a true statesman and genius of the law.

The subject book was about the history of the Supreme Court. Fortunately and unsurprisingly, the raw manuscript that Prof. Wright submitted needed only the lightest of editing anyway. But I remember being a bit surprised that in one place, Prof. Wright had referred to a particular nineteenth century Chief Justice as "Chief Justice of the Supreme Court."

"Aha!" I thought to myself very proudly, "I happen to know that unlike the Associate Justices, who may properly be called 'Associate Justices of the Supreme Court,' the Chief Justice has a unique title recognizing his position as not only the head of that Court, but of the entire federal judiciary — 'Chief Justice of the United States.'" So I duly penciled in that change on the manuscript before sending it back to Prof. Wright for his review.

We went over all of my proposed changes in his office one afternoon, and he was very gracious about accepting all my suggestions — except this one. I explained my rationale, trying very hard not to look smug — at which point Prof. Wright peered at me over the top of his reading glasses, paused, and then said: "Mr. Dyer, I ask you simply to trust me on this one, for the afternoon grows late and I have other places I need to be soon." I gulped and relented immediately, changing the reference back to "Chief Justice of the Supreme Court." (Even a third-year law student should know when to stop tugging on Superman's cape.) And when my co-editors raised the same point, I shrugged and told them that I'd gone over it with him, that he'd rejected my suggestion, and — well, that he was Charles Alan Wright, and if he wanted it that way, we'd best not press the issue further.

A few weeks after Prof. Wright's book review was published, he sent me a copy of a letter he'd received from a young law professor at another school. The letter was extremely polite and complimented Prof. Wright on the book review he'd written, but said, "I believe I've caught Homer nodding," and then went through an explanation of the same distinction that I had tried to raise.

But Prof. Wright had also sent me a copy of his reply to this professor, which he'd begun by thanking the young man for his interest. "A student editor," he wrote, "had made the same observation before the book review's publication." Then — no doubt drawing solely from his prodigious and legendary memory — Prof. Wright's letter proceeded to track all of the various versions of the United States Judiciary Act enacted from 1789 to the present, complete with detailed citations, as he explained that the statutory language authorizing the position of "Chief Justice" had been changed for a brief period in the nineteenth century during which the official title was, indeed, "Chief Justice of the Supreme Court," rather than "Chief Justice of the United States." The individual referenced in Prof. Wright's book review had, of course, been Chief Justice during that period. Prof. Wright politely closed with, "Please be so kind as to let me know immediately if you ever again believe that you have caught me in an error regarding the Supreme Court and its Justices."

So to Prof. Bainbridge's implied charge that student law review editors can be impertinent young whippersnappers who sometimes screw up what they're trying to fix, I must confess my own guilt. To this good day, I am profoundly grateful that Prof. Wright spared me the withering embarrassment that must have been felt by the young law professor who'd written to point out Prof. Wright's "error."

Posted by Beldar at 07:22 PM in Humor, Law (2006 & earlier), Trial Lawyer War Stories | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Student law review editors and sent a trackback ping are listed here:

» Law review editors from ProfessorBainbridge.com

Tracked on Feb 6, 2004 12:37:13 AM


(1) Taint made the following comment | Feb 15, 2004 6:11:34 AM | Permalink

I guess I will give you my comments here.

I wasn’t on law review, however, since graduating I have had six articles published in real law reviews. (I don’t write for bar journals and stuff.) From where I sit, law schools don’t encourage kids to publish. It isn’t THAT hard to write something of substantive quality that will be of use to lawyers and judges. All you need is a novel topic, Westlaw, Heinonline, and a pretty good thesis. You don’t need THAT good a thesis, because most law review articles are not read by people who are looking for amazingly innovative works: they are read by people who want to understand the law as it stands, and maybe a few “substantive canons” of construction.

The problem is that law reviews have taken on a life of their own. Many people are on them (sometimes because they cheated as 1Ls) and don’t publish. Sometimes they CAN’T publish. Usually they just putz around.

But, that said, people think that law review is important and such. Whatever.

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