Law Review: A Survivor’s Guide

As most of you know, I attended law school at the University of Cincinnati.  It was a challenging, but fulfilling, three years.  Recently I’ve been reflecting on my experiences there, so this is the first of a series of posts about law school through my eyes.  I hope that even if you never attended law school, you’ll find them interesting.  

law reviewSome of my law review friends.

Law Review is the thing in law school that nobody wants to do, but everybody tries to do, because nobody will hire you unless you did it (more on that later).

Here’s how Law Review works, for those of you who never went to law school.  The Law Review itself is an academic journal operated by the law school.  As far as I’m aware, every law school in the country has a law review (I may be wrong, but I don’t feel like doing the research—I do too much of that already).  The law review is, as its name suggests, a review of contemporary legal thought.  This “legal thought” comes in two main forms: (1) “comments” or “notes,” written by students at the law school in law review, and (2) articles written by professors or practitioners across the country and submitted to the law review for publication.  The confluence of these two forms of “legal thought” represent what is, at least purportedly, the cutting edge of legal academic writing (and by “cutting,” I mean that most of America would prefer cutting their feet on shards of broken glass to reading the stuff).

Now, the “comments” or “notes” written by students are not actually “comments” or “notes” in the traditional understanding of those words.  Instead, they are massive, often-artificially-inflated academic pieces that usually run 25-30 pages with meticulous research and between 100 and 400 citations (which all must be in the dreaded “Blue Book” citation format; as a side note, all residents of hell, on day one, are handed a “Blue Book” and told to read it from cover to cover).   The articles submitted by practitioners and professors usually run even longer—sometimes up to 70 or 80 pages.

At my law school, every student in their first year of law review was required to write one note or comment per semester, and about half of those were eventually published in a subsequent issue.  Don’t ask me what the difference between a note and a comment is.  I think it has something to do with whether you are writing about a general area of law (a note), or commenting on a specific case (a comment), but I could be totally off, and I don’t care to research the distinction.  I’m not sure, to this day, why it mattered so much that we picked either a note or a comment. So, to sum it up, I wrote a note and/or a comment my first semester, and a note and/or a comment my second semester. Just so that’s clear.

You would think that researching and writing two colossal journal-level papers in an eight-month period, while still attempting to keep up with all of your work and reading in other law school courses (which might include such treats as “Secured Transactions,” “Appellate Practice & Procedure,” and “Payment Systems”) might be enough, but not a chance.  There is still something else that you have to do as a 2L on law review, and that thing is called “cite checking.”

Cite checking is, more or less, the process of making sure someone else’s submitted law review article has correctly cited every single source so that by the time it is published in our venerated law review, it is flawless .  This involves not only the process of making sure every single Blue Book citation is correct (down to missing commas and periods), but also the process of painstakingly analyzing every single footnote and primary/secondary source to make sure the author of the article is correctly using that source.  This becomes exceedingly difficult when, for example, an author decides to cite to a 339-page chunk of an obscure treatise on mortgage-backed securities in an article on the 2008 financial crisis. Not only must the (likely discontinued) treatise be tracked down (level of difficulty: very high), but the 339 pages must be scoured to determine if they actually say what the author thinks they do even though he probably did not read them.  Congrats—now you are done with one citation in one footnote (I’ve seen footnotes with as many as 15-20 citations apiece).  Only 299 more to go.  To top it all off, you must create an organized binder with a tab for every single footnote in the article you are assigned to, with printouts or copies of every single source that is mentioned.  Yes, all the trees must die.

So how does one get on law review?  “It’s so simple,” the law review committee at my school said to all of us, during the law review informational meeting second semester of 1L year (I may be paraphrasing a little). “All you have to do is participate in this neat little [10-15 page] writing competition [on a topic you’ve never heard about] after your first year of law school [which will be evaluated using a blind double- or triple-cross grading matrix to ensure that each student, although not graded by the same person or group of people, will somehow receive generally equitable treatment].  Then, we will simply assign an “average” of the different graders’ scores to your particular paper and dole out a [kind of arbitrary] rank [based, of course, on subjective criteria and graders’ entirely different understandings of what that criteria even means], which will basically [but not always] constitute half of your total candidate score (we’ll call that the “TCS” because we love acronyms and defined terms when things get complica… I mean, fun). Then, we will simply take your overall class rank for your 1L year [which, in turn, is determined by your score on a maximum of maybe eight subjective, high stakes tests over the past academic year, given—and subsequently graded—by vastly dissimilar, and sometimes baffling law professors], and that rank will be the other half of your TCS.  We will then meld the two halves of the TCS together [much like a thermonuclear reaction in which nuclei of light atoms join to form nuclei of heavier atoms] to come up with your final TCS score. Finally, when each of the individual TCS scores are compared with the other individual TCS scores [again, with no objective point of comparison], we will simply take the top 20 percent [or so—don’t hold us to that number] of the finalized scores and invite those people to join law review.  Notwithstanding the foregoing, we will automatically, more or less, invite the Top 10 ranked students from 1L year [God forbid they join moot court], regardless of their score on the first half of the TCS [the writing competition, in case you forgot].  Therefore, otherwise-capable candidates may be pushed out of the running because of a less-than-stellar overall TCS score when compared to the gods sitting atop the class rankings.  All in all, a pretty straightforward process.  Good luck!” the committee said.

And you have to admit, at least begrudgingly, that all that math is pretty good for a bunch of guys and gals who admittedly chose to attend law school because they were terrible at math.  Trust the process.

My TCS score was apparently high enough, and I was invited to join law review after my 1L year.  And you told me I wasn’t lucky enough to even at least try buying a lottery ticket this past week.

And then there’s the “prestige” factor of being chosen for law review.  As I mentioned in the beginning, I was told early on that I “had” to get on law review to even be considered by good firms after graduation.  This, of course, ended up being dreadful advice, and I wish instead I would have been told I “had” to personally know someone at the firm and have lunch with him or her 1,400 times over the course of one and a half years in order to be hired.  I would have been much better served.  Regardless, it is a mystery to me why employers continue to rank being on law review so highly on their list of “must-haves” for a candidate.  Certainly, the skills learned on law review can be learned while working for other journals—or even in a seminar-style class for that matter.  I can’t help but think that the favoritism for law review students is a throwback to the days when law schools had but one journal (the law review), and the most ambitious students truly did seek it out.  So maybe now it’s just a “check the box” thing, and maybe it’s not.  I don’t know.

This is not to say that law review did not have its advantages, or that I disliked my tenure on law review.  Indeed, some of my best friends from law school were on law review with me, so that made it very tolerable.  It also probably did give me a (justified or not) “leg up” in the eyes of employers.  The Law Review also had a nice office on the third floor of the law school with couches and snacks.  On more than one occasion, I took substantive naps in there—a distinct pleasure that was well worth every bit of cite checking, at least in my estimation.

Some of you out there are considering law school and will eventually, despite the extremely saturated legal market, decide to attend law school.  You will stick it out through your 1L year and do reasonably well in your classes.  You will then wonder, as your first year draws to a close, “Should I try to get on law review?”  You will then remember that you read this blog post about some guy’s experience on law review at an unknown law school in the Midwest.

And that thought will give you pause.

But you’ll try to join anyway.  You will buckle down, write your little heart out for the write-on competition, and probably get lucky just like I did and become an associate member. And it will be terrible, and you’ll wonder why you did it.

And then you’ll get a job someday, and you’ll miss your law school friends.  And you, against all odds, will look back on your law review experience fondly, as I do now.  And you’ll realize that maybe—just maybe—it was a good decision after all.

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