Does Anyone Still Review Law Books?

I have yet to write a review of a book on contract drafting, and I don’t expect I ever will. Any such review would inevitably be less than a full-throated endorsement. If the author is a friend, they would be disappointed; if the author isn’t a friend, they would likely be more than disappointed; and readers of the review might suspect that I was interested in denigrating the competition.

But it seems that I’m not the only one not writing reviews of legal texts, as opposed to reviews of general-interest or policy-based books about the law. No journal or blog reviewed the second edition of MSCD. And it has been years since I encountered in passing a review of any law book that I would be inclined to consult regularly. Of the few book reviews I do encounter, a large proportion are of the superficial “this is a useful contribution to the literature” variety.

As an objective test, I did an online search for recent book reviews in one likely outlet, the New York Law Journal. It yielded slim pickings.

There are of course Amazon reviews, but they hardly take up the slack.

A serious review written by someone knowledgeable in the field can be valuable. Relying on a legal text is necessarily a leap of faith, and most readers aren’t going to be in a good position to make an informed decision as to which voice they should heed in the clamorous marketplace of ideas. An informed review can reduce the amount of faith required of a reader.

So I think there would be a place for an online review of law books. It would be overseen by an energetic volunteer editor, and the reviews would be written by lawyers at law firms, company law departments, and law schools. Maybe two or three lawyers could write separate reviews of a given text, if it were significant enough.

I’m aware that dwindling reader interest and evaporating advertising revenues have killed off almost all book-review sections in newspapers. But that trend needn’t apply to a review of legal texts: Nothing constrains a general-interest reader from casting aside a novel in favor of television, social media, or browsing at the vast online buffet, but lawyers will always need legal texts, whether in print or online.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

5 thoughts on “Does Anyone Still Review Law Books?”

  1. I was confused by this post. There is a online place for reviewing legal books. It's called the blogosphere, where blog authors share their opinions with their audiences about good or bad books. I've reviewed a couple of books on my blog when I felt I could help my audience. Amazon is a perfectly fine review venue too, so I think you are too quick to dismiss it.

    I think your real unstated lament is that folks with the requisite domain expertise don't take the time to review legal books. A new venue for reviewing legal books wouldn't solve that problem unless it simultaneously provided adequate incentives (monetary or non-monetary, it doesn't matter) to busy experts with high opportunity costs to share their expertise.

    In any case, I encourage you to reconsider your stance about reviewing other contract drafting books. You are a domain expert in that area, so your expertise would be valuable to book buyers (so long as you resist the temptation to treat your book as the only worthwhile contribution to the discourse). You can lead by example. Show us how it's done. In contrast, if you aren't willing to overcome the disincentives to review books in your area of expertise, why would you expect others to overcome those same disincentives?


    • Eric: Yes, my main point is that it's rare to see in-depth reviews of the less-glamorous texts.

      And thank you for pointing out the paradox in my bemoaning the lack of such reviews while declining to write any myself. I've tried to resolve that in my own mind by thinking that I could review books in related fields. But the more principled thing to do would be to just go ahead and review books on contract drafting in as measured and dispassionate a manner as possible. My experience suggests that that can create bad blood: the marketplace of ideas isn't for the squeamish.


  2. Ken,

    There is no doubt, as Eric points out, that the blogosphere, online retailers, and possibly some publishers' websites are places to find reviews. They can also be found in law reviews, local and state bar journals, section reports, and so on. But none of this data is finding the customers is it? To discover it, I have to look for it. To look for it, I have to know something about what I'm looking for. If my interests are general, then do I even know enough to know what I should be looking for?

    I read the NYT book review section because I don't know what I'm looking for, but I'll know it when I see it. I believe a dedicated portal for reviewing law books (pBooks and eBooks) could provide a similar service for busy practitioners.

    I'll say this about book reviews by those whom I know to be knowledgeable about the subject matter. It doesn't take many words from them to convince me to either buy or pass on a title.

  3. Ken, my UK experience is a little different. I regularly review law books (in the Journal of Intellectual Property Law and Practice), and all of my books have been reviewed in legal journals and elsewhere (eg in the US-based Les Nouvelles, the journal of the Licensing Executives Society); some have received several reviews. A few thoughts, though:

    1. My understanding is that journals rarely want to review a second edition – this may be the reason why MSCD didn't get reviewed this time around.
    2. As others have suggested, it is a labour of love to write the reviews, as the only benefit is a free copy of the book. In an industry where time is money, this is not much of an inducement.
    3. It is also a labour of love to write the book. Your print runs may be higher in the larger US/Canadian market, but most of my books are lucky to achieve the low thousands in sales. For this reason, I think reviews should avoid being hurtful, which doesn't mean they can't be truthful and point the buyer in the right direction.

  4. Twenty years ago quite a few periodicals were devoted to relatively brief law-book reviews, including R.R.Bowler's Legal Publishing Preview, Glanville's Law Books in Review, Rothman's Bimonthly Reviw of Law Books, and Alert Publication's Legal Information Alert. I made a hobby (and built up a decent library) writing reviews for all of them. I think the internet killed them off. It's a shame.


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