Law Reviews and Prestige Whoring

Having written an article on represents and warrants, I had to find a home for it. That caused me to consider again the whole business of submitting articles to journals run by law-school students. It also caused me to consider the significance attributed to publishing in law reviews.

A Prestige-Driven System

Academics have long groused about law reviews. As far back as 1936, Fred Rodell complained here about the style and content of law reviews. What’s on my mind instead is how the system is run.

There are umpteen dozen law reviews. Submitting to law reviews isn’t like submitting to any other kind of journal. Because they’re student run, new personnel cycle through every year, so law reviews can never establish character or reputation. Instead, they simply assume the reputation of their school. Nowadays, that essentially means the reputation applied to schools by another dubious institution, the U.S. News rankings. So prestige prevails.

If you exclude law reviews from top-ranked schools, which are reserved for the heavyweights of law-school academia, and if you exclude law reviews from the cellar-dwelling law schools, you’re left with a slew of indistinguishable law reviews. It follows that the system is conducive to—as one professor describes it here—“massively multiple submissions.”

And because students decide what gets published, you can expect their decisions to be driven not by a nuanced understanding of topics addressed in articles sent their way. Instead, they’re likely to be influenced by who the author is. That can boil down to which school they’re affiliated with. Again, prestige prevails.

Drinking Their Own Kool-Aid

Late last year I had drinks with someone who teaches contract drafting at one of the top-ranked law schools. I was mildly surprised to learn that this person had never read a single thing I’d written, let alone MSCD. I can’t say it gave me a lot of confidence in what this person teaches.

This person then went on to wonder, with marked disdain, why I’d published articles in various squalid little journals. This person singled out my book-review essay in “Transactions: Tennessee Journal of Business Law.”

That merely served as a vivid reminder that not only are submissions and student-editor decisions driven by school prestige, so too is the reaction of those cloistered in law schools. Forget about the value of the work itself—all that matters is the imprimatur of one of the top-ranked schools. Never mind that such a blinkered outlook gives you an impoverished understanding of your subject.

An Escape Hatch

In a halfhearted way, I submitted my represents and warrants article to a scant thirteen law reviews. I used Scholastica—a system that makes it easy to submit, as $5 a pop, to those law reviews that use Scholastica. I chose those thirteen randomly from across the spectrum. There was nothing to distinguish them from others I could have chosen. I had no interest in joining those submitting to dozens of journals.

And I had no expectation of getting anywhere, given how clogged the system is, given that the selection cycle started in last fall, and given that my article is resolutely practical. So a couple of weeks after having submitted my article through Scholastica, I decided to submit it to Transactions, the journal my drinks partner sneered at. Given the good fit between the journal and the article, I expected that they would accept it quickly, and they did.

I’m pleased that they’re publishing it. Specialization helps journals escape the blandness of general law reviews, and I’m happy to support a journal that specializes in articles relating to doing deals.

But more practically, publishing in Transactions gives me all I need. Articles in Transactions are included in Lexis and Westlaw, so my article will be available to anyone who does a related search. I don’t need to borrow someone else’s prestige—I’m reasonably well-known among those who are interested in contracts. And among anyone other than law-school zealots, what determines the quality of an article is what it has to say.

Furthermore, my articles are simply a means to an end—they serve as a first draft of how I treat a topic in MSCD. My livelihood doesn’t depend on the extent to which my publications satisfy someone’s notions of prestige.

If against all odds a law review from one the top-ranked schools had accepted my article, I might well have elected to have them publish it. Hey, I’m human—I don’t like having jerks sneer at my work. But that was never going to happen. And I’d pick publishing in Transactions any day over publishing in some drearily anonymous middle-of-the-pack law review. I’m aware that the law-school establishment won’t shed a tear, but I expect that in future I’ll simplify my life by submitting my longer articles to Transactions first.

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.

6 thoughts on “Law Reviews and Prestige Whoring”

  1. In the unlikely event you wanted to publish in Legal Studies, the journal of the UK’s Society of Legal Scholars, your contribution might have been judged on the following:

    “The editors are keen to encourage articles which:
    – Analyse the history, development and contemporary
    status of law with particular reference to doctrinal,
    conceptual, theoretical, comparative or socio-legal
    analyses such that they are of interest to a general
    legal readership international.
    – Place current legal developments in historical
    and theoretical perspectives.
    – Analyse contributions to the study of law in
    the fields of jurisprudence, legal history, and
    international and comparative law.”


    • I checked and it really does say ‘such that they are of interest to a general legal readership international’.

  2. Thanks to this post, Transactions: Tennessee Journal of Business Law now has at least one more reader!

  3. My best friend is an economics professor; his wife, political science. When they learned what passes for legal scholarship and how journals are run, they were aghast. You don’t need peer review when you’re just thinking up new causes of action (my derisive and reductionist view of law review articles written by law professors). Yes, there are exceptions, but not enough.

    Law reviews exist to serve law professors, who can impress each other by impressing students. Students, who siphon off some prestige through their work, have little basis for even contemplating what good legal scholarship might look like, other than counting footnotes per page. I know I didn’t when I was one year in at law school.

    The academic “rigor” of law professors makes the social science people laugh and would give the natural sciences folks heart palpitations if they ever cared to know. Conveniently, they all lump law into “humanitiies,” not knowing that it’s a disservice to Shakespeare scholars everywhere.

    So publish where you will, and practitioners, students, and maybe some professors will slowly figure out that they should at least know what you’re saying and why before they return comfortably into passive drafting mode.


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