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US Courts Deliver Verdict on Law Reviews: They're Useless


What do Barack Obama, Ted Cruz, Eliot Spitzer and Antonin Scalia have in common? All were editors of the Harvard Law Review, the most prestigious law journal in the country and, clearly, the launchpad for a number of high-profile political careers. Yet despite the high profile of many of these journals, nobody involved in the process seems to think much of the product itself. A new piece in the NYT notes that lawyers, professors, and judges alike view the legal publishing system as embarrassingly broken, albeit for somewhat different reasons.

For law professors, the problem is that articles, which are generally written by professors, are edited by students who have little understanding of the subjects, creating journals that are often riddled with errors and sloppy thinking. The judges have a simpler, but more troubling complaint: most of the articles published are about absolutely useless. Tellingly, over 40 percent of articles have never been cited once, amounting to a vote of no confidence from the court system:

In the 1970s and 1980s, about half of all Supreme Court opinions cited at least one law review article, according to a study by Brent E. Newton last year in The Drexel Law Review. Since 2000, the rate is just 37 percent — even as Supreme Court opinions have grown longer and more elaborate.

The more liberal justices were more likely to cite academic work, and all of the justices showed a kind of aversion to the academic mainstream. Almost 40 percent of the cited articles in recent years were not by full-time law professors but by students, practicing lawyers and others outside the more elite parts of the academic establishment.

The leading Supreme Court advocates know that law review articles carry almost no weight with the justices. “Only a true naïf,” Seth P. Waxman, a former solicitor general said in 2002, “would blunder to mention one at oral argument.”

Today, it appears, law reviews are more useful as a credential for a future career in politics than for anything related to legal research.

[Law scales image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • ljgude

    yeah, how much did lawyers for the federales and JP Morgan get out of the multi billion ‘settlement’ for selling fraudulent securities. That is where a lot of the money is.

  • RobPG

    Barry Obammy was President of the Harvard Law Review, which means he contributed ZERO content. Otherwise, we would have some of his legal writings to peruse.

    • Doug

      Most members of the Harv. L. Rev. write a law review article during their 2L year. It is usually on the basis of that effort that editors are selected for the following year. Obama is unusual in not having written a student article – and it’s hard to imagine how the outgoing editorial board could have elected him to be the President for the following year when he had not written an article for publication.

  • Fat_Man

    Too many law schools, too many law profs, too many law students, too much tuition.

  • Corlyss

    If you go back over the landmark Law Review articles, i.e., those that have influenced courts to the extent that they created new public policy, you realize they were not only fatuous moralizing lectures from people whose brains had not matured and had no concept of the practical adult world. They were dangerous, because they influenced the most unaccountable branch of government.

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