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Law School Ethics and the Law Review Experience

published February 13, 2013

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Not long after you begin classes, you will hear rumors about an institution within your school called the law review.

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A law review is a scholarly journal published for lawyers, judges, and professors. From the perspective of their impact on and development of the profession, law review articles can be invaluable. The finest legal scholars in the country vie for space to explain why various aspects of the law should be changed, to expose injustices in the legal system, to improve the efficiency of legal administration, or to expound on legal philosophy and history. Admittedly, the articles sometimes so border on esoteric scholasticism as to make them too removed from daily practice to be helpful to most attorneys. And some articles are written not from any conviction that a legal wrong ought to be made right, but from the practical desire to publish for the prestige of it.

Yet law reviews can perform vital functions. For instance, there now exists, a cause of action called “invasion of privacy.” This claim did not exist as anything other than a bastard branch of the law of slander and libel until a law review article by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis suggested that privacy be treated as a right worthy of protection by the law of torts. Courts and legislatures listened, and the tort of invasion of privacy was born.

If you follow the study techniques outlined in this article, you will find cheating completely unnecessary. If you do the work throughout the year, complete your outline, and never again pick it up, you will be able to get a passing grade in the course. If you can spare just one or two hours for a concentrated reading of your outline, you will very likely do better than those students who spend the entire week cramming from their class notes and canned briefs.

Professors, practitioners, and students all contribute articles to the law review. It is published solely by students, however, under the guidance of a professor-adviser, whose role is usually fairly small. A typical law review, or law journal, as it is sometimes called, is published four to six times during the academic year.

Although titles of the staff and organizational structure vary from school to school, there is usually a board of editors, overseen by an editor in chief. These dedicated souls are virtually full-time employees (and sometimes more than full-time). Often the demands on their time are so great they’re unable to attend classes for much of the semester.

Below the editorial board may be assistant or associate editors, and beneath them are the members or staff of the law review. On some journals, students are provisionally admitted to the staff, but cannot become members until they publish an article and satisfactorily complete other assignments. On other reviews, once accepted, students are members whether or not they publish.

Acceptance is based on academic performance. Usually those in the top 5 percent to 10 percent of the first-year class are extended an invitation to join. In some schools, a writing contest allows those with grades not in the requisite category for invitations to be chosen for law review by virtue of their writing ability.

The function of the staff is twofold. They must write a publishable article, and they must “citecheck” or “footnote” the forthcoming articles of other students, professors, and practitioners.

Citechecking can be likened to the task of Sisyphus, the guy whose fate was to roll a rock to the top of the hill only to have it roll down again, repeating the process for all eternity. Not that citechecking is futile; you will be providing a very valuable service to the editor and authors. But it is as frustrating as can be.

This is largely because a law review article is like a massive term paper. Each premise must be supported by at least one source. The footnote will present a citation supporting the statement in the text in the very stylized form of the Uniform System of Citation. Footnotes will often include discussions that are tangential to the main text and that, therefore, should not appear in the body of the article itself.

Citecheckers have three jobs. First, they must check the sense and grammar of both the text and the footnotes. Second, they must check the legal content of the citations, which means reading the pages of the source cited in the article and verifying that it stands for the proposition for which it has been cited. Finally, citecheckers verify that the form of the text and the footnotes comport with the Uniform System of Citation.

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Citechecking is what makes the concepts of the law review and free time mutually exclusive. Depending on the school and the size of the issue, citechecking may occupy up to 40 hours per week. If your school is humane, you may get academic credit for your sweat and tears.

The other task of each staffer or member on the law review is to write an article. Much of what was said about writing a paper applies to writing a law review article. There is little point in discussing the technique and style of writing for such a publication here, however, because the moment your topic is approved, you will be under the tutelage of an editor, who will guide you every step of the way.

While citechecking might be likened to a full-time job, writing an article might be compared to a full-time job plus moonlighting, at least during the formal editing process when you’re preparing the article for actual publication, as opposed to the somewhat more informal research portion of the project earlier in the game. The sheer requirements of time and effort on your part mean that something will have to give. Most law reviews will relax the citechecking duty during the article- editing process. Students often miss classes during the writing period.

If you do make the law review, remember that it is essentially an extracurricular activity. It cannot be a substitute for an ongoing legal study process. If you don’t make it, the absence of your name from the masthead will neither affect nor reflect upon your ability to be a superb law practitioner.

Working on a review or journal also provides some introduction to the discipline that attorneys must develop. Whether you proofread or edit others’ articles or write your own, you will have to be absolutely accurate. That’s the way it is in practice—no typos, no overruled cases, no misspelled words, no errors at all.

Finally, it’s a fact of life that the choicest jobs and clerkships await those who were law review staffers. This is due solely to the additional skills learned during the hours spent on research, editing, and writing and to the discipline required by the law review process. Yet the attraction is also largely due to the notions that academic scholarship equals good lawyering and that the price of a ticket to the law review is good grades. The correlation is not as clear as that, however, and law review opens career doors simply because of a prestige it does not always warrant.

But those doors are opened. And if it is through one of those that you wish to pass to gain entrance to the profession, whether it’s a Wall Street firm, a choice public service spot, or a prestigious clerkship, you’ll have to do your damnedest to make the law review, to publish an article, and to try to become an editor.

And if it simply is not your fate to be a member of the law review, continue studying at your normal pace and find other extracurricular activities. Often there will be other journals at your school in which the academic requirements are some¬ what lower and which, in fact, specialize in areas of law that interest you more than the somewhat general topics usually explored in law review articles (such as environmental, urban, or equal rights law).

Another alternative to law review, especially if you think you might like to be a litigator, is to try out for moot court, an upscale version of the mock appellate argument you’ll do for your research and writing class. Moot court involves interschool elimination competition, all the way up to the national level. Although moot court is aimed more at training students than at producing a legal product that is to be used by the profession, it is a far more exciting activity than the law review and equally valuable—probably more so for future trial attorneys and appellate advocates.

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