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The value of being a law review editor (oh, the irony!)

By December 3, 2009law

Screen shot 2009-12-03 at 3.03.51 PM  During law school I did pretty well. In my last year I was selected to be on the law review editorial board, which I thought was the most important achievement of my law school career. I became a "managing editor," which meant being primarily responsible for obsessing about Bluebook citation form. This position is highly prized, mostly because law review editors can't do much beyond applying style rules and checking basic legal propositions. Neither I, nor my fellow editors, had any idea of what constituted 'proper legal scholarship,' or scholarship in general for that matter. But that didn't stop us from lording over submitting authors as though we were Emperors at the Roman Coliseum.

Upon graduation I went to work for a federal trial judge. He was whip smart and well-respected. He had been the Editor-in-Chief of the same law review when he was in law school.  I assumed, therefore, that he held law review service in high esteem. During the job interview he scanned my resume and then quickly observed that nothing I learned while on the law review would be of any practical use to me as a lawyer.  

I was stunned. But I was relieved to find out that I would nevertheless be offered a two year clerkship.

During my clerkship I came to learn that he'd once submitted an article to his alma mater, as a favor to someone I believe, but the law review board edited it without his permission. And then published it. They changed key words, and altered the carefully crafted meaning. As a result, one of his key points was totally distorted. He complained ferociously to the Dean about the lack of 'adult supervision,' but was told: 'this is the way that all law reviews are run.' It completely baffled him that mere students would be given editorial power over lawyers with vastly more experience.

Pretty much everything about legal academia baffled him.

When he passed away, I wrote a blog post about what it was like to serve in his chambers. The final passage ended with me describing how he used to come down the hallway and bellow my last name, which he used to mispronounce as 'Swenson.' The point was that he had a profound influence on me, even though he never learned how to pronounce my last name. No one who read the article could fail to miss the bittersweetness of this point, as it captured a small –but important– part of his personality.

Someone came up with the idea of doing at tribute issue in the law review. Many people wrote essays about the Judge and his many accomplishments. I was asked permission to have my blog post republished. I agreed, and emailed the editors the text file.

My words didn't need any editing, or fact checking. They didn't contain citations, and there were no Bluebook issues. Nevertheless, they couldn't just publish the article as written (that would belie the fact that that being a law review editor served little purpose). So, they naturally set about editing my words. 

And guess what got changed?  

Yep, they changed the final passage. And, just as they had with the judge many years before, they never gave me the chance to correct their mistake. What was their mistake? They changed the passage so that my name was spelled correctly, which completely eliminated bittersweet charm and pretty much ruined the ending. But, I'm sure whoever made the change felt a small moment of pride at having "caught" my mistake, saving me from the embarrassment of having misspelled my own last name.

Oh, the irony!!!

All they had to do was copy and paste what I sent them. But the right thing, the easiest thing, was simply not within their skill set. My judge was right: law review experience is worthless.  

In many cases, it might actually be dangerous.


P.S. If you appreciate my observations, you might want to join my inner circle.

3 Comments

  • Actually, you need look no further than DRJ’s own comment, which uses ‘may’ instead of ‘maybe’ in the last sentence. “To err is human.” We ALL make mistakes, brilliant or not. Certainly, substantive changes should not be made to a law review article without approval of the author. The editors can correct spelling, grammar, and citations all day long, but meaning (via word choice and content) should be the sole province of the author.

  • DRJ says:

    I really do not know how that could have happen since most law reviews/journals do not operate that way. However, I must disagree with your once-upon-a-time mentor. It almost seems as if he had contempt for law review organizations. I, myself, having been an editor on a flagship law journal can appreciate the value of such experience. In fact, I can truly say that it was one of the most beneficial experiences of my legal career. I am assuming the ‘adult supervision’ comment was a joke. In fact, as an editor, I was surprised how little some legal scholars and practitioners actual knew about the standards of legal scholarship (legal citation much less grammar). People who have not been in a scholarly environment seem considerably withdrawn from these higher standards (I don’t know, may it’s because no one really grades their work, whereas law students are constantly graded). For example, I remember once editing an article of an esteemed law professor who had cited entire books in his article and failed to provide any pinpoint citations. I had to go back and virtually read the entire books to find out what exactly he was referring to. So, I don’t think that experienced attorneys are immune from mistake but, in fact, I actually think they are more prone to it. I may be entirely wrong but I admire the nitty gritty work that law review students do and the standard of scholarship that they adhere to. Come to think of it, may it all just boils down to huge egos not being able to take constructive criticism from young but brilliant minds.

  • k says:

    I find it shocking that this law review does not get approval for edits from authors. Both the law review I was a member of (and editor for) and the one I’ve published in got approval first. That’s really astounding.

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