Law reviews and meritocracy

by Henry Farrell on August 8, 2005

This paragraph in a “post”: by Andrew Morriss, guestblogging with the Volokhs, struck me as saying some pretty odd things about publication policies in the legal academy.

bq. There are huge problems with the U.S. News rankings but there is no question that they are important. For example, a friend recently told me that she had been called by a law review about one of her manuscripts. The articles editor apologized for rejecting the manuscript and explained that the rejection had been made without reading the paper because the editors had mistakenly misclassified my friend’s school as being in a lower tier law school. Now that they realized their error, the editor told her, they wanted to consider the article on the merits. I don’t know how widespread this type of screening is, but that it occurred at a well-ranked, but not top journal is at least moderately disturbing.

Now I know that there are a lot of complaints among legal academics about the dominant role of student-edited law reviews. But (if this is at all representative), I hadn’t realized quite how bad the problem was. It’s not (as Micah has “argued previously”: ) the fault of the students editing these reviews – when you have so many article submissions that you’re literally unable to read them all (thanks to the practice of multiple submissions), you’re inevitably going to have some more-or-less unfair metric for deciding which ones to read, and which ones not to. The problem is a structural one. But it does suggest that it’s going to be a lot more difficult for a smart legal academic in a second or third tier school to improve her position by publishing material in good journals, than it would be if she were, say, a political scientist or a sociologist. If her school’s position in the rankings counts against her chances of getting published, she may find herself in a Catch-22 situation; the only way to get published in good journals is to improve her personal name-recognition (since her school won’t help), but the only way to improve her personal name-recognition is to get published. Blind peer review, which is the norm across most of academia, does serve as at least a modest corrective to mutually reinforcing hierarchies in journals’ publication records and department rankings. It’s possible, albeit difficult, to publish your way up. As an aside, I wonder whether the importance of name-recognition to legal academics helps explain why “so many”: of them have started blogs – blogging is a cheap and easy way to make your name familiar to the editors of law reviews.

Update: “Steve Bainbridge”: is seeking to test whether law review editors do indeed read law blogs, by soliciting “bids” for a recent article that he’s written. He’s already received an offer from a journal in the top 35-40 range.