Know What You're In For (A discussion of law review production processes)
Dear Ambitious 1L:
You'll notice that today's post is rather long. The good news is, if you already know how your law review works at an operational level (or you're a 2L reading for enjoyment) you can probably skip it. But if you're anything like I was last year, you have no idea what you're signing up for, what you learn from it, and where you would fit in to this complex realm of 'legal scholarship.'
The short answer is, I can't answer that on my own. Nor can any single contributor here, though you'll get a good idea of the options from all of us together. While there's some similarities in practice between various reviews, each is going to be subtly different in structure. I'm going to cover the bare basics of my experience of what a staff member does, and then describe two possible systems of managing the work. But what I have here is far from exhaustive, and I hope that other readers who've been through this process will add their own experiences in comments.
I'm also going to concentrate on the first year of staff work, for two reasons. First of all, it's based on what I've experienced. But more importantly, not everyone who writes onto law review will become a member of the editorial board (and some don't want to) while everyone who joins will go through this process.
What You Do
To my knowledge, there are two work processes that are relatively uniform across every review: substantive citation checking ("subbing") and bluebooking. In reality, you'll usually do both things at the same time, but they're actually very different skills.
Substantive citation checking is, when you come down to it, ensuring the integrity of the article. Most law review articles consist of a forest of footnotes under a vast canopy of summaries of prior research, detailed explanation of theory, and usually an argument. Altogether these result in what Ann Althouse describes as unpublishable, unreadable books. The flourishing of footnotes in turn derives from the law review's insistence: Judge Posner complains in his famous Legal Affairs article that "On the side of substance, [law review editors'] especial preoccupation is with trying to maximize the number of footnotes, citations, and cross-references in order to create the impression that everything in the article is proven fact."
In any event, substantive citation checking boils down to ferreting out all the sources cited in those footnotes and making sure that they say what the author says and that they actually support his point. In some cases, materials will be available without you leaving your desk, through services like JStor or HeinOnline. Sometimes this is easy: the author has given you the correct citation information, appropriately cited to a particular page, and the piece is available and searchable online. Other times it's a real pain: if the author cites to an obscure passage of Anna Karenina but doesn't give you a page number, guess who's probably going to find it?
It sounds dull, and it often is, but in an "eat your vegetables" way. After a year of doing this, you'll have no problem with electronic research, you'll know the library the way you know your closet now, and in one form or another you'll have been exposed to some major (and a lot of trivial) works of scholarship. Nothing else I've done in law school has required this consistent use of the library, nor done more to help me understand how legal academic research functions.
The downside is that it's time-consuming and none too enlightening. You'll have access to all these materials, but very rarely will you be reading large excerpts. For the most part, you just need to check that a citation to Source A says Proposition X in support of Comment Y. Depending on the structure in which you end up subbing, there can be very little intellectual content.
The other skill demanded of a law review staff member is bluebooking. If you've made it to the point that you're considering law review, you know what bluebooking is. And if you start working on a law review, you're going to learn a lot more. Again, the process of bluebooking itself can teach you a lot: attention to detail; dealing with complex, frequently non-intuitive and often contradictory rule sets; and if nothing else, patience. Further, your work will be scrutinized by those in the year above you, so in many reviews you'll get frequent feedback of a sort rare in law school. Especially if you screw up.
The downside? It's bluebooking. Again, if you've read this far, no explanation is necessary.
Of course you'll do other things as a staff member, but I'd be surprised if the bulk of your time isn't spent on some combination of these tasks. If I left something out, I hope other staffers will leave word in the comments.
How It's Done
There's one other dimension to the production process that may dramatically affect your experience as a 2L staff member: organization.
My review utilized a very Taylorist organizational scheme. Every article was split into dozens of pieces, and each piece was handed out to a staff member depending on who was available on any given day of the week. Each piece was estimated to be roughly equivalent in difficulty, although of course this is impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy. One assignment might be nothing more than twenty pages of ids requiring only one or two sources; the next day, the same staffer might be checking in the microfiche collection of a far-flung library. As a process, this focuses most of the staff work on what's happening in the article "below the line." You're not looking at a big piece of the article, and you probably won't until very late in the process.
Like most Taylorist systems, it's relatively efficient and fairly flexible. Because only editors are attached to a particular article, the availability of any junior staff member doesn't impact production deadlines or produce bottlenecks. Junior staff members, in turn, can be asked to sign up for a given number of days, but they have more choice in which days they work.
But as a junior staff member, you have--and unless you're very enthusiastic, you feel--no ownership over any particular piece. Bits of at least three dozen articles, notes, or essays passed over my desk last year, and I doubt I could tell you what a quarter of them were about. I read only two from beginning to end: one was relevant to my Note, and the other just annoyed me. Other than that, there was no real reason to engage with any of the pieces. Indeed, after four hours of frustrated editing, one becomes sorely tempted to read anything else. At least until your third year, think "cog in the machine."
The alternative is something I can only speak of at second-hand. (If anyone has good stories about their own experiences, please leave a comment.) My impression is that a smaller number of reviews employ project teams on each article, and that staff members work in more detail on a smaller number of articles. I can see how this would be less flexible, and thus threatening to deadlines. Further, I suspect team members might get frustrated by being stuck with a difficult article, or just a piece they don't like. That said, at least when that piece is printed, it's easier to point to something and say "I was part of that."
Again, however, this is only my impression of the grass on the other side of the fence. In any event, before you apply for law review, ask a current staff member how your process works. It may sway your decision.
Two Years and Out
Finally, one production truth that would seem universal to any major law review: we have very short institutional memories. Some reviews have full-time employees who will remember how things were done since time immemorial, but otherwise no one working on the review has any more than two years of experience. Furthermore, many of your "bosses" may be entering their first real management role.
I say this because if you've come from a business background before law school, you may be in for a bit of a shock. Remember what I said about staff time being zero-cost? Cost is what induces profit-driven organizations to improve their work-processes, and at least in my experience, the law review process isn't very efficient at all. Staff morale is the only real organizational constraint on the editorial board's demands on your time. Frequently you'll find that a single process change could save twenty or thirty hours of work distributed among ten or more workers. Don't expect it to happen: saving fifty people twenty minutes isn't a real victory in the law review paradigm, even if you'll do the same process once a week for the rest of the year. You're not managing funds at Citibank or overseeing distribution at WalMart, and if Stanford does it better Harvard isn't going out of business.
The cynical view would be to say that once one group has gotten through the hazing process that is 2L year, there's little incentive to get rid of the rites of passage for the next bunch. My guess, however, is that it's more about risks and rewards: without cost, there's no upside to unsettling current processes, nor any incentive to go through the pains involved in change.
I hope this gives you a little guidance on what to expect from work if you succeed in your write-on. There's joys and frustrations to the work, and in many ways it's good experience. I'm well over any sensible word limit, though, so I'll leave until tomorrow a discussion of the what all this work comes down to in the end.
Tomorrow: Make Sure You Believe In It