The trouble with law reviews

Larry Ribstein —  9 May 2011

I’m finally catching up with this NLJ article about Hofstra law prof Richard Neumann’s estimate that the cost of a law review article written by a tenured professor at a top law school is around $100,000 ($25-$42,000 for assistant professors at lower-paying law schools).  The estimate includes the professor’s salary, benefits and research grants and assumes the professor spends 30%- 50% of his or her time on scholarship and publishes one article per year.  

Based on evidence that 43% of law review articles are never cited by anyone, Neumann says “at least a third of these things have no value. Who is paying for that? Students who will graduate with six figures of debt.” Better, he says, to have these obscure authors spend more time in the classroom.

Walter Olson cites Neumann’s talk as more evidence for his conclusion in Schools for Misrule that “in part through accreditation rules, law schools are artificially pressured to channel faculty energy into published scholarly work, despite evidence that much of it will be little read or consulted.”

Well, I guess I should show these stats to my dean, since they make me look cheap.  I’ve written over 160 articles in my 36 years, more than four a year, with increased production in later years roughly correlated with my pay. 

As a producer of law review articles, of course I have an incentive to defend them. Legal academics have been the main source of legal ideas in the U.S.  Walter thinks, with some basis, that many of these have had pernicious effects.  This, of course, is in tension with the idea that legal academics labor in obscurity.  In any event, even if many articles fall on deaf ears, this is no different from the many books not read and the many inventions never manufactured.  Given the difficulty of predicting which ideas will take hold, a robust market for ideas must produce losers as well as winners.   

As I said in commenting on Schools for Misrule,

the problem is not that law schools produce too many ideas and not enough practical training.  We need good ideas, including ideas that challenge the status quo, that are not going to be produced by those immersed in the day-to-day practice of law. * * * If the market were freed from the constraints of licensing and mandatory accreditation, it could better produce the sort of law society needs at a price it can pay. 

My article Practicing Theory sketches the market for legal education that might emerge once these constraints are lifted.  I don’t discuss law reviews specifically, but in general I can see some student-edited law reviews in top schools fitting with my overall vision of law schools as legal information producers.

I doubt, however, that the current system of hundreds of student-edited law review could survive legal education’s loss of the monopoly power conferred by licensing and accreditation.  Special purpose training programs would emerge that could not begin to support professors who spend most of their time researching and students immersed in cite-checking rituals.

Research would continue in the full-fledged law schools that remain.  However, the outlets for research would be peer-reviewed web-based journals as well as the legal information products, including privately produced laws, that Bruce Kobayashi and I discuss in our Law’s Information Revolution.

In short, the problem isn’t student edited law reviews as such, but regulation that sustains this system without respect to its value relative to alternative mechanisms for creating and disseminating legal ideas.

Larry Ribstein


Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law

9 responses to The trouble with law reviews


    As is typical with the continuing debate over legal scholarship versus legal education, this conversation overlooks the fact that top law schools are embedded within the academic environment of top research universities, where research is a major public mission. With Nobel laureates walking around your campus, it’s a fair question when the provost asks the law dean what interesting research is going on in the law school.

    I don’t suggest that all research is valuable, or that professors should ignore their teaching. Some might even believe that law schools shouldn’t be embedded in universities. But on the whole, it seems to me that lawyers, law schools, legal education–and perhaps society generally–have benefited from the “academication” of law schools.

    My prediction is that an alternative law school model will develop–an “Oberlin” model, if you will–where excellent faculty will have teaching as their primary responsibility, with less emphasis on research. And just as undergrads can choose a research university (where lots of teaching is done by grad students) or a college (without graduate programs or many TA’s, and with more professor-student contact), law students will be able to choose.


    Olson, Schools for Misrule.


    “Legal academics have been the main source of legal ideas in the U.S.” ???? Do you have a cite for that? It seems hilariously incorrect. The creativity (not to mention the productivity) of practicing attorneys exceeds by many orders of magnitude the so-called ideas of legal academics.


    I think at the end of the day, the focus must remain on students and the student experience. I think that law school academics, in many cases but with exceptions, forget why their job exists – because thousands of college grads decide they want to be lawyers and are willing to borrow $50,000 a year to pay for an education. That’s it. Students want to go to schools with great reputations, and it is true, that schools with great reputations are those with the brightest scholars who produce great research… but still, at the end of the day the goal of paying tuition is to pay for an education, a degree. It should not be the job of poor and indebted 20-somethings to pay for research… Students at public undergraduate institutions pay very little for research, as the rest comes from public subsidy, foundation money, etc… and where research is for the public good, those ARE the proper funding sources. Poor students are not proper funding sources. Or at least, half a work week, 20 hours, should be spent on teaching-related duties. (A 40 hour work week is a great thing for six-figure earners!) Is that really too much to ask?

    As someone who has worked on a top-25 journal, I’ve seen firsthand the plentiful awful scholarship that comes in through Espresso, (the online law rev submission app) and the extent to which everyone thinks their work is the greatest thing ever. “Please expedite my article! I have five offers from law journals that you have never heard of!” Reading the work makes one think that professors have never heard of the Bluebook, somehow forgot how to spell, and more interestingly, have explained imaginary concepts in the works they cite, as though the author they cited to actually said that idea. On top of that, professors are often late when it comes to deadlines, requesting all sorts of unreasonable extensions… something that would be unacceptable from students. Sure this is not everyone, and just some, but the point is clear— lots of resources are spent on non-teaching related efforts, and even still, the quality is lacking. If one borrowed student dollar is wasted while paying for a six-figure salary and impressive benefits package with pension, that is a problem.

    YES, we need a flourishing marketplace for ideas, but we need to discourage scholarship for the sake of scholarship. If an idea can be said in 300 words, then it should be said in 300 words. When I see law review articles submitted and I realize that it took a professor half a year to write those 70 pages, while they taught one four unit class— well, there’s just something really wrong about that.


    I read the abstracts. That’s what they’re for, right?


    I don’t know whether I’m padding — that’s for others to decide. I do know that there’s no way I could compete with a commenter brilliant enough to analyze articles without reading them.


    Not to be a total jackass here, but do you think that every three months you have an idea insightful and important enough to be published in a scholarly journal?

    Hearing four articles a year sends off the same alarm bells as seeing an attorney bill 3000 hours. Odds are there’s a bit of padding going on. A quick look at your SSRN page shows three articles discussing Hollywood’s portrayal of law and economics, an article on publishing articles online, and numerous law practice management articles.

    When professors defend the need (and expense) of scholarship, are these the types of articles they have in mind?

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