Though Lincoln Caplan, the editor and president of Legal Affairs, has worked with his staff and contributors for four years to establish an ideologically and fiscally independent publication, his team’s financial well has recently run dry.
The law magazine — which drew on funds disbursed by Yale Law School until 2004 — has failed to raise enough funding to sustain print publication, Legal Affairs editors announced at the end of January. Because Legal Affairs has received acclaim for its long-form columns, historical and contextual legal analyses and popular features such as the “Debate Club,” some law experts said the publication’s suspension leaves a gap in legal journalism, but also comes as no large surprise in an era when start-up magazines frequently founder.
Jim Fallows, a member of the Legal Affairs Board of Directors, said the decision to halt publication was jolting and disappointing, though not completely unexpected.
“It’s just like the movie ‘Match Point’,” said Fallows, a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. “If any number of things had broken the right way rather than the wrong way, it would have worked. It was not at all a problem of how [Legal Affairs] was managed. It just ran out of time to get lucky.”
Although the March/April edition of Legal Affairs will be the last received by the nearly 25,000 subscribers to its print version, editors said they are not giving up yet. The magazine’s Web site — which is accessed by nearly six times the readership of the print edition — will continue to be updated with content, said Caplan, who is also the Knight Senior Journalist at the Yale Law School.
But Fallows said he is concerned that the delivery of content exclusively online is not conducive to the same depth of journalism that marked the print edition’s run.
“I don’t know of any Web publication that can afford the first-rate reporting that goes into a magazine like Legal Affairs,” he said.
Some law students said they think the magazine’s transition to a purely Internet-based publication will attract a wider, potentially younger base of readers.
“I think in effect it will increase their audience,” Dan Freeman LAW ’07 said. “Going to a straight online format, like Slate, appeals to a similar, well-educated audience. It’s a good strategy for them.”
Yet Legal Affairs editors said they had never intended for the publication to be primarily Internet-based.
More than a decade ago, the magazine’s founders hoped to make revolutionary contributions to legal journalism, Caplan said. The magazine has been intended to serve as a “demilitarized zone,” he said, where “conservatives seem to feel safe reading liberal ideas and vice versa [in] a magazine that’s high on reason and low on spin.”
“In our own way, it’s enriched people’s thinking about what legal journalism can be, presenting different approaches to writing and thinking about the law,” Caplan said.
Since its founding, the magazine has received national praise, particularly from other publications. In 2004, the Washington Post described Legal Affairs as “America’s most interesting legal magazine for people who aren’t lawyers,” and the Chicago Tribune listed it on its list of the nation’s best magazines.
But despite its critical acclaim, the magazine has since failed to attract the donations and advertising needed to financially sustain itself, a problem perpetuated when funding from the Yale Law School dissipated in 2004. The support of the Law School, including professors such as former Dean Anthony Kronman, was essential for first launching Legal Affairs, Caplan said.
Mark Tushnet, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University, said he thinks the magazine’s original affiliation with Yale may have led to its sponsorship shortage.
“I think they were in sort of an awkward position,” he said. “It was drawing on the intellectual resources of Yale Law School, but I think that there was sort of a halo effect in people thinking that it could also draw on the financial resources.”
Though the Law School will not provide any further funding for Legal Affairs, Caplan said, his staff had not requested or expected further help.
“If Yale Law School hadn’t had the vision and commitment to this project of an extension of its own public service activities, and as a bridge between legal canon and legal practice, Legal Affairs would never have existed,” he said.
Several ardent supporters of Legal Affairs said their hopes for a revival of the magazine have not been eliminated.
“It is quite simply the best journalism there is about the law, anywhere, and it fills a niche,” said Jeffrey Liss, a prominent Washington, D.C., attorney who wrote a column for Legal Affairs on the ancient parliament of Iceland. “There is just nobody who has done it like Legal Affairs has done it. I’m just hopeful that some institution will support it and pick it back up.”