Yale Law Journal ties for top ranking

The rankings of the 100 best law reviews in this month’s issue of the National Jurist were bittersweet for Eli law students: The Yale Law Journal and Harvard Law Review tied for first.

The study, compiled by Washington & Lee University Law School librarian John Doyle over the last six years, seeks to gauge the journals’ influence on legal scholarship based on the number of times they were cited in cases or other publications in the last eight years.

But this approach favors subject matter that is more subject to being cited, which may disadvantage some specialized journals, said Dara Purvis LAW ’08, editor in chief of the Yale Law Journal.

“The best bankruptcy article is never going to get the same number of citations as even an average constitutional law article,” she said. Quantifying the quality of a law review is “not like the Olympics,” she said. “It’s not like whoever runs the race the fastest.”

So while Purvis said she does not place much stock in the rankings, it is still nice to see her publication on top, she said.

That the rankings’ relevance would be questioned is no surprise. But the same article that announced the results went on to question the continued relevance of law reviews themselves.

Several of the Law School’s eight other publications also made the top 100, with the Yale Journal on Regulation placing 61st, the Yale Law & Policy Review 64th and the Yale Journal on International Law 88th.

“From our perspective at the Yale Law & Policy Review, we feel very good about — as a secondary, non-specialized journal — placing above flagship journals at reputable law schools,” said Gustav Eyler LAW ’08, who is the editor in chief of that publication. “I wouldn’t say we focus on advancing our placement in the rankings, but they do matter.”

For Eyler, the questions of law reviews’ relevance and the rankings’ relevance have the same answer: Authors want their articles to have maximum impact, law reviews provide them a venue and rankings help them find the most prestigious and influential journals.

“When you talk with an author, what is conclusive for them often is where the journal falls on the rankings,” he said.

But for authors more concerned with the end product than with the cachet, Eyler said, rankings are not necessarily the best indication of the quality of the editing at a given publication.

A more representative measure of editing quality, he suggested, might come from surveying authors about their experiences with different publications and how well they think the articles were edited.

Eyler and Purvis are both familiar with the traditional critiques of law reviews — that students are underqualified to review and edit professors’ work and that being on a law review is just about resume padding.

But Purvis said the nature of legal scholarship lends itself to student editors. Because so much in law articles depends on the rigor of the argument, students “can certainly evaluate how well an argument hangs together,” she said.

And while student editors may not have the expertise to match that of the article’s author, “fresh eyes” can help displace the orthodoxy of peer-review journals in many other fields, she said.

Students usually have more time than professors to invest in scrutinizing an article’s argumentation and documentation, she said, and the journal often consults faculty members when some professional expertise is wanting.

“The quality of editing might be better on a technical level in student journals because of the amount of time and energy they’re willing to put into it,” Eyler said. “We’re able to put in the time and expertise to produce the quality of work that authors expect [from a law review] but are rarely able to create on their own.”

As for resume-building, Eyler admitted “self-advancement” is a factor. But many employers look for students who worked on law reviews, he said, because of the writing and research skills students can develop as editors.

But the rise of the Internet has presented a new challenge to law reviews: keeping up with legal blogs and a condensed information cycle.

“Law reviews are slow — a two-year delay is not unheard of,” said Glenn Reynolds LAW ’85, a law professor at the University of Tennessee who started one of the first legal blogs, Instapundit, in 2001. “It’s the 21st century. Why wait a year?”

Blogs do provide timely discussion that law reviews cannot match, Purvis agreed, but the two venues still retain largely separate market niches.

“A 30,000-word law-review article is very different from a blog post,” she said. “I don’t think anyone wants to read a blog posting that goes on for pages and pages.”

Speed is not the goal of a law journal, Eyler said. Law-review articles wield the influence they do because being published in a law review signals a meticulous process of revision, documentation and fact-checking, he said.

But the Internet has changed how law reviews operate. Most readers now access law-review articles through online databases such as LexisNexis or Westlaw, Purvis said; far fewer still receive delivered hard copies.

Two years ago, the Yale Law Journal introduced the Pocket Part, an online companion that publishes original essays and responses to articles in the print journal.

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