There’s no universal right answer when it comes to whether to pursue law review. But there is a right answer for you. Here, we cover the pros and cons of law review. And for those who determine law review is worth their effort, we offer tips for getting on and maximizing your law review experience.
How Do You Get There?
The first step in evaluating law review is researching the process for landing a position. It varies by school. But, generally, if your grades are high enough—say, in the top five or ten percent—you’re automatically invited to join. If you don’t qualify for that invitation, you’re given an opportunity to participate in a writing competition, with the winners invited to join.
Some schools implement variations on that theme. One typical example: even students with the highest grades must also participate in, and be chosen as a result of, the writing competition.
Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, California, adds a different twist. “At Whittier, some students at the very top are invited onto the law review without having to participate in the writing competition,” explained Radha Pathak, associate professor and adviser to the law review. “We also have the writing competition. But our process is a little unusual in that it actually requires students in their first semester to do some tasks before they’re formally called members of the law review. Until then, they’re called candidates, regardless of how they were invited to join. Those tasks include cite checking and making substantial progress on or finishing a scholarly paper akin to a law review article.”
Also, consider whether you can commit the time necessary for law review while maintaining your grades and other responsibilities. Participation involves lulls and crunch periods, making it harder to plan your schedule. “The most frustrating part was that it wasn’t a consistent time comment,” recalled Russ Ferguson, a 2009 Georgetown University Law Center grad and litigator at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It took a whole lot of time at certain periods in the semester, and inevitably that was when you were busy doing something else.”
Ferguson estimates that, as a cite-checker, he spent about 20 hours each week on journal work. He thinks that number would increase if you take an editor role.
Weighing the Pros and Cons
Now to the hard part—evaluating whether participating in law review will actually advance your career.
That may depend on the type of law you plan to practice. Often employers with niche practices are pragmatic about law review. If it’s relevant to your work, they want you to have participated. If not, they tend to be less picky.
“If I’m hiring a clerk or staff attorney who’ll handle motions, briefs, and criminal appeals, research and writing skills are critical components of the position, and I’d look at law review as a plus,” said Scott Grabel, owner and supervising attorney at an East Lansing, Michigan, criminal defense firm, Grabel & Associates. “But if I’m hiring you to go to court and do criminal trials, the lack of law review isn’t a problem, and having it isn’t a big plus. What is more important are your personal skills and how you handle yourself.”
If you’re hoping to join a large firm, the traditional view is that participating in law review is a good idea. “I graduated from law school in 1985, and the people who are hiring this generation went to school in my generation,” said Leslie Yalof Garfield, a professor at Pace Law School in White Plains, New York. “In my generation, law review was the single most important thing you could put on your résumé. If you want to appeal to the vast majority of hiring lawyers today, you should be on law review.”
Not much budges Garfield from that position. “If it’s a choice of being president of the student bar association and law review, I still say law review,” she contended. “If it’s a choice between moot court and law review, I still think go for law review. Maybe I’m being a law review snob. But it just seems to me that while the research and writing you do for moot court has a rigorous aspect to it, you often write only one brief for one competition. However, when you do law review, you’ve typically written a note and an article and edited other people’s work. Those are the skills hardest to learn and that speak loudest to employers.”
Pathak, however, said there may be other ways to develop those skills, and it’s worth evaluating whether that’s possible. “I really haven’t had the experience of counseling a student to not be on the law review, though it’s not outside the realm of possibility,” she said. “I can imagine students with a lot on their plate, like a part-time student with a full-time job and a family, where law review might not make sense. When I counsel students, I try to explain what they’ll get out of law review so they can decide if those things are worth the time they’ll put into it.”
What will you get out of law review? “I think the cite checking—that experience of having done that repeatedly—teaches attention to detail,” said Pathak. “It also develops targeted research skills I find hard to replicate outside the law review experience. At the same time, you’re developing this sort of high-level thinking and thinking about the law in a scholarly rather than a doctrinal way. It may not be worth your time to attain those skills, and perhaps you can figure out how to develop them in another setting. But it’s a pretty significant skill set that law review offers.”
Kelly has a final bit of advice: Don’t pursue law review solely for the prestige. Kelly asked herself where she wanted to be after graduation and what activities would help her get there. With the answers to those questions, she then asked herself whether law review was the best use of her time.
“Admittedly, I took a nonconventional path in law school and post-graduation,” she explained. “By the end of my first year, I knew I didn’t want to go the traditional law firm route. I wanted more of an in-house business and legal affairs position. I decided an ultra time-consuming law review position would actually get in the way of other extracurricular endeavors that would make me more valuable to the type of company I wanted to join.
“Instead of law review, I participated in entrepreneurship and alternative-dispute resolution programs,” added Kelly. “I turned down a second-year summer clerkship at a defense firm to work in-house at a beverage company and then worked there 25 hours a week during my second and third years. I used my ‘free time’ on a research project that allowed me to receive credit for learning and writing about a new type of legal entity, the benefit corporation.”
Like Kelly, law review may not be the best extracurricular activity for you. Whether you choose not to pursue law review or don’t make it on, analyze what skills prospective employers want and find ways to develop them. Moot court provides writing and public speaking opportunities. Student leadership often teaches time management. There are ways other than law review to develop your skills.
Making the Most of the Experience
If law review is right for you, there are actions you can take to maximize your chance to be invited to join and to get the most out of your law school experience. Here are four:
Research and focus. “Getting on a journal is an incredibly hard process,” said Ferguson. “Buckle down and put the work into it. If you can, look at previous submissions or published articles, or notes. You may be in the habit of writing exams, but write-ons aren’t the same. I didn’t do that, but when I became an editor and started to grade write-ons, I could tell which students had.”
Also, ask your writing professor for insight. “Go back and look at how you did in your legal writing class,” advised Pathak. “If you did very well, that’s good news. But it may also be wise to talk to your professor about where you can improve so you can shore up your weaknesses before you enter that competition.”
Pick a journal that suits your interests. Schools often have the main law review and what some call “secondary” journals, often on specialized topics like tax or environmental law. “Being on the main journal is better because it’s harder to get on,” said Ferguson. “But I wouldn’t do the main law review just to be on it. If you’re going to be miserable and your school has a number of journals, try to get on the journal with the topic that’s going to interest you. You’ll have to read about that topic, research it, and write about it. In addition, if you know what you’ll specialize in after graduation, being on journal on that topic may help you during interviews because people interviewing you may read that journal.”
Watch and learn once you make it. “Your first year on law review, you’re not going to have much choice in what you do,” said Ferguson. “On most journals, it’s the busy work: checking legal citations. You learn more than you think doing this, but it’s boring and not that fulfilling.
“Because of that, many students apply for an editor position—any editor position—only to find being an editor involves even more tedious, boring work. So use your first year on law review to get to know every position on the journal so you can determine what appeals to you most. Then, in your second year, don’t go after the highest position you can. Go after the editor position that matches your skill set and that you’ll enjoy doing.”
Make the Experience Work for You
Parlay your journal writing into the job you want. Work like it matters on the journal because it does to both private and academic employers. “Academia values being published, and law firms value the skills you develop from being published,” said Garfield. “I’m convinced the only reason I got my professorship was because I was published as a student. I started out as a legal analysis and writing professor, and I was hired for that position because I had a publication on my résumé. So my advice is to write a publishable piece, and the way to do that is to write on a hot topic.”
Ultimately, whether to pursue law review depends on your goals. “Don’t blindly jump on the law review train unless you’re very clear about your purpose behind joining,” Kelly concluded. “If you want that law-firm job, the prestige and experience that come with law review will probably serve an important purpose. But for a growing group of students seeking unconventional positions, law review may serve a less important purpose. Whatever you decide, spend your second and third years building your value as a future employee: network, write, and develop a ‘story’ that will grab any employer’s attention.”
Are All Journals Created Equal?
Many law schools sponsor not just one main law review but also many “secondary” journals. It’s an open question whether employers are as impressed by your activity on a secondary journal as they are with participation in the primary journal. They probably should be, but that doesn’t mean all are.
“It probably shouldn’t matter whether you’re on the primary or a secondary journal,” said Radha Pathak, associate professor and advisor to the law review at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, California. “But there’s this signaling effect to employers that the strongest students are invited on law review, and that’s a hard impression to shake. Those who aren’t on the law review do have to come up against the fact that they may not get as much of a positive impression from an employer. However, if the employer is thinking about the kind of skills a student develops and how much those skills can contribute to the employers’ practice, which journal you’re on is irrelevant.”
Ultimately, how employers view various journals likely depends on the employer and the journal. “A lot of employers just look for journal work, and any one will stand out,” explained Russ Ferguson, a 2009 Georgetown University Law Center grad and litigator at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I was on a secondary journal, the ABA-sponsored The Tax Lawyer. I think that helps you because it still gives you skills employers are looking for. And if you interview with an alumnus of your school, they’ll know those secondary journals, and they’ll know the better from the not-so-rigorous ones.”