Something to Hold Onto:[1] Where Paper Makes a Stand

A refuge remains for the printed page. Herewith the tale:

Ross Davies, one of my culture heroes, has published a fascinating article which goes by the salubrious title “The Increasingly Lengthy Long Run of the Law Reviews: Law Review Business 2012—Circulation and Production” in Volume 3, No. 2 of the Journal of Legal Metrics (2013). Professor Davies is an accomplished scholar at George Mason Law School who produces excellent scholarship in the usual mode for a legal scholar. But it does not stop there. He also has an endearing fixation on the mechanics of legal information and a love of good writing. While most legal scholarship consists of abstract speculation and doctrinal analysis, Professor Davies has chronicled the bits and pieces of the reality of the law for years. Including how said law is produced. He was a founder of the Green Bag in 1997. If you have never read The Green Bag, I urge you to give it a spin. Academics, judges and lawyers, some quite famous, others just gifted, contribute pithy essays on a wide range of topics about the operation of the law: insights on legal history, legal thought, important precedents and bobbleheads all fall within its purview. All of it is intended to be easy to read. The Bag, as it is known, has even published the most widely read history of academic law librarianship yet written. It is the only legal journal that I read for pure enjoyment.[2]

This new article is the latest in an annual series in which Ross traces the downward trajectory of the printed American Law School Law Review. The fact that law school law reviews continue to hold sway as the repository of the most respected legal scholarship in the United States, that they are cited by Courts and that those who author them prosper in academia, has always been surreal. They are edited, with little if any faculty supervision, by law students. To law school academics this makes sense, to all others it is deranged. For example, if the world’s leadng figure in Securities Law submits a manuscript to an academic law review, it will be viciously edited by a student. That student reports to another student. There is no practical faculty oversight. Tales of fights with law review editors festoon the publishing life of an American law professor. One of my friends who is a physicist finds this to be the ultimate expression of why law is not a serious field of study. Students are the gatekeepers of the cutting edge of scholarship.

Ross’s concern is more concrete. He analyzes the subscription base of the law reviews at top tier law schools. A suspicious soul by nature, he does not trust what the law reviews tell the academic world concerning their subscription numbers, instead he looks up the numbers reported by each law review to the United States Postal Service as part of getting a favorable postage rate. Ergo Professor Davies has the numbers. In this edition of his annual review, Ross pokes special fun at the falsifications and oddities of the numbers reported. But my point here is not to kick the University of Michigan Law Review while it is down, but instead to note that almost no one is subscribing to the printed form of academic law reviews any longer.

Why would anyone want a printed copy of a law review in 2013? The printed issues are slow to appear, ponderous to read in the sense of sitting in one’s chair and actually reading an article and, well, they are on paper. The modern legal researcher, especially if she was born after 1985, prefers the digital version where a Boolean search or, more likely, a simple request to one of the Google-like search engines of WESTLAW NEXT, LEXiS ADVANCE or just Google itself, retrieves just the relevant bit of a useful law review article. Professor Davies makes an empirical case that few are buying them any longer. So, to paraphrase that great 20th Century phrasemaker Jerry Seinfeld: What’s the deal with printed law reviews?”

The deal has roots in tradition, a tradition rooted in the printed page. The students who edit law school law reviews are highly status conscious and, however pedagogically pure their motivation, they also want a merit badge to show employers. Even that motivation traces back to the time when law review editors were chosen by grades, a practice long discarded. The physical printed object still means status. Something that you can hold in your hand stands for achievement. One of my colleagues who has tried to persuade the law reviews at Berkeley (we have twelve) to go digital, believes that the student editors want a printed journal to show to their parents.

Even as we melt into a world of social media and digitized reality, the printed version of the law school law review holds sway. The newest information generation clings to the symbolic value of the three dimensional representation of the law review. Though Professor Davies is charting its final losing battle, the printed law school law review is not going down without a fight.

[1] Title borrowed from The Wailin’ Jennies song of the same name.

[2] Full disclosure: I am on the Board of Advisors for the Green Bag. I have a complete set of U.S. Supreme Court bobbleheads.


  1. Even though most of the patrons in our court library use law reviews on commercial databases, we still have a large collection in print. One consideration for my library is the cost of subscribing to the law reviews in print. The cost is very clear – we can pick an choose titles. The cost is quite reasonable. With a commercial database you get a lump of them- you can’t choose as selectively – a la carte. We still have print and commercial databases for now. We did find that there was very little use of the online legal periodical indexes. I remember when it was the big change when Wilson’s (print) Index to Legal Periodicals was going to get competition. But I date myself…