New Harvard Law Review Policy on Article Length:
Acccording to an e-mail I just received in my inbox, the Harvard Law Review has adopted a new policy on the length of articles it will publish:
  The Harvard Law Review will give preference to articles under 25,000 words in length — the equivalent of 50 law review pages — including text and footnotes. The Review will not publish articles exceeding 35,000 words — the equivalent of 70-75 law review pages — except in extraordinary circumstances.
  Although academic publications from a range of other disciplines regularly use length limitations, we are aware that we are abruptly introducing a constraint to which the legal academy is unaccustomed. Not surprisingly, then, we anticipate growing pains and acknowledge that our approach runs certain risks. Still, we hope the policy we announce today will play a modest role in reversing a trend that has cost legal scholarship dearly. . . .
  We encourage contributors who have submitted articles that exceed the new length limitations to resubmit abbreviated versions of their articles. We are sorry for the inconvenience this mid-year change will cause and the additional work it will surely require. Please understand that these policies, however burdensome, are intended to enhance legal scholarship in the long run. Indeed, the Review conceives of this new policy as a modest first step in a longer process toward substantially shorter articles.
  Fascinating. I don't know how many authors will rewrite their articles just to suit the preferences of the Harvard Law Review — the HLR accepts only a small handful of pieces by non-HLS faculty every year, so serious consideration is a longshot for any individual author — but it will be interesting to see if other law reviews also supplement the recent statement of principles with more explicit length policies. Is this the beginning of something big?

  I have enabled comments.

  UPDATE: Micah Schwartzman notes that the Virginia Law Review is ahead of the game; it adopted the following policy last year:
We strongly prefer Articles under 20,000 words (including footnotes). We will publish manuscripts over 30,000 words only under exceptional circumstances.
More on the Virginia Law Review policy here.

ANOTHER UPDATE: As a commenter points out, the Columbia Law Review has adopted the following policy:
Effective February 28, 2005, the Columbia Law Review will no longer review nor publish articles or essays in excess of 37,000 words in length (including text and footnotes; measured by Microsoft Word's word count feature), barring exceptional circumstances. In addition, we will give preference to articles and essays submitted under 32,000 words in length.

Rex (mail):
A great start top forcing better writing! I've long felt that high school English papers ought to be assigned with a maximum length rather than a minimum length--it's HARD to present a coherent argument in a short space. Maybe we can take the phrase "legal brief" out of the list of oxymorons.
2.10.2005 2:04pm
Mr. X (mail) (www):
As a 1L, I think this is great news. Coming from a technical writing background, where excessive prose is strongly discouraged, I was surprised why my Legal Rhetoric instructor talked about needing to make law review articles long enough to be accepted. Why should length be more praised than concision and clarity?

Yours truly,
Mr. X

...happy day...
2.10.2005 2:05pm
Josh (mail) (www):
This news comes a day late and a dollar short for this embattled cite-checker.
2.10.2005 2:34pm
Crime & Federalism (mail) (www):
I think that shorter articles are in the best interest of both the publisher and author. Assuming, of course, that the publisher and author want to their articles to be read. (I realize that getting something published might be more important to some people than having their articles read.)

I think that the next step would be to require that the text in the body of the article exceed the text of the footnotes. I always crack up when there are only one or two sentences in the body of the page because the footnotes have taken over. When people say, "Law review articles are a source for for research, and thus need a bazillion footnotes," I say, "Then write an annotated bibliography, as that would be much more readable."

Still, I doubt the efforts to shorten articles will be fruitful -- Legal arrogance is too great. Most legal writers say: "Well, I'm sorry you're too lazy to read my full article." That's arrogant and it's wrong to blame the reader. I have a level of sophistication with a couple of topics, and I've seen more than a few articles touching those topics that I couldn't read because they were so dredfully written.

The only hope for shorter articles is that younger scholars seem to follow the Garner school of legal writing. If enough people keep reading Garner (and Volokh), then things will eventually improve.

Until the newer scholars take over, the arrogance of the professor/judge/lawyer will prevail -- If law review articles aren't being read, it's because everyone else is obviously too stupid/has too short an attention span/is too lazy to marvel at the 150-page wonder. Until a bit of humility is introduced into the academy and judiciary, articles will remain cumbersome.

Of course, I hope I am wrong. (Incidentally, I just got the latest HJLPP, and the articles therein are - as usual - better than most law review articles).
2.10.2005 2:57pm
Josh (mail) (www):
I'm of the impression that the entire law review industry is a self-perpetuating one, or nearly so. Law students don't care, and for the most part, neither do lawyers and judges. Professors and deans do. With tenure erasing differences in pay &position, publication becomes currency. All in all, I can't say that the majority, or even a significant proportion, of published articles are noteworthy or merit recognition. I think most articles are simply destined to become someone else's footnote in another upcoming "So What?" symposium. From my point of view, all I care about is my workload. Outside that, I don't think anyone will or should care about this aside from professors themselves.
2.10.2005 3:08pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
Several observations:

1. I doubt that any of these Law Reviews will really hold to this when they are confronted with big-name law professors who insist on longer articles. On the other hand, it will be rigorously enforced (and "extraordinary circumstances" will be come "no circumstances") with respect to unknown professors, lawyers, and law students.

2. While the sentiment behind these rules is right-- most law review articles are way, way too long, spending way too much time reviewing the literature and not stating their arguments succinctly-- they will, if they are enforced, throw the baby out with the bathwater, by forcing articles on subjects that require lengthy treatment to be slashed.

3. Meanwhile, I also wonder if these rules will impede editors from cutting 50 page or 20,000 / 25,000 word articles that actually can say what they are trying to say in 15,000 words.

4. Many professors may get around these rules by splitting one long article into several shorter ones. Of course, this is a great way to meet tenure requirements.

5. Long articles are not really the problem so much as a symptom. The problem is bad writing and bad editing, which results in articles that are hard to read and which, yes, often are way too long. As a practicing lawyer, I have dealt with page limitations on briefs for 10 years. These limits often have the effect not of improving the writing of lawyers who can't write briefs well, but simply of forcing them to treat important points with very shallow or no argumentation whatsoever. Since the point of law reviews is to have detailed argumentation and thorough scholarship, I am not sure these rules will lead to the desired result. And I do think that any real solution to the problem would need to be directed towards achieving better writing and better editing, not simply shorter articles. A short, bad article is no better than a long, bad article, except that the duration of the reader's frustration is a slightly shortened.
2.10.2005 3:57pm
Practicing Lawyer:
I have an idea: why doesn't the Harvard Law Review state that it will accept only articles that are in the form of three haikus, each of which rigorously adheres to the 5-7-5 syllable structure? Also, the first letters of the lines of the haikus must spell out the name of a current member of the HLR board.

I just find it so bizarre that students are imposing word limits on professors. It just suggests that law is not a serious academic field.
2.10.2005 4:23pm
I agree with the new limits, but I'll just make this one point: they are also to some extent self-serving. From my time as an editor of a top-15 journal, the worst part was doing the first read through many, many lengthy submissions. I usually had to read through at least 7 or 8 articles a semester - and, to be fair, I usually did it twice, so as to make sure I wasn't misreading anything. And none of the articles I read were ever chosen for publication. To the extent that such work is cut down on, the editors of the HLR will be quite, quite happy.
2.10.2005 5:47pm
James W.:
To me, this seems to skirt the issue. Will arbitrarily selected (yet shorter) page limits make legal writing better? How do I know what information is necessary and unnecessary. Although I'm a graduating night student, I'd consider myself an advanced neophyte at writing (published, two in the works, co-author with a partner at a different law firm, helped in writing a handful with lawyers at my own firm). I'm very stingy with excessive prose, but still write long articles.

Most of the topics I've covered are complex (as opposed to philosophical), requiring me to get into statutes, the CFR, interpretive caselaw and any relevant legislative history or agency guidance. Some have required extensive histories of appellate practices or agency actions to prove my point. Others require gobs of case citation to show deviations or similarities in circuit court holdings (past and present). When we use law review articles in practice, it is often to gain a firm grasp of the basic groundwork before a foray into the details we're trying to learn about - so I can't pretend that every reader is already an expert. Footnotes tend to include the rebuttal of anticipated but tangential arguments against me; when I summarize the position of a judge, especially if it's one I'm criticizing, the footnote usually includes a substantial quote of the opinion (i.e., don't trust my characterization - see for yourself). These latter two practices have grown out of disappointment with sloppy and/or glib articles by law professors, so I'm not inclined to give them up.

So what should be deleted out of all this? I'm not being sarcastic. Considering the group that reads this site, I'm honestly interested in what common portions of law review articles should be reduced or excised completely.
2.10.2005 5:59pm
Law Clerk:
I agree with practicing lawyer. The law students are just trying to cut down on their work, and placate more authors. There are some subfields that require length. Indeed, if you are going to trace the history of something you probably need length.

It is all well and good for the usual suspects to start talking about how people need to be brief and how “good writing” is short, but unless they are willing to provide specific examples of how longer works could be shortened (preferably longer works by big names) their criticisms ring hollow.

And, come on, we all know that big names will be the “exceptional” circumstances. In fact, I suspect that anything Mr. Volokh published would be “exceptional.”
2.10.2005 6:03pm
While this policy will have the result of cutting down on the work editors have to do, I don't think it is necessarily self-serving, at least in its primary purpose. People, including professors and practitioners, complain that law review articles are too long (as evidenced by the HLR survey). However, no individual author thinks that HER article is too long. So while authors are eager to cut other authors' articles, they do not want to cut their own. Editors fight a very difficult battle when trying to get authors to cut pieces down. Most simply refuse. Creating an across-the-board policy like this gives the editors a little bit more leverage with individual authors, and everyone benefits.
2.10.2005 7:07pm
Columbia has apparently adopted a similar policy:
2.10.2005 7:11pm
Micah (mail):
I find the idea that this policy is self-serving rather laughable. Sort of like saying: we worked insane hours, for insane reasons, and so should you. If we're going to work long hours, at least we should do it for good reasons--not for the sake of some hazing ritual. At any rate, the fact is that law review editors are going to work just as hard as they did before. Either they will publish more and better articles, or they will devote their time to improvements in selection and editing. By nearly any disciplinary standard, however, the average law review article is too long. I screened nearly 1700 article submissions this year (out of nearly 2200 total submissions), and my hunch is that the average length was over 30,000 words (and probably over 35k). I doubt that even 2% of those articles really needed to be that long. Even articles that are highly doctrinal do not need to be that long. The industry standard, as it were, is a result of the lack of peer review, which would never tolerate articles of this length. (Most peer review journals cap articles at 10,000 words.) As more students enter the law from other disciplines, they will bring this awareness with them. Articles don't need to be behemoths to make their points thoroughly and accurately. Somehow, professional historians, political scientists, and economists all manage to live with articles of reasonable length. In exceptional circumstances, an article might really need to be rather long. But in many cases, authors would do well to write books. This year, I received articles that were over 75-80,000 words long; or "two-part" articles that were equally long. That is monograph length. And very few law professors would suggest otherwise.

Will big name law professors get to break the rules? I doubt it. My law review published a number of well-known scholars this year. In fact, they authored some of our shorter pieces. We also turned away 45-50,000+ word manuscripts by important scholars, a number of whom acknowledged that their articles would have been shorter had they realized we were taking shorter pieces. As the culture of legal publishing changes (perhaps in ways that Orin Kerr suggests above), editors will find that these changes make good sense across the board. But more importantly, well-known scholars have less incentive to write really long pieces. That's frequently why we have good "essays"--really just normal length articles--coming from establshed academics. By removing the perception that others need to write long articles to get published, the recent statement by top journals may help to widen the phenonemon.

Should law students get to set the word limits? Others have pointed to the benefit of solving a collective action problem here, and there is some truth in this. But if law professors really want to publish longer pieces (and the Harvard survey strongly suggests otherwise), nothing prevents self-publication (e.g., on-line via SSRN) or publication through specialized peer review journals. I doubt that faculty would run journals publishing articles of such length. Another point here: I think some of those advocating for long articles (and there aren't many--so I might be wrong about this) also aren't big fans of student edited journals. Since faculty wouldn't publish long articles if they were responsible for editing them, it's hard to take this combination of views seriously. And I don't think many people really hold them. Most probably want shorter articles and peer review, and, if not that, shorter articles in student-run journals. And at least we have a chance at the latter.
2.10.2005 9:59pm
Fred Vincy (www):
I'm reminded of Bill James' comment that when the Dodgers sneeze the whole league catches a cold. I predict that this will spread widely -- except Yale will take a principled stand against and a few fourth tier schools won't notice for a while.
2.10.2005 10:35pm
Law professor at top ten school:
All I can say to the good people at Harvard Law Review is: bless you, bless you, bless you.
2.21.2005 2:51pm