A reader writes:
Your "Law Review Lara" series is well-timed for me. I am currently a "staffer" on law review -- cite checking and finishing up a comment (2L). At my school, running for a board position (a 3L position) is optional. . . . My quandary is this: What is the career benefit of a "high board" position?
After following the LR debates and being a staffer, I am not sure I see any. Or at least see any for the majority of us at non-Harvard, Yale, Columbia etc. schools that have no hope of a legal-academic career. Wouldn't a law student be better off getting a job during their third year [externing] for a judge or in [some other] externship? Or doing anything that teaches them about how to be a lawyer rather than doing administrative work for journals that don't appear to be that well put together in the first place.
If you think board positions are valuable, a related question: Is any board position worth taking? There seems to be hierarchy within everything in law and law reviews are no exception. Are regular assistant editor positions viewed differently than editor-in-chief, etc. positions?
These are hard questions, for two reasons. First, there's been little or no systematic study of what benefits one gets from a "high board" position; so everyone's opinion is based on her own experience, which may be highly unrepresentative. (Plus, Law Review Lara was a mid-board assistant managing editor, in charge of proofreading, bluebooking, and coordinating cite-checking; naturally, she thinks this is fascinating and fantastically useful stuff.) Second, as the reader points out, the question is one of opportunity costs: Even if a high board position gives one some advantages, would your time be better spent on something else?
With that, a few tentative thoughts:
Law firms are desperate for some tips about how good a lawyer you'll be, so even fine gradations in a hierarchy tend to make a difference to them. They don't care that being a Chief Articles Editor has made you a much better lawyer; but they suspect that it means you were smarter -- or harder-working or more politically savvy, all important factors for a young lawyer -- than the average person who doesn't have that credential. This may or many not apply to specialty journals, which have a reputation as being not terribly selective; but it's likely true for high editorial board positions (Editor-in-Chief, one of the department chiefs, and to a lesser extent one of the department Indians) on the school's main journal.
Being on the law review board actually does give you practice in skills that are important for lawyers. Whether you primarily do editing, proofreading, articles selection, or supervision of student Notes, you'll be exposed to a lot of written work, which you'll have to critique or improve. Writing is one of the most important skills a lawyer needs, and we don't teach it nearly enough in law school; editing is the key to good writing; and editing others' work helps you learn how to better edit your own. Being an articles selection editor is probably the least useful here, but the compensation is that you'll then be exposed to lots of novel ideas on a variety of topics, and some of them may well come in handy in the future. (Warning: Others are just plain wrong, and may deceive you more than helping you.)
The law review is an extended, cooperative task, and participating in it -- especially as managers, which the editors-in-chief and the department chiefs are -- is important training in dealing with people (and in particular future lawyers). It's not quite like working in a law firm (the money isn't as good, for instance), but it does involve working with lawyers, being responsible for others' work, acting responsibly with your own work, and other things that do help prepare you for the working world. If you haven't had much work experience of that sort, being on a law review board can be useful.
All this having been said, "making law review" -- getting on the journal in the first place, and then working on it for a year as a staffer -- is probably the more important credential than getting a high editorial board position. And, as with many other things, if you expect to dislike the task, don't do it unless you think it will be really helpful. Life is too short to work for nothing on something that leaves you cold and that likely will be at best a moderately helpful credential. But at the same time don't exaggerate the value of, for instance, being a judicial extern during law school; that could be fun, but it's not a terribly helpful credential either. (Being a judicial clerk after law school is a good credential, but being an extern for a semester during law school generally isn't.)
Finally, to answer the last question: The credential value, from highest to lowest, tends to be Editor-in-Chief, department head (Chief Articles Editor, Chief Notes Editor, Chief Managing Editor or Executive Editor), then positions in the departments (Articles Editor, Notes Editor, Book Review Editor, and the like), then the unnamed editorial positions. This is a rough cut, and note that the board structure -- and particularly the position names -- vary from school to school.
In any event, Lara wishes she could have given you a more definite answer; but this is the best she's got. Lara is enabling comments so that others who are knowledgeable -- especially people who are practicing lawyers and are thus on the hiring side -- can speak to this question. (Recall that the question is the educational and credential value of having a high editorial board position, or any editorial board position when the board year is optional, not of being on law review in the first place.)