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Law Review Lara:

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.)

  3. 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.)

DBL (mail):
One of my professors in grad school used to say, "There's no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing." I didn't fully appreciate that until I was in law school working on the review. IMHO, writing a note, and having it seriously edited, is the second-best training you can get in law school, surpassed only by editing someone else's note or article.

That's irrelevant, of course, to the question presented, which was about credential value, and there I subscribe to Prof. Volokh's views.
2.14.2005 4:27pm
Matt (TT) (mail) (www):
Eugene has, as he usually does on this sort of thing, nailed it. Being on a journal board (as I was) teaches you valuable lessons about management of people who may well be smarter and more skilled than you, the editorial process, clarity of argument, and perhaps most importantly of all, time management. My personal board position involved doing the main edits and supervising cite checking on a major article and a Note each semester (the journal was twice-yearly at the time), as well as serving on the Board, which meant playing a role in article selection. All of those experiences have proven useful as a practicing lawyer, and I hope will prove useful should I make the move back into academia. Hell, I'm even considering writing something for the Green Bag in the near future.
2.14.2005 4:32pm
chris (mail):
I think some important points about #1 should be made. Most law students will have law firm jobs lined up by the time that they find out what position on the board they will take. Certainly a candidate that is marginal in other areas (grades) at a marginal law school might find themselves looking for a job as a 3L, and it might help, but I would imagine that short of being Editor-in-Chief, there will not be much value beyond the value attached to the fact of being on law review as a staffer in the first place. I imagine most employers stop at the words "Law Review".

Perhaps the most important place where an editorial position will help is with clerkships. I would say that many judges would be more impressed with "Managing Editor" than working in a clinic or working for a firm (if working for a firm is the choice, I think most would assume it was done for the money). Certainly a clerkship helps with getting hired by a firm, but most people that get the truly prestigious clerkships could get a job at a big law firm anyway. Perhaps many (although certainly not all) of the people that take the less prestigious clerkships (state district courts, magistrates, etcetera) may not have made law review anyway, and want to burnish their resumes with something else.

Certainly it is important to enter the academy, but how important, and why? Is it important because most law professors were editors, and they assume that only people with similar resumes (school, extra-curriculars) to their own are worthy of a tenure-track position? Will being a managing editor help with their writing? Recall Judge Posner's recent complaining (whining?) about the uselessness of student-edited journals when considering how valuable they are for training future members of the academy.
2.14.2005 6:44pm
A.S.:
Lara sez "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?"

But you need to judge what the costs really are. What do 3L's do on your journal? At mine, they still did work (I can't quite recall what, these many years later, but it was SOMETHING - reading extra articles as a first cut at the submissions, perhaps?). So is being a Notes Editor (for example) really that much MORE work than what you would otherwise do? And, is it more interesting work? When I was an Articles Editor, I actually quite enjoyed being able to work with a lawprof...

Besides, what ELSE are you going to do during third year?
2.14.2005 7:32pm
Jerry L.:
In point #1, you wrote that board selection has a proxy value to future employers. I just wanted to share the details of the selection process at my alma matter (a top 20 law school), having been involved in it myself a few years ago.

Board selection at my alma matter is a proxy for two things: how well one can replicate his leaders (a form of political maneuvering, I suppose) and pre-law school experience. Our board did not consider grades, did not consider hours worked, did not consider the diligence of staffers, did not review in detail their editing work, did not have any system for evaluating their personalities over the semester, and did not discuss how intelligent people were perceived to be. The things we gave weight to? Pre-law school leadership roles and whose we thought would behave most like the last year's board.

These are factors are weakly correlated with the qualities of a good attorney. High board positions have a historical prestige, but many attorneys are finding its predictive value relatively useless.
2.14.2005 7:50pm
Anonymous Law Student:
I'm going to disagree slightly with Eugene on the externship answer, because it's more complex than I think he gives credit.

Judicial externships are not prestigious. Period. I don't care if you're working in the chambers of Ueber-Feeder Judge From Mars (Alex Kozinski), it's not important. However, if you work it properly, it can be very useful. I did a semester externship, and the district judge I worked for was instrumental in getting me a circuit clerkship after graduation. A number of my cohorts at the law school (at least three) will be clerking for district judges they externed for. So if you want to travel that route, see if you can find federal judges with similar policies- some explicitly refuse to hire their externs.

However, if you're interested in working for the government in some capacity, an externship with the agency you want to work for can be extremely useful in getting your foot in the door at, for example, the local district attorney's office.

I would change Eugene's advice to caution you that an externship, by itself, is not useful as a credential, unlike being able to say "Yeah I was an editor of the ___ Law Review." An externship, properly used for specific ends, can be very, very useful.
2.14.2005 8:19pm
Anonymous:
I think board selection depends on the law review. At my school (a top 20 school), board selection required one to fill out an application, interview, and take a production test related to the job you were applying for. So a Notes Editor would edit a note, Articles Editors would read sample articles and make comments, etc. Also considered were the evaluations done by managing editors of the staff member's work over the year.

But no matter how your specific school does it, I agree that it will be a helpful credential, especially for clerkships.
2.14.2005 8:32pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail):
If the school is Michigan (just a hunch), that is like 'Columbia etc.' in a way not true of other state schools. Academia (at some level) would be an option, and a minor editorship on a journal would be a good academic credential.
2.15.2005 1:49am
RPS (mail):
A.S. wrote "Besides, what ELSE are you going to do during third year?"

Lots of things, golf, see movies, drink on random afternoons, sometimes just plain nothing.

I think the most important part of what the Blogfather said was - do it only if you are really interested in it. If you are, great, go for it, but if not, you have the rest of your life to work hard at becoming a better lawyer enjoy the last year of your life where you can truly relax.

As far as clerkships, my personal experience in applying and reviewing applications is that it only matters at the margins. The three biggest factors in no specific order are grades, law school, and faculty recommendation (this has nothing to do with "name", we got letters from lots of big "names" and you could tell the professors mail merged the letters - useless. What you want is a prof who is willing to pick up the phone and be persuasive).

As someone said, chances are you already have a job, your chances at a clerkship are already set, so personal gain and satisfaction should be your only reasons for doing it. Recognize though, it will likely be a ton of work - many on my journal said they worked harder 3L year than they did 1L year.
2.15.2005 10:48am