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Something My Law Review Write-On Exercise Reminded Me About:

I've said it before, but it's worth repeating -- read the instructions, and then reread them some time later.

When I first read the instructions while doing this Spring's law review write-on competition, I saw that they told me to include no more than 80 characters on each line. I can do that, I thought; I carefully adjusted my margins, and thought I was set. (The instructions also told me to use a nonproportionately spaced font, so this fixed character limit was easy enough.)

A few days later, I followed the advice I gave in my book (the point of the exercise, after all, was to test and improve on the advice that I've been giving) -- and saw that the instructions said no more than 70 characters on each line. Whoops! Fortunately, I caught the problem in time, and had plenty of time to trim my paper by 12.5%. (It turns out that one can almost always find enough flab in a first draft to cut that much, and even more.) But I shudder to think of how embarrassed I'd have been if I hadn't caught it in time -- or if I had erred in reading the instructions 16 years ago, on my real write-on, when the error would have cost me an important credential for my future legal career.

Now I'm generally a pretty careful and attentive fellow when it comes to things like this. I know how to read. I know my 7s from my 8s. I don't even have the excuse of having been under the influence of the pressure that ordinary first-year students feel when they're doing the law review write-on. Yet I still made a dumb mistake -- which just shows how easy dumb mistakes like this are to make.

So protect yourself from these mistakes: Make sure that you reread the instructions a few days after you first read them, so that your mind is fresh enough to pay attention to them, but so that there's still time to correct your paper if you find that you misread the instructions at first.

wj (mail):
So, did you wind up making it on law review after all?
5.15.2006 5:16pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Are the law review people really this anal? I mean if someone turned in a worthwhile paper that had 80 chars per line why wouldn't they just send it back with a note asking them to drop it down to 70?

I'm very disturbed by what I keep hearing about this blue book thing and other things suggesting an unreasonable attention to inconsequential detail. Is it part of the culture in law to be anal retentive like this? Doesn't this get in the way of substance?
5.15.2006 5:21pm
Confused:
@ logicnazi -- Legal writing (and oral argument) requires you to conform to length requirements all the time. Although some judges are awfully permissive, it doesn't strike me as inappropriate to hold someone to the rules of the competition and penalize them for exceeding the length by fifteen percent.

@ Eugene -- In some ways, it strikes me as an example of why, if you're going to assign an arbitrary requirement, you should assign one that conforms to expectations. Maybe this is just a generational thing (and I'm on the cusp of the same generation you would've been in here), but the 80x25 character window from DOS days would probably have led me to read 80 characters per line, too. Where did they get the 70 number from!? [EDIT: It appears to be the number of characters per line with 12 pt Arial and 1" margins. This computer doesn't have Courier, so I'm not sure if the same is true for that font (it's not for Courier New, which is very fat).]
5.15.2006 5:36pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
wj: The answer is yes, as I said, somewhat indirectly, here.
5.15.2006 5:37pm
JohnO (mail):
Logicnazi:

Because that process would: (1) basically give the rule-breaker an extra period of time to edit his or her paper down to an acceptable length; and (2) essentially destroy the anonimity that underpins most write-on competitions.

Law students are notoriously paranoid and conspiratorial, and I don't even want to think aboutb the uproar that would occur if a student who didn't follow the rules and turned in an overlength paper was given a mulligan to turn in an edited paper after the competition has ended.
5.15.2006 5:38pm
Steve:
The Sixth Circuit once made me buy something called a "pica ruler" in order to bring my brief into compliance. I assure you that these overly-anal rules provide excellent training for the real world, or at least some aspects of same.
5.15.2006 6:00pm
KeithK (mail):

The Sixth Circuit once made me buy something called a "pica ruler" in order to bring my brief into compliance. I assure you that these overly-anal rules provide excellent training for the real world, or at least some aspects of same.

While it may be good training for the real world, this kind of requirement strikes me as down right assinine, even more so when it's a court that's insisting on it.
5.15.2006 6:07pm
The River Temoc (mail):
But I shudder to think of how embarrassed I'd have been if I hadn't caught it in time -- or if I had erred in reading the instructions 16 years ago, on my real write-on, when the error would have cost me an important credential for my future legal career.

Lookit, if we are more or less awarding clerkships and professorships on the basis of whether a paper contains 70 or 80 characters per line, then something is wrong with the system. Period. (And I'll not open the bluebook to determine whether that period is italicized or not.) If the goal is to control the length of submissions, there's an easy way to do that: it's called a word count.
5.15.2006 6:23pm
gcb:

Is it part of the culture in law to be anal retentive like this? Doesn't this get in the way of substance?


Yes, and yes. :(
5.15.2006 6:26pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Gad, they even make the profs write their way on these days?

Sorta funny that the requirements are geared to ensuring that a word processed document looks like it was typed on a Selectric...
5.15.2006 6:31pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
1) The reason for zealously enforcing the requirements, I take it, is to be fair to the participants in a competitive process (whether that process is a write-on or real litigation). If you set up rules and don't enforce them, that rewards those who violate the rules and penalizes those who follow them.

2) It would surely be good to give some sort of break to people who make an honest mistake -- for instance, let them know of the problem and give them a chance to correct it -- but for the reasons that JohnO gives, that's often hard to do. And while I'm told that the UCLA Law Review does try to impose only a minor penalty for minor transgressions, rather than throwing out the paper altogether, going more than 10% over the allotted space wouldn't have been a minor transgression.

3) Word count requirements and character/line count requirements both serve the same basic goal. Maybe the former would be better than the latter. But once you have one or the other requirement, it has to be enforced.

4) Clerkships and professorships are not awarded simply based on whether one has made law review, though making law review is one helpful (though neither necessary nor by any means sufficient) step towards both.
5.15.2006 6:38pm
reneviht (mail) (www):
What's with the confusing a 7 with an 8? Employing the maxims of implicature, we can infer that Eugene is trying to convey some relevant message. The analogy seems to be that we Americans are too unwilling to count for ourselves today.

So, Professor: is the mssage "horses make a toot-toot sound" or "Cab drivers are Information Technology authorities"?

(apologies to SLS 1L)
5.15.2006 7:21pm
Redman:
I've always felt that the intricacies of appellate briefing requirements (not just in style but in substance, such as "each point of error must be argued separately" etc) were created and endure to give the court an excuse to decide arguments on procedural and not substantive grounds.
5.15.2006 7:37pm
Confused:
@ The River Temoc: I would actually say that just the opposite would be true; that is, it would be a shame if those to whom we are entrusting the fair and impartial application (or at least research and interpretation) of our written laws (that is, clerks) were incapable of following a simple formatting requirement plainly stated in the rules for a test of extraordinary importance. If reading the rules carefully twice is too much of a bother for them because they're so eager to show off their writing prowess and stick a fat feather in their caps, then they are ill-suited to clerking and, indeed, ill-suited to the law (though they'll find many fellow travelers there). Remember -- it is not that someone who misses the formatting rule will be replaced by some random, unqualified applicant to law review; he or she will be replaced with the next person in line, an applicant likely only marginally inferior in substantive writing and analysis (and apparently wholly superior in paying attention to the rule).

To the extent this seems unfair, it seems unfair because laymen (including lawyers in utero) are accustomed to a regime in which rules are regularly bent and details are damned. We can and should expect better from lawyers. Sadly, we don't. Those of you who have the good fortune to clerk in the future -- an opportunity that will not be won by formatting, no matter how cleverly you do so -- will discover that the briefs and excerpts of record you receive routinely flout the court's stated rules and you will invariably receive dozens of requests for extensions of time and of length that are essentially groundless. I suspect when that happens you will feel differently about teaching lawyers that it's not a big deal if you ignore the rules.
5.15.2006 7:46pm
John Lederer (mail):
I am the only lawyer I know who had his brief on the merits returned from the U.S. Supreme Court with a note stating that my covers were "pink" rather than "red", and that I was given 10 days to refile the brief wthout change to the contents in red covers.
5.15.2006 8:23pm
Wizened:
These sorts of mistakes will happen with greater frequency as you age. Take consolation that at least we're all aging simultaneously! (I deliberately ignore those of us who are travelling near the speed of light.)
5.15.2006 10:29pm
Closet Libertarian (www):
I still disagree with the advice to read the blue book. You must do examples to lean the blue book. I had a BB workbook but can't find it right now. There are also things online like this http://www.lexisnexis.com/icw/ . I think doing these excercises is much more helpful and less painful than reading the blue book.
5.16.2006 11:59am
Closet Libertarian (www):
Addendum

I put this under the wrong post, sorry.

Also, I do highly agree with the advice to tab the BB. Just tab the sections that you find your self looking at while doing practice exercises. I suggest tabs for the following sections:

Signals
Cases
Statutes
Periodicals/Law Reviews
Jurisdictions (just the relevant ones,i.e., fed and your state)
Electronic Cites
Case Names (T6)
Explanatory Phrases (T9)
Geographic (T11)
Periodicals (T14)
5.16.2006 12:14pm
Anon E. Moose:
Confused:

I concur with your statement about conforming to expectations. 80 character width, like a 4'-8.5" rail guage, has a value of being the standard, even divorced from any practical roots.

However, law review is largely a sorting exercise, where any way to cull the herd is desired (by those engaging in the sorting) regardless of the intrinsic value of the particular test. They would be equally happy to toss every entry whose last word has an odd number of vowels.
5.16.2006 12:17pm