Law Review Write-On Competitions, from a Law Review Editor:

I'm not sure how representative these views are, and I can see a downside to following this advice. But my correspondent has fresher experience with grading papers than I have, so I thought the advice would be worth passing along:

You mention in the book already [my correspondent is talking about my Academic Legal Writing book] that if you think of more than one possible thesis, you should choose the more creative one. I think this is much more important than you make it seem. This year, our competition was about [a topic that implicated a circuit split].... Out of my alloted stack of 22 papers, about 18 of them took one side or the other (or some more complicated position) on the circuit split.

The other 4 papers had very different sorts of theses.... All of these topics [that the 4 papers focused on] were mentioned in the cases and supplementary materials, and there were enough sources to make a 7-page comment out of it, but the topics were not clearly indicated by the packet materials.

These papers were at a significant advantage. First, they got all the creativity points instantaneously, though for us this was only 2 points out of 45 total. More importantly, they put the grader in a good mood after the monotony of reading the same thesis elaborated over and over. And even more importantly, I hadn't been primed with the counterarguments already, so the papers probably got more points for thoroughness and convincingness of arguments than they would have if I'd seen 20 papers making various counterarguments.

I should note also that I followed this "ignore the circuit split" strategy when I took the competition last year, and it worked. (Though I was really nervous about making that choice at the time.)

Second, structure is critically important. Not only is it allocated more possible points than any category except analysis, it also helps the grader understand the analysis better and can therefore lead to more points in that category, too. If two papers raise exactly the same arguments and counterarguments, the one that is structured more clearly will almost certainly get more analysis points than the other, in addition to the extra structure points. Additionally, having clear structure when writing the paper can show you, as the author, which arguments don't quite work and help you make them better.

Nearly all of the papers I graded had exactly the following headings:
I. Facts
II. Analysis
III. Conclusion

This is basically no help at all. It doesn't tell me anything about what the argument is and where it's going. I understand that it might be tempting to forgo subheadings because of the major space constraints, but they are totally worth it.

This advice, as with all advice about write-on, should be taken for what it is: one data point that you should follow or not follow if you find it worthwhile. As a write-on editer, I was shocked to learn of other graders taking points off because the writer hadn't found a way to work in a cf. citation on the ground that if the writer had known how to use it he would have used it.

While the quoted grader may think that ignoring the obvious makes for a more interesting paper, there are probably others who think ignoring the obvious issue means you missed the obvious issue and your paper is irrelevant or worse.
10.25.2007 2:18pm
I've read the advice a few times and I'm not sure what exactly the four good papers did, but I would offer a quasi-counterpoint (as someone who also graded law review petitions last Spring): if the petition is a closed-source affair, your creativity is limited by the sources you are given. I read a number of papers last summer that were interesting and creative, but quite lacking in support (unsupportable, really, given the materials the petitioners had to work with). Considering that a good chunk of the grade was based on use of authority, these students' creativity probably hurt their overall scores more than it helped their scores.
10.25.2007 2:29pm
Extending DJR's thought, it is almost worse if a writer deliberately chooses entertainment value over directly addressing the problem presented. I understand that sometimes there is a better solution C where split circuits have chosen A or B, but this is rare and I'm not sure that it is what the comment describes. Perhaps the unconventional writers correctly calculated the humanity and lack of perspective of the editors. Better evaluators would be able to look beyond the monotony and realize that some of the seemingly dull papers likely used clear prose and focused on the task. If they want amusement, open up the topic. Reasonable judges would not score creativity points for avoiding the primary issue.
10.25.2007 3:38pm
I agree with your law review editor, but I'd also add that some entries spend way too much time recapitulating facts. Our competition was a 12-page paper, and I found that many of the lesser essays were still reciting facts on page 7 or 8. The better ones got it out of the way no later than page 5. Obviously, there's more to writing a good entry than that, but I thought I'd share.
10.25.2007 3:45pm
I was under the impression that, more often than not, Bluebooking was weighed far more heavily than writing skills.
10.25.2007 3:55pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
From my experience creativity would be risky. One editor marked me down for not footnoting what was an original thought of mine.
10.25.2007 4:38pm
And... (mail):
Once you are out of law school, and have worked for awhile, law review begins to seem like a massive waste of time, yet for far less credit than it deserved. (That is, for the amount of time that was spent on law review activities, which could have been spent studying, it was not worth getting so few credit hours for it.)
10.25.2007 5:38pm
Pip (mail):
'Editor,' DJR, 'editor.' The 'e' isn't by the 'o' on my keyboard
10.25.2007 11:56pm
Recent editor:
I agree with the commenters who think that this is terrible advice. For a closed-universe writing competition, you're being graded more on your ability to use the authorities at hand than on your ability to come up with a new, unsupported-by-the-authorities argument -- no matter how correct or creative the argument may be.

If you're choosing between spending more time thinking up a creative argument or focusing on the nuts and bolts of writing a solid (if uncreative) argument with good Bluebooking, you're much better off sticking with the latter option.
10.26.2007 11:09am
Dee (mail):
As a former law review editor, who did the paper-grading, this seems like a horrible idea. To try to be objective, we followed the following approach.

(1) Anyone who could not comply with page length/typeface/margin requirements was tossed out of hand. One had better not need a law degree to know that if the rules require courier font, 12 pages, 1 in ch margins, 25 lines per page, you comply with them.

(2) Quality of citations/proofreading (since this is what the bulk of the law journal work would focus on anyway). We deliberately awarded the most points for: (a) correct bluebooking; (b) number of correct ciations; (c) correct grammar usage; (d) absence of typos; and (e) correct use of quotations.

(3) Whether the paper had a good, concise fact recitation that offered the facts needed to decide the issue, and whether the analysis identified the key issue and cases on point.

FWIW, as a now-employer of lawyers, it does matter to me to see success in a law journal or moot court competition for precisely the above reasons, especially if a candidate comes from a lesser-tier school, or has some less-than-fabulous grades. In my experience, such candidates in practice have a far better attention to detail that serves them well later on. (And yes, I say that with all the usual caveats re diamonds in the rough, grades are not necessarily predictive of future success, etc.). It also matters tremendously to judges evaluating clerkship applicants.

And, unless you are working full time during the day, you absolutely have the time to both study and do law journal. Last time I checked, the average law school semester involved 4 classes a semester, of 3-4 hours per week. Child's play compared to the 50+ hours per week you'll be putting in as an average associate.
10.26.2007 12:41pm
Randy R. (mail):
In my experience, the conclusion would be the least consideration. I agree substantially with many of the comments above, and I would add only that the meat of an article is in the analysis -- finding the critical issues, discuss them fully in light of precedent, maybe throw in a little bit of public policy or other articles (but only a little bit). If you can't do that adequately, no amount of correct bluebooking gives you the right to be on the law review.
10.26.2007 2:04pm