Law Review Write-On Tips, Part 1 -- Read the Bluebook Several Times Before the Competition:

Many first-year law students will be participating in write-on competitions right after the end of the semester. (Some schools, like UCLA, conduct their competitions during Spring break, but the start of the Summer turns out to be the most common time.) Over the next several weeks, I'll blog a bit about this, mostly based on the "Getting on Law Review" chapter of my Academic Legal Writing: Law Review Articles, Student Notes, Seminar Papers, and Getting on Law Review book.

Let me start, though, with a suggestion for what you can do now. Yes, I realize that you're already doing something now -- studying for exams -- but this is what you might want to do in the breaks when you just can't bear to look at your outlines for another minute. Just as an athlete needs to prepare well before the competition, so do you. The write-on competition will require specialized knowledge that you probably haven’t fully learned. Use the time before you compete to acquire that knowledge.

The first piece of knowledge I want to point to is knowledge about how to cite legal authorities, commonly called "bluebooking" (after the Bluebook, which is the most commonly used citation manual). Some law review competitions have a separate editing test which tests your ability to bluebook, as well as to proofread for other problems. Others only require you to write a paper, but may grade you partly based on the proper bluebooking of that paper.

Often the bluebooking counts for 20% or more of your grade. The law review, after all, is looking for people who’ll be good cite-checkers, and part of a cite-checker’s job is bluebooking. The law review is also looking for people who are diligent, and who are attentive to detail. If you weren’t willing or able to put in the effort to properly bluebook your own work, when the result affects your professional future, the editors will reasonably assume that you probably won’t do a good job bluebooking others’ work, when you’re on the law review and have no personal stake in getting things right.

Figure out whether your law review will grade you based in part on your bluebooking. If it does, then ask it what citational manual it uses -- whether it's the Bluebook or something else -- and whether it has any supplemental instructions explaining how its style deviates from the standard manual. Then read the citation manual (and any supplementary materials) several times. Make it your bus reading, your exercise bike reading, your bathroom reading. The manual contains many rules, and many of them are not intuitive. Even the existence of the rules might not be intuitive; for instance, would you have guessed that the Bluebook has a special citation formats for The Federalist, the Bible, and Shakespeare?

The only way you can master the manual is by reading it carefully and repeatedly, and by marking (with post-its, for example) those items that you found most surprising, and that you think you’ll most need to be reminded of during the competition. You will then (a) have a good sense of the rules; (b) understand the general logic behind the rules (not all the rules are explicable using a general logical principle, but some are); and (c) have seen enough of the examples of how the rules are applied that you might more easily notice when something departs from the rules. Pay particularly close attention to the rules related to (1) cases, (2) statutes and constitutions, (3) articles, (4) books, (5) short forms, and (6) citation signals.

I have my quarrels with the Bluebook. I think it’s often helpful to depart from some of the rules, and I’ve had fights with law review editors about that. You may have similar objections.

Save them for when you’re an editor or an author. During the competition, follow the citation manual word for word. And before the competition, read it again and again.

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The Case for Abolishing the Blue Book:

In a recent post, Eugene gives aspiring law review editors advice on how to pass the Blue Book tests many of you are now suffering through. I would like to go one better and free you from Blue Book drudgery altogether.

The Blue Book, as every lawyer and law student is forced to learn, is the enormously complicated citation system used in most law reviews and (to a lesser extent) legal documents. It is a massive tome, over 200 [correction: 400] pages long, with rules for every conceivable situation and some that probably are not conceivable to anyone who has not had the painful experience of reading the Blue Book. When I was a law student and member of the Yale Law Journal, I proposed abolishing this monstrosity and replacing it with a simple citation system such as that used in virtually every other academic field. Here are the reasons why:

1. The Blue Book is an enormous waste of time and effort.

Every year, law review editors across the country spend thousands of man-hours editing articles to make sure that they conform to the Blue Book rules, taking Blue Book tests, and engaging in other Blue Book-related activities. Professors and/or their research assistants spend a great deal of time ensuring that their article submissions conform to the rules as well. This time could easily be spent in more productive ways, such as studying, research, clinical work, or even working on your tan at the beach.

2. There is no evidence that the Blue Book improves the quality of scholarship.

There is zero evidence that having a hyper-complex citation system improves the quality of legal scholarship. Similarly, there is no evidence that other academic fields with simple citation systems have lower-quality scholarship as a result. Indeed, the opposite is more likely to be true, since time devoted to Bluebooking could instead be devoted to improving research quality.

Nor can Bluebooking be justified by the supposedly "special" nature of legal research materials. Scholars in other fields who study law and legal institutions (e.g. - economics and political science) get along fine without bluebooking, even though they have to cite the same types of sources as legal scholars do.

3. The University of Chicago Law Review precedent.

The University of Chicago Law Review and other Chicago journals have been using a much simpler citation system, the Maroon Book since 1986. There is no evidence that the quality of scholarship in the U. of Chicago Law Review declined as a result.

4. Faculty edited journals.

Most faculty edited law journals use simplified citation systems. This is a sign that leading scholars (the type of people who found and edit faculty journals) do not consider the Blue Book an essential element of good scholarship (or at least that they do not believe the benefits of bluebooking to be worth the cost in a situation where they would have to bear that cost themselves).

If the Blue Book is so inefficient, why has it not been replaced already? I may address the cause of this market failure in a future post. In brief, I think it has to do with the lack of incentive of law review boards to properly value the time of both student editors and faculty authors, combined with the short time horizons of the former (Board members serve for only 1 year; the costs of any reform are likely to be borne in that year, while most of the benefits will be reaped in later years).

As the University of Chicago Law Review found, it is difficult for any one law journal to junk the Blue Book unless others follow suit. But if you are a board member at a prominent law journal, I urge you to explore the issue of Blue Book abolition with your peers at other schools. Such collective action would be particularly useful if initiated by one or more of the journals that publish the Blue Book: the Harvard Law Review, Yale Law Journal, Columbia Law Review, and Univ. of Pennsylvania Law Review. You will not even have to go through the trouble of creating your own citation system from scratch, since you can simply adopt the Maroon Book or one of the citation systems used by other scholarly fields (which all include rules for citing legal materials). If you succeed, you will earn the gratitude of generations of law students!

Update: As several University of Chicago commenters point out, the U. of Chicago journals are still using the Maroon Book. I am glad to hear it! I had been misled by some articles claiming that the Maroon Book had been abandoned. The text of the original post will be edited to reflect the truth.

Update #2: Some Bluebook defenders argue that its complex rules are necessary to enable readers to determine where they can find the source for the information cited. I had thought that the answer to this point is implicit in my original post. But let me spell it out just in case: other academic fields (including those where authors often write about law and use legal sources) that use simplified citation systems accomplish this goal WITHOUT the mindnumbing complexity of a 400-page rulebook and without wasting thousands of man-hours of time. The same is also true of those law journals that use the Maroon Book (which I think is also too complex, but far less so than the Bluebook).

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The Law and Economics of the Bluebook Market Failure:

As promised in my last post, I will now explore the reasons why the Bluebook market failure persists despite its manifest flaws.

1. Most Bluebook costs are externalities.

The decision whether or not to use the Bluebook is made by law review boards, but most actual bluebooking is done by low-level journal members or by authors of articles. To be sure, the onerous nature of bluebooking probably deters some people from applying for law journal membership, but at most schools there will be more than enough applicants anyway, because of the credential benefits of being a law journal member. The demand for journal membership is relatively inelastic. Thus, board members have little incentive to take into account most of the costs of bluebooking. To be sure, board members (at least at some journals) also have to waste time on bluebooking, but they might have to spend even more time adopting and implementing a new citation system.

2. Short time horizons.

Law journal board members generally serve for only 1 year. If they choose to adopt a new citation system, they will have to bear all or most of the transition costs (choosing the system, training people to use it, informing authors and helping THEM to make the transition, etc.), but will reap only a small proportion of the benefits, most of which will accrue to their successors. Moreover, if the transition turns out to be a failure, the board members might suffer considerable reputational costs, whereas few people will blame them for continuing with longstanding status quo policies. The key point here is that law journal boards have insufficient incentive to innovate.

3. Bluebooking as hazing.

Having to learn the Bluebook increases the costs of entry to law journal membership and, at least at the margin, makes membership a more exclusive club. The harder it is to qualify for journal membership, the more rare this credential becomes and - potentially - the higher the market value of having it. People who have already paid the cost of entry to the exclusive club (i.e. - board members) have at least some incentive to keep it as exclusive as possible. The phenomenon of fraternity hazing may work in the same way. Hazing makes it more difficult to join the frat, and thus makes it a more exclusive club for the brothers. Obviously, there are limits to this process. If the hazing is truly horrendous, there will be too few applicants for the club. But bluebook hazing hasn't (yet!) reached that point.

Some people argue that the main obstacle to Bluebook abolition is the self-interest of the four journals who publish it and make a great deal of money as a result (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Penn). It is true that this interest exists, but it does not explain why editorial boards at other journals (who are consumers of the Bluebook rather than producers) do not junk it in favor of a simpler system.

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Law Review Write-On Tips, Part 2 -- Set Up the Right Environment for the Write-On:

Many first-year law students will be participating in write-on competitions right after the end of the semester. (Some schools, like UCLA, conduct their competitions during Spring break, but the start of the Summer turns out to be the most common time.) I thought I'd blog a bit about this, mostly (but not entirely) based on the "Getting on Law Review" chapter of my Academic Legal Writing: Law Review Articles, Student Notes, Seminar Papers, and Getting on Law Review book.

The write-on competition is going to be time-consuming and time-pressured; you'll usually be allotted only several days to do a pretty difficult task. So try to make sure you have no other obligations during the alloted time. If you’re working part-time, see if you can take the week off, and make up the lost time before or after. If you have children, do what you can to get the other parent or someone else to spend more time with them during the competition.

Try to avoid leaving town to see friends or family. You might intend to do lots of work when you’re on the trip, but it’s hard to work when you’re around people you haven’t seen in months, and who understandably want your company. Going out to dinner with friends is fine; everyone needs a study break. But try to avoid more demanding commitments. If, however, you can’t get out of your other obligations for the week, don’t use that as an excuse to just sit out the competition. It’s possible for you to do well even if you also have to travel, work, study, or mind the kids that week -- it’s just easier if you can focus solely on the competition.

Finally, one suggestion that isn't in the book, but that a student recommended to me: If you live with a roommate, see if you can borrow a solo friend's apartment for the duration of the competition. (Since it will be during vacation, you might have quite a few friends who are out of town for work or for play, and who haven't sublet their apartments for the whole summer.) Not everyone prefers solitude for such things, and some people value familiar surroundings more than they value solitude. But for many people, the extra solitude can be a big plus.

All this is hardly rocket science; you may have thought of it already. But my sense is that students sometimes miss the obvious, so it's worth repeating.

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Law Review Write-on Tips, Part 3 -- Review Your Professors' Comments on Your Written Work:

In most write-on competitions, writing quality is a big part of your grade. What's more, the quality of your writing affects the perceived quality of your substance: Bad writing can keep readers from grasping your good arguments, and it can keep you from identifying your bad arguments.

So before the competition, go over any comments that you’ve gotten on your past written work, such as the papers in your first year legal writing course. Most writers make the same mistakes repeatedly. Figure out what your weaknesses are, so you can avoid them while doing the write-on.

If you can, meet with your writing instructors to see if they can elaborate on any comments they might have given you, or give you broader advice. Writing teachers like it when you come to them out of a sincere desire to improve your writing; and they often have specific suggestions that they’ll be glad to pass along.

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Law Review Write-On Tips, Part 4 -- Why Be on a Law Review?

A commenter asked why anyone would want to be on a law review. Here's the answer I give in my book:

Being on a law review takes a lot of effort, often many hours a week that you’d rather spend studying for other classes or having fun. Why do it?

1. The credential: Law review is a valuable credential on your resume. It’s especially valuable if you want to get a judicial clerkship or a teaching job, but it’s also helpful for other jobs, too. Employers assume that if you’ve been on law review, you’ve had more practice editing, proofreading, and writing. Also, because many law reviews (especially general-purpose journals) have selective admissions procedures, having “made law review” is seen as evidence of good grades or of writing skill.

What’s more, unlike grades, law review is a credential that’s socially acceptable to talk about. It’s hard to politely work your grades into casual conversation with potential employers. The grades will be on your resume, but not everyone at your prospective new job will have seen the resume, and those who have seen it may well have forgotten it.

But law review is a project that you’ve been involved in, so you can safely discuss it (of course, so long as you aren’t too blatant about it). “What are you doing at school this year?” “Oh, law review is taking up a lot of my time.” “Oh, really? What do you on the law review?” “I’m the chief articles editor.” Polite but impressive.

2. Editing, proofreading, and source-checking training: The key to good legal writing is the ability to edit and proofread your own work, and care in using sources. The key to these things is practice, both with your work and with others’ work. Law review will give you plenty of such practice — and in the process will teach you to pay attention to detail, another important skill lawyers must have.

3. Incentive to write and opportunity to publish: Many law journals require you to write a student Note, as a condition of being promoted from a staffer to an editor. Some of these Notes (the number varies from journal to journal) end up being published.

As I mention in Part VII.A, you can indeed write a Note and get it published even if you’re not on law review. But writing is hard, and if you don’t have an obligation and a deadline, it’s easy to keep putting it off. Being on a law review commits you to making that effort, and makes it easier for you to get a publication out of your work.

4. Cooperative and valuable work: Most things you do in law school — read, study, take exams — you do by yourself. Even those things that are cooperative, such as study groups or moot court, tend to be exercises, pedagogically valuable but with little effect on the outside world.

Law review lets you work as part of a team that produces something that matters: The articles you edit may end up being cited by courts and by scholars, and might actually make some difference to the development of the law and legal thinking. This sort of team effort can be exciting and rewarding.

5. Exposure to ideas: Working on the law review will lead you to read quite a few law review articles — and if you’re in the articles department, it will lead you to read very many. Many of the articles aren’t going to be very interesting or helpful to you, but some will be. This exposure to ideas can be both exciting for its own sake, and valuable for your future work, either scholarly or practical. (Naturally, you could just decide to expose yourself to ideas by reading articles on your own; but few people have the discipline to do that unless law review forces them to.)

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