Ranking Law Reviews as the August Window Opens
It’s not so clear whether the recent spate of scholarship on ranking law reviews is a reaction to an emerging phenomenon or oblivious to it. Rankings of law reviews long predate the recent efforts and, indeed, long predate the US News & World Report ranking of law schools. However, judging from my younger colleagues, US News is a perfect proxy for law review ranks. (To that extent, I take an even stronger position than Professor Alfred Brophy’s recent posting on SSRN, which, after engaging in considerably more empirical research than I, finds a .86 correlation between citations to a school’s main review and USNews peer review ranking).
In short, I believe that, when engaged in window shopping during the Spring and summer submission seasons., both the submission strategy and the expedite strategy are pretty much dictated by where a particular review’s law school falls on the US News scale. There is almost no concern with whether a review is better (or worse) than its home law school, nor any effort to consult studies such as Professor Brophy’s.
To the extent that this view pervades legal academia, and I am confident it does, other rankings of law reviews are exercises in futility: if suppliers of “content” (sometimes still called scholarship), follow the USNews hierarchy, law reviews will have their choice of articles pretty much in that order. Unless the student editors screw up pretty badly (and maybe even if they do), the “best” scholarship will continue to be published in the “best” journals, and the “best” journals will continue to be those associated with the “best” schools, all as determined by US News.
Precisely why this has occurred is unclear. US News is the 800 pound gorilla of legal education, so maybe it is not so surprising that it ends up ranking things it doesn’t even purport to rank. In that sense, maybe “black hole” is the more appropriate metaphor. But legal scholars should make more informed judgments about law review quality than do 22 year olds as to graduate schools to attend, so it remains a bit odd thatwe don’t spend more time deciding what their assessments are.
I think the reasons are fourfold. First, scholarship is more specialized these days, maybe hyperspecialized. How can we judge the quality of a law review when we can only understand an article or two per volume?
Second, we used to actually see law reviews, or at least the covers. I could tell what Harvard or Baylor published at a glance. Now we get much of our information in more focused SSRN or CILP or Lexis/Westlaw searches and usually have no idea what other articles were published in the issue.
Third, the current crop of young scholars came to adulthood under the spell of USNews. At some deep level, they believe in the rankings as more-or-less accurate with respect to schools and expect that law reviews will follow suit. When challenged, they will point out that, even if that’s not completely accurate, bounded rationality justifies looking to USNews rather than sorting through competing rankings.
Fourth, and probably most important, why pick # 53 over #41 (I promise, I didn’t look to see who these schools actually are!) just because it’s a better review qua review when friends at other school, colleagues, tenure committees and (God help us) University Provosts won’t understand the “fall” in prestige?
In sum, and with apologies to those who have put in so much effort in this enterprise, we should give up ranking reviews. (Well, actually, there may be a niche for rankers — we seem to be confused as to how to compare a secondary journal from Elite School with a primary journal from Lower Tier school. While it’s my sense that Elite School Secondary prevails over Tier 3 or 4 Primary, it’s possible that ranking studies may solve this puzzle.)
For those who disagree and want to continue the enterprise, my next blog will offer a cost-effective way to go about doing it, and trot out a new ranking, which, with all due modesty, I describe as the Sullivan Scale.