It has been conventional wisdom for some time that the legal academy has become increasingly disconnected from the practice of law. And because of this, law reviews are said to be of little use to attorneys and judges. A recent piece in the California Lawyer by a law professor and former law school dean has received some attention for making these claims in the strongest terms. From the article:
I did my own count recently of the California Supreme Court opinions published during the past five years that relied on law reviews as authority: There were just six. This despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that law reviews have tripled in number since the 1970s. The 20 ABA-accredited law schools in California now publish a total of 82 law reviews. UC Berkeley’s alone publishes 14, while Stanford and UC Hastings each publish 9. Both law professors seeking tenure and law students seeking employment at elite law firms eagerly fill these volumes. But who reads them now? Surely not the judges who decide the law. And not practicing lawyers either.
As Adam Liptak of the New York Times observed a few years ago, “Articles in law reviews have certainly become more obscure in recent decades. Many law professors seem to think they are under no obligation to say anything useful or to say anything well. They take pride in the theoretical and in working in disciplines other than their own. They seem to think the analysis of actual statutes and court decisions—which is to say the practice of law—is beneath them.”
I’m not quite sure the method that the author used to identify just six citations to law reviews, but I performed a quick and dirty Lexis search and turned up far more. The bigger question, though, is whether the author is right that judges are not reading law reviews. A new article by David Schwartz and Lee Petherbridge indicates that, at least for the federal appellate courts, the conventional wisdom seems to be flat wrong. In fact, according to their study, law review citations have increased dramatically in the last twenty years (even when accounting for the increased number of journals). I couldn’t cut and paste the tables and graphs from the article, but the results regarding the proportion of court opinions that cite law reviews are clear.
So, why is the conventional wisdom so completely wrong on this point? Maybe citations are clerk driven. Or it could be that judges are misremembering the golden age of law reviews. I want to offer a different explanation, though. Judges and commentators have argued that because law review articles are rarely concerned with legal doctrine, they are of no use to those practicing law and judging cases. I think there is a strong argument that it is precisely because law reviews are unconcerned with doctrine, they are much more valuable to judges and are cited as a result. Articles that merely outline, discuss, or analyze doctrinal areas do little to advance the judge’s knowledge beyond what he or she could establish alone. Instead, it is the broader theoretical points and empirical studies that are outside of a judge’s metaphorical wheelhouse. Just as judges will not allow an expert on law to testify, it makes little sense for law reviews to inform judges about topics which they are comfortable. Instead, like the expert on ballistics evidence or biological sciences, law reviews that are increasingly removed from “law” actually educate judges where they are weakest. And, as a result, law reviews are increasingly being cited by the very judges who proclaim their uselessness.