Why aren't more journals like the Case Western Reserve Law Review?

What is the purpose of a Law Review?

It's 2013, but consulting the first issue of the Harvard Law Review (1 Harv. L. Rev. 35 (1887)) may prove instructive.

In many ways, the purposes of law reviews have not changed in 126 years. There is less an emphasis on "news" from the law school, but from symposia to student scholarship there is a school-centered emphasis in the scholarship published. The journal seeks to assist the profession as a whole (although its success achieving this point is certainly debatable). And it hopes to provide scholarship of "permanent value."

And while the purposes (as a general matter) have not changed, neither have the means. Apart from the thickness or a journal, the frequency of publication, the length of articles, the quantity of citations, and so on, law reviews look pretty much the same. They communicate to a generalist audience with a general subject matter. They are published at a few intervals each year, in print, with a lengthy editing process. They are printed, and circulated, and the process resumes.

The bulk of student editors' work is focused on citations. While the original Bluebook manual for citations, published in 1926, did "not pretend" to be exhaustive, the latest manual spans over 500 pages, is updated every few years, and consumes the overwhelming portion of students' attention. And students have just a year in charge of the journal: they accept positions in the early spring of their second year; they hit the ground running in article selection and editing; and, in one year, they turn over their duties to another set of students who begin again. Institutional memory is limited. Rewards for innovation appear few, as the process rewards catching up and meeting short-term goals in a one-year term over long-term investments beyond one's limited term.

But the Case Western Reserve Law Review has introduced a number of innovations to share scholarship and scholarly ideas in a variety of formats, and it has reconsidered some of the traditional means of scholarship in very good ways.

It has renovated its typography and publication format. It created a font, Legal Modern, [update: it is a "a repackaged distribution of Computer Modern for lawyers, not a new design"] designed for optimization both in print and on electronic media. It includes, among other things, "true" small caps. The old wide page margins were abolished in favor of very narrow margins, a recognition that reading an article in PDF on an electronic reader like a Kindle or iPad would improve. The old printed format had different headers on even and odd pages, assuming one viewed pages two at a time; the new format assumes single-page headers.

The law review hosts a podcast, Below the Line (available on iTunes), in which a recent author and two other scholars in the field discuss the author's recent work. It produces an organic and often lively discussion of the recent scholarship, and it provides an alternative outlet for learning about the work.

Its Twitter account is active, with a sense of humor and a high level of engagement. It accepts submissions via Twitter. It launched a Twitter symposium, first "Terrorism and Miranda," then on the Court's decision in Myriad, in which it retweeted law professors' thoughts on the matter and noted the "organic and lively" discussion that took place. And it's sponsoring a Lego Supreme Court giveaway for those who review a recent article published in the Law Review. It's more than simply a feed repeating the titles of articles: the social media is used as a different kind of presence.

(Let me offer a small word about letterhead bias and Twitter. The Cornell Law Review has a single tweet from 2010 and has over 400 followers. The Duke Law Journal has no tweets and over 350 followers. In contrast, the Case Western Reserve Law Review has interesting and unique content, an engaging and interactive presence, but boasts just over 250 followers. It's staggering to me that such a disparity exists.)

When I asked the Law Review about the barriers to innovation given a limited institutional memory, I was told that the enthusiasm from the previous editorial boards helps drive future boards to take the innovations and develop them. The ideas have been communicated to the new staff members at a very early stage with the hopes that they will take the inheritance and continue to improve upon the foundation created.

And what about the print edition itself? Well, the Law Review is going to preserve that form for a while longer, but I may have some words on it in a post to come. 

Why aren't more law reviews doing it?  Admittedly, institutional memory is a significant problem, as are the seemingly pressing short-term goals. But with vision and a staff that buys in, positive changes can occur. 

So take note, law reviews, about the changes that the Case Western Reserve Law Review has begun--and keep an eye out for future changes.  This is the way to operate a law review.

Special thanks to Volume 64 Publisher Elizabeth Horan for taking the time to discuss the Case Western Reserve Law Review with me.