I Went Undercover on Law Review: Here’s What I Found

When I got to law school, the only thing I knew about law review was that Obama was editor in chief of the Harvard law review, and that sounded like a cool title. But I wanted to know more. So, a year and a half ago I decided to go undercover on BC’s Law Review. After toiling through the application process, getting accepted, and later sneaking my way onto the executive board, I’m finally able to publish my discoveries. Many of those I met and spoke with along the journey would only speak on background, but their accounts have been diligently verified by Impact‘s fact-checking team.

Law reviews (or journals; the terms can be used interchangeably) are the legal profession’s academic journals. They are the equivalent of medical or psychological journals for those respective fields, with a ranking system that is similar. Being published in Harvard Law Review is like having your study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Authors, usually law professors, submit articles to the editorial boards of journals, who select which articles they will publish. The difference for law reviews is that the editorial staff is composed almost exclusively of students, although some law reviews are run by practicing attorneys, or “adults.” According to the rankings, there were at least 1,529 (1529 in “Bluebook,” the language spoken by law review editors) law reviews in publication in 2017. Many of these are housed at law schools, and some schools have multiple journals. BC had four journals until two years ago, when they were consolidated into BC Law Review (BCLR). BC also has an independent journal, the UCC Digest, but I leave it to someone else to go undercover and pierce the corporate veil of that journal.

Getting Onto Law Review

At many schools, to get onto law review you go through a process called “write on.” At BC, this happens at the end of your first year of law school. As a congratulatory gesture, the materials for the write on are made available the day of your last final exam. BC’s write on has four parts. First is a memorandum of law, similar to what you learn how to write in the first-year writing class, in which you must analyze a set of facts using a packet of law that you are given. My year, the packet consisted of a couple statutes and several cases interpreting those statutes; we did not have to do any additional research. The memos are then graded by a group of masochistic editors.

Next is the Bluebook exercise. This was probably the most fun I’d had since Cancun spring break of senior year. The Bluebook is a spiral-bound blue book containing hundreds of pages of rules for legal writing and citations. Do you want to know how to cite a treaty entered into between Panama and Australia in 1917? Of course not, but when you need to know, the Bluebook has an answer. Remember how, when iPhone apps were this cool, new thing, people would say “there’s an app for that” to questions like, How can I improve my sleep without sleeping more or changing anything about my life? Well, there is similarly a Bluebook rule for every seemingly inconsequential source you want to cite. And the rules are incredibly precise. The Bluebook exercise requires you to correct about twenty citations that have something wrong with them. This process isn’t as hard as it is tedious, because, for example, some rules intersect, or overlap, and, incredibly, considering the Bluebook is over 200 pages long, sometimes there simply is no straightforward answer. The corrections that each student submits are also graded.

The third part of the write-on process is a run-of-the-mill personal statement; you’ve written lots of these. They are scored on a variety of factors including diversity of opinion, life experience, and writing quality. For most students, the grades of those three assignments are combined with the final factor, your first-year law school grades, to create an overall score. Those who score the highest are invited onto law review.

What Happens Once You’re In

The first year on law review you hold a position called “Staff Writer,” and you have three main tasks. The first, which happens during the late summer leading into and during your first semester of second year, involves writing a Case Comment. The Case Comment is a fifteen-ish page commentary on a case recently decided by a circuit court of appeal that results in a difference of opinion between circuit courts of appeal or involves a hot button issue that, cross your fingers and pray to God, will not be taken up and decided by the Supreme Court before the following summer, when selected Case Comments are published online. If the case you comment on is upheld or overturned by the Supreme Court, then what you wrote isn’t really relevant anymore because the ultimate legal commentators have spoken, and your chances of publication plummet. For a Comment example, you can read mine here; feel free to click download and boost my stats (it’s nearly as riveting as this blog).

The second Staff Writer task, which begins near the end of your first semester and continues for the entirety of your second semester of second year is the “Note.” The Note is a forty-ish page essay arguing some legal point. You can see an example here, where a student, who, for the purposes of anonymity I will refer to using the pseudonym “John Glavin,” wrote about an immigration detention issue concerning deportation orders. While the potential Comment topics are culled by executive board members, the Note topics are wide open. (Pay attention to the preceding sentence; by the end of this blog, you’ll be able to explain why it would never be published in BCLR as it is written.) It’s an opportunity to take a deep dive into any legal topic you want, and potentially get cited by other scholars or even a court.

The third Staff Writer task, and I truly saved the best for last, is called a source collection. When authors who are not BC students (they are almost always professors at law schools) have their articles accepted for publication with BCLR, every source they cite is collected in its original form so that it can be vetted by an editor to ensure that the citation is correct. Staff Writers have the task of finding all of these sources so that someone else can check them.

What Third-Year Journal Students Do

Third-year students hold some kind of editor position. There are about fifteen elected positions on BCLR, which comprise the executive board (or e-board). These include, for example, Editor-in-Chief (think Obama), Managing Editor, and Executive Articles Editor. Unelected positions include Articles Editor and Senior Editor. I will give a quick description of what each entails, through which I hope will emerge a broader image of how a law review functions and what publishing a book (the name for one edition of the law review) entails.

Editors-in-Chief handle the big picture stuff. Setting year-long priorities for the journal, making sure the journal’s style guide is up to date, handling conflicts, and setting the publication schedule for the journal’s articles, among a myriad of other tasks that are far beyond my ken. Managing Editors are responsible for assigning source collections to Staff Writers and for checking every citation in an article that BCLR publishes. Their job is basically one protracted Bluebook exercise. Executive Articles Editors, the position I’m in, read through articles submitted to the journal by outside authors (i.e. not second-year students on the journal), and select the articles that will eventually be published by the journal. Executive Articles Editors also help supervise the edit of those articles once they have been selected. There are several other executive positions that help oversee other aspects of article production.

Articles Editors are the primary editors for articles submitted by outside authors. They read through the entire article, and, for example, place citations into Bluebook form, help find missing citations, and make sure that the article conforms to BCLR’s Style Guide. Every publication, from the New York Times to BCLR, has a style guide. They cover things like grammar or citation quirks. In BCLR style, for example, “while” must be used to denote time, and may not be used when “although” is meant (see the incorrect usage in the sentence mentioned above). Senior Editors perform essentially the same tasks, but for the Staff Writers’ Comments and Notes. They also provide bigger picture recommendations, like moving this paragraph here, or addressing this counter-argument.

Why Do People Join Law Review

There are a plethora of reasons to join a journal. It looks good on your résumé, especially if you want to apply for a clerkship with a judge later on. Judges appreciate law review because it shows that a student is committed to improving their writing and citation skills, and suggests that their writing has been refined during law school by the process. Another reason is improved writing. Taking the time to pen a Comment and Note, and have that writing criticized by others, will vastly improve your legal writing and citations. Because this is what many lawyers spend a significant amount of time doing, it’s not a bad idea to hone these skills while in school. Law review can also take up a significant amount of time, and it demonstrates to employers that you’re willing to add to an already stuffed law school schedule. It doesn’t matter if you want to do Big Law or public interest work, law review helps. If you look at the descriptions of associates at big law firms, or of attorneys who work at the Bronx Defenders or your local ACLU, most of them probably note that that attorney was on her school’s journal.

I have escaped my undercover plunge relatively unscathed. I can definitively report that, yes, the period after id. must be italicized. So, if you like a little extra pressure on top of a typically light law school academic load, and you really enjoy copyediting, then law review is for you! Who knows? Maybe you’ll see your own name in print someday soon.


Alex Bou-Rhodes is a 3L at BC Law and Executive Articles Editor of the Boston College Law Review. He loves hearing from BC Law Impact readers. Reach him here.

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