Monday, November 27, 2006

Volunteers, botanical and scholarly

First, a quick primer on botanical volunteers:
Volunteer oxalis
The good garden accepts volunteers such as Oxalis. Should law schools follow suit?
In gardening and botanical terminology, a volunteer is a plant that grows on its own, rather than being deliberately planted by a human farmer or gardener. Volunteers often grow from seeds that float in on the wind, are dropped by birds, or are inadvertently mixed into compost before it is used.

Unlike weeds, which are unwanted plants, a volunteer may be encouraged once it appears, being watered, fertilized, or otherwise cared for.

Volunteers that grow from the seeds of specific cultivars do not reliably "come true", and often differ significantly from the parent. Such open pollinated plants, if they show desirable characteristics, may be selected to become new cultivars.
All of which raises the question: Why not switch to all-volunteer law reviews?

This is a proposal made six months ago by Paul Horwitz. In an effort to mediate MoneyLaw's ongoing debate between Jeff Harrison and Orin Kerr, Anthony Ciolli of First Movers implicitly endorses Paul Horwitz's proposal. In the commentary on Anthony's post, fellow First Mover N.J.L.S. demurs:
Membership in a selective journal -- as opposed to an open membership journal -- signals to employers the applicant is a motivated self starter, with an eye to improving critical skill sets. The application process also signals to employers that the member's written product garners the respect of peers. Both are efficient indicators that employers can and should consider in extending offers to interview.
Hands in the airAs much as I admire N.J.L.S., whose Urban Law Journal is one of the most thoughtful blogs on law (without regard to professional or student-written status), my instinct is to side with Paul Horwitz on this issue. Paul's analysis is extensive, and any effort to summarize it here will not do it justice. But this one quote from Paul's proposal captures its spirit, given how true the sentiment rings across the entire range of issues that MoneyLaw endeavors to address:
The legal academy . . . is ostensibly reformist in orientation but actually highly conservative, especially when it comes to maintaining those status markers that have served them so well.
Ye gods, Paul. I wish I'd written that.

For the Love of the GameUltimately, this is a debate that can be settled at relatively little cost. If I had, say, a spare $12,000 or $15,000 in an annual budget, plus the power to grant a law school's institutional imprimatur, I'd set up something called the Volunteer Law Review. True to its name, the VLR would grant membership to any upper-level law student who wants it and is willing to work to keep it. Its open-admission status would guarantee that the VLR lacked the prestige of its selective-membership counterparts among student-edited law journals. On the other hand, the lack of prestige guarantees that the students who show up are doing so strictly for the love of the game. Who knows what this corner of the garden might generate? Perhaps nothing. But for roughly a tenth of a tenured law professor's salary, I sure would like to find out.


Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

Jim: Could you elaborate on the VLR? I have no problem not restricting law-review-like activities to those with high grades. Some of my best students do not do well on the small sample of performance the exams provide. Still, I assume the review would publish articles. If so, it would compete for them with hundreds of reviews and I think we can all agree that no article worth publishing does not find a home. (And, if one slips through it can go on SSNR.) In sum, it's hard to believe that any thought someone wants to put down on paper these days does not find an outlet.

So, if the review provides no new service to the public, it exists to allow students to signal something to employers. Putting aside whether law schools should subsidize law firms by lowering their search costs, should a public school be in the signaling business? What signal would the review send that is not already available through summer jobs, law school organizations, course selection, and volunteer work in and out of law school. Is it that the students would themselves find an outlet for their writing? Is that what would bloom? Or is the hope tha the review itself, by virtue or the articles published, would raise itself out of the forest of other volunteer reviews that currently exist. It seems possible to me that organizing the VLR makes it easier for students to signal but isn't the whole idea to force them to demonstrate committment through an activity that is demanding?

(By the way, if you quote any of this in a post could you tidy it up first? Thanks. Jeff)

11/27/2006 9:33 AM  
Blogger Alfred L. Brophy said...

Jim--interesting proposal. I hope to have some fuller comments on this later. But first a question: don't some of the secondary journals at elite law schools fit your description of "volunteer" law journals? I thought that some had essentially open membership. Perhaps I'm wrong; it's been nearly twenty years since I was a first year law student (and hence was concerned with the standards for membership on various journals).

11/27/2006 9:35 AM  
Blogger N.J.L.S. said...

A few points in response:
1. I noted the efficient outcome of employers being able to rely on journal membership as one (of many) rough proxies that can facilitate an employer's decision to extend an offer to interview. Jeff Harrison put aside the question of "whether law schools should subsidize law firms by lowering their search costs." True, this reduces the employer's search costs, the appropriateness of which I do not address. More importantly, however, it can help a student "get her foot in the door" when perhaps grades alone would not merit the employer's time. This is of critical importance to law students, especially those attending "Top 170" law schools (hat tip to Anthony Ciolli at First Movers) as opposed to Top 10 law schools.

2. I support the VLR idea, and I think that it is consonant with with my original comment on First Movers with some caveats. Having recently experienced the OCI process, I can attest that employers are much less concerned about which journal an applicant writes for, but are more concerned with whether a student writes for a journal. My defense of 'selective journals' is based more on my belief that they will more rigorously instill essential skill sets. If there is a way to ensure that comments/articles in a VLR are as thoroughly checked for accuracy and formatting (as opposed to most advanced writing requirements, which do not undergo similar peer review), then I would fully support a VLR. Indeed, such a journal would likely appeal to particular a set of employers seeking to attract members who participate in a journal for 'the love of the game.' (Although, if that were truly the case, the student written pieces should probably be unsigned.)

11/27/2006 2:45 PM  
Blogger Anthony Ciolli said...

Some very quick replies to NJLS

-- I don't see why employers should be a concern here at all. If there is a need for law schools to signal certain students to employers, then create the "[name of famous alumni / donor / etc.] Award for Distinguished [Writing / Academic Performance / etc.]" and award it to everyone who fits the criteria. Leave legal scholarship out of it.

-- What exactly are the "essential skill sets" that a journal is supposed to confer, and why would a more selective journal be more likely to confer them? The associate editors on Penn Law Review did the exact same thing as associate editors on my secondary journal: source hunts and bluebooking. I'd hardly say either of these skills is essential, or that "selective" journals magically do a better job teaching them. But maybe things are different at your school.

-- As for making sure articles/comments are thoroughly checked for formatting, I imagine quite a few people would think that the current obsession with formatting is part of the problem!

-- Why should student pieces be unsigned? The ghettoization of student written work is probably one of the biggest crimes of the current law review system. I can't think of any reason why student-written pieces should be treated differently than faculty or practitioner written pieces (and that applies to "good" discrimination too: student-written pieces should not be treated with kid gloves or given preferential treatment in the process; if I had it my way all "comments/notes" sections would be eliminated).

11/27/2006 8:49 PM  

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