Every year, thousands of manuscripts stream into Gannett House, the oldest building on Harvard Law School’s campus and the home of one of the most reputable legal journals in the country, the Harvard Law Review.
After a long process of selection and editing, only a few dozen of these manuscripts leave the building, squeezed tightly into the 2,000-page annual volume of the Harvard Law Review.
The selection of articles for publication in the Harvard Law Review and other legal journals often shapes the fates of academics trying to obtain tenure or prestigious government appointments.
Yet the Harvard Law Review and its peer publications differ from academic journals in other disciplines in one respect: they are edited and published by law students.
“As a second year law student I was deciding...the academic futures of many,” said Harvard Law professor Alan M. Dershowitz, who graduated first in his class at Yale Law School and edited the Yale Law Journal. “We had enormous power.”
Indeed, most other scholarly journals are peer-edited—reviewed by professional academics—but legal scholarship lies primarily in the hands of students. Eight out of the top ten most cited law journals are student-edited and affiliated with a law school, according to a 2012 Reuters report.
Some have contended that law students, who have typically only spent one or two years studying the law, are not equipped to select pieces. Others assert that the selection process is inherently biased—law students are more likely to select the works of their professors.
However, the laborious task of editing law reviews and historic precedent of student-reviewed journals may prevent peer-reviewed journals from ever entering the picture. With so many barriers to entry and a functioning, but imperfect system, legal experts say that the student-driven law review model is here to stay.
MEET THE [STUDENT] EDITORS
Not all Harvard Law School students are lucky enough to spend their time in Gannett House. More than 200 first year students compete in the writing competition that determines admission into the Review, and only 46 are accepted each year based on their writing and editing skills.
“Everyone knows that a law review student is a top student,” said Gerald Lebovits, a Columbia Law School adjunct professor and a New York City judge, who was named one of the ten most published law professors by Business Insider.
Though students who run some of the most prestigious law reviews have advanced through multiple selection processes that value academic achievement and critical thinking capabilities, many scholars express doubt as to whether the students’ judgment and understanding of the law is sufficient for such an important role.
“We were young, brash, arrogant kids,” Dershowitz said, reflecting on his time at the Yale Law Review. “In retrospect, it was an enormous amount of authority for someone so young.”