Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Journal 101: What I Learned in My First Year on the University of Louisville Law Review

When I learned that I had been selected to join the University of Louisville Law Review almost a year ago, I had two first impressions. The first was from a good friend, also a law student, who told me this: "Congratulations, you're going to hate it." The second was a line from The Pelican Brief, a John Grisham book that I happened to be reading at the time: "She suspected most law reviews and law journals were much the same. The top students hung out there and prepared their scholarly articles and comments. They were superior to the rest of the students, and were a clannish bunch who appreciated their brilliant minds. They hung out in the law journal suite. It was their second home." As it turned out, there was only a small shred of truth in both of these impressions. 
Being on law review has not always been a walk in the park, but then again, as one of our editors once told us, if law review was easy everyone would do it. In fact, the experience has been much more enjoyable than I expected, and more valuable. Because I think other students would benefit from an inside scoop on the so-called "journal," I'm offering a three-part series in this blog, focused loosely on the three biggest benefits of law review: experience, networking, and job prospects (disclaimer: I didn't come up with these three categories; they were described by the journal's current editor-in-chief at a recent informational meeting for 1Ls). 
I'm focusing on the experience category today. Law review is generally a two-year commitment, although the duties vary for individual members. A senior notes editor, for example, might put in 300 hours or more of work in a single academic year. The editor in chief probably puts in 30 hours every single week on top of classes. Other editors put in much less time. First-year members of the law review are obligated to spend one hour a week in the office doing editing work. We also are responsible for editing and cite-checking part of a scholarly article or note about once every two or three weeks. These projects are the meat and potatoes of law review. They're time consuming, detail oriented, and in some cases incredibly boring. But after doing about a dozen of them over the last ten months, I feel miles ahead in terms of my confidence in legal research and writing. I can find sources on Lexis and Westlaw lickety split, and tell you in the blink of an eye if a citation needs to be in italics or small capitals. If you think those skills won't matter in the real world, wait until your supervising partner hands you an appellate brief that is due in four hours and asks if you can make sure there are no errors. Any type of law-related work, from Legal Aid to Biglaw to a solo practice, requires attention to detail. Law review is a pretty good way to get it. 
The other major commitment of a first-year law review member is the dreaded note. I say dreaded because, even as a former journalist who wrote articles for a living, any time you are staring at a 25-page writing assignment (excluding footnotes), life feels a little scary. Fortunately, the process is divided into very manageable smaller parts, and there is a terrific support network in place. I had a faculty member read through my drafts and give me feedback. My notes editor, a 3L, also provided guidance. Even so, the note felt like I was giving birth to a baby, with the labor divided into five or six big pushes starting last summer and ending in late February. My wife will tell me that's a stupid analogy, but I can't think of anything better. Writing the note gave me a great appreciation for the amount of research that goes into a serious piece of legal writing. In the end I used 185 footnotes, including Supreme Court cases, federal agency directives, bits of congressional hearings, magazine articles, even phone interviews with professors at other law schools. The great thing about the note, at least at our law review, is that the topic can be pretty much anything. You can write about using miniature ponies as guide animals for blind people (see photo, above right), or analyze the pros and cons of new sentencing guidelines for crack users. I wrote about a new medical marijuana policy at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  The topic appealed to me because pot presents interesting federalism issues (legalized to some extent in 15 states, but still banned under federal law), and because marijuana's legal status is shifting under the Obama administration. Only about half of the student-written notes are actually published in the law journal, but either way the note satisfies our writing requirement for graduation. I'm hoping that my note is selected for publication, but either way I feel grateful for the experience. I admit there have been patches of tedium and even dread in my first year of law review, but I can honestly say that the larger part of the year has been filled with great experiences that have given me skills and tools that will be incredibly helpful as a lawyer. In the weeks ahead, keep an eye out for the next two parts of the law review series: networking, and job prospects. 

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