Law Review Article Length: What Changed?
Berkeley law prof Bob Berring has a short piece in the latest issue of The Green Bag wondering about why the elite law reviews decided to adopt their article length policies that call for shorter articles.

  Berring applauds the change -- as an aside, I should add that most legal academics seem to agree, with the most notable exception being the smallish group of professors who like to write 100+ page drafts -- and focuses his attention on the timing of the policy switch. Academics have been criticizing law reviews for years, Berring notes. What changed? In Berring's words, "So what is up?" Berring speculates that the reason might be competition from online databases such as SSRN, or perhaps the influence of the Green Bag itself.

  This is an interesting question, at least to us law profs. The policy change was a pretty bold move, and anecdotal evidence suggests that it has led to a significant shift in the scholarly designs of many law professors. In response to the policy change, most lawprofs are trying to write significantly shorter articles. Berring is asking a good question: why now?
DaveK (mail):
Honestly, I think it was mostly just happenstance--the Editors-in-Chief of the top law reviews are a group who talk amongst themselves and who have 100% turnover each year. This past year, there just happened to be someone bold enough to propose the idea, and everyone else--who, as always, had to slog through dozens of overlong articles--thought it was a good idea and went along with it.
6.30.2005 4:31pm
Rob Lyman (mail) (www):
Because Micah Schwarzmann wanted it that way and was cocky enough to think he could make it stick (VLR beat most of the others by a year; Micah was the articles development editor who pushed the change through).
6.30.2005 4:41pm
Haven't had a chance to read the Berring piece yet, but I don't think there's any special explanation behind the timing. I was lead articles editor at one of the participating law reviews when the new policy was adopted, and my impression (the movement originated with the EICs, so my perspective is at one remove) was that some EIC simply decided it was time to act, got in touch with other EICs, and a bandwagon was quickly assembled. No triggering incident or anything, as far as I know, but a long period of irritation that authors simply refused to believe us when we said that we actually *don't* want 1/3 of every article to be background material/literature review. An arbitrary page limit would be both over- and underinclusive (I had strong reservations about it for that reason), but at least it would send a clear signal that we meant what we'd been saying.

As far as I know, "competition" from SSRN or Green Bag had nothing to do with it. (Did Berring get this impression from asking editors, or is it just speculation? I'm having trouble imagining the mechanism here.) Simply, I suspect, a matter of editors getting tired of wasting limited time and pages reviewing, editing, and publishing articles that could routinely be much shorter if the authors weren't convinced we were impressed by sheer bulk and/or in need of spoon-feeding, comprehensive introductions.

To the extent I can hazard a guess as to a real trigger, I wonder if it isn't the increasing presence on law review boards of students who have done advanced work in other academic disciplines (if indeed it is increasing, as my anecdotal experience suggests). For such people (like me and my EIC), the standard format of law review articles is simply bizarre and insanely inefficient (as are the selection and editing processes, both of which I think are more urgent matters than article length). Perhaps a critical mass of people with a different perspective on scholarly publishing finally resulted in some action.

From looking over the shoulder of my successor now and then at the spring submissions, though, I'm not so sure that the "significant shift" has happened quite yet.
6.30.2005 4:46pm
former articles editor:
although a member of one of the participating law reviews, i too am somewhat removed from the decision making process since i was an articles editor. however, i can tell you from the articles committee's perspective, ssrn and green bag had nothing to do with the decisionmaking process. the length of articles is just one of those issues that has been discussed for a long time, so it isn't really surprising this eventually happened.

the one timing aspect that did surprise me, though, is how late in the year we voted on the change and the policy was publicly announced (if i remember correctly, this all happened sometime after the first of the year). at the time, i remember thinking that many professors had probably already written their articles or were in the final stages. i guess so did the drafters of the policy, hence the clause about being able to resubmit without prejudice. anyway, the point is, although i do believe the eics this year were more inclined to finally institute a page limit, i think it took them half a year of actually experiencing the avalanche of articles before they finally decided something needed to be done. i know on my journal, the eic's office was on the same floor as all the articles editors, so he had to constantly hear us complain about article length (like all articles committees, we were an opinionated and loud bunch).
6.30.2005 6:29pm
former eic:
I was the EIC of one of the reviews that adopted the joint statement last year, and the previous comments are exactly right -- it was a combination of leadership from a couple of EICs and a good relationship among all of us that made it possible. Neither SSRN nor the Green Bag ever came up, either in discussions among the EICs or during our internal discussions.
As for the timing, which I agree was unfortunate for some authors, it was largely unavoidable. Quite frankly, I did not feel comfortable in my role until 6-9 months after I was elected, which, when compared to any other job, is really quite quickly. We all had to become comfortable with our respective institutions, and with legal academic publishing in general, before we could make reasoned and appropriate changes to the system. By the time we reached that point it was nearly too late.
I've not read the Berring piece (either I'm an idiot or the Green Bag does not have their most recent articles online), but I think it's very easy to overstate the importance of SSRN and the extent to which the reviews are influenced by it. It may have contributed to the open access movement at some institutions, but that is about it.
6.30.2005 7:35pm
Jim Lindgren (mail):
Presumptive page limits was one of the reforms that some of us were pushing in the law reviews reform movement of the early and mid-1990s. There were conferences of the top 20-25 reviews at Stanford, Chicago, and Northwestern in the mid-1990s, when a lot of reform (in editing and article selection) and interchanging of ideas took place. (BTW, I don't think most young professors have any idea how aggressive law review editing used to be in the 1980s compared to the norm today.)

Here is what I wrote about page limits in 1994:

There are other, more subtle problems that are at least exacerbated by student editing. For example, the extraordinary length of most legal articles is a reflection of the need to impress students. In scientific disciplines, on the other hand, there is constant pressure by outside referees to shorten articles. Although it's only my impression, I think that law review editors respond positively to the padding that weights down most law review articles, accepting long articles more readily than short articles. The faculty-edited journals that I have dealt with are much stricter about length than the student-edited journals. Most long articles would be better if they were half their length. If most journals insisted on page limits of thirty-five or fifty pages, authors would change their style, and the major journals could publish twice as many articles. More important, what they published might be readable by human beings. An Author's Manifesto 61 U. Chi. L. Rev. 527, 531 (1994); see also Reforming the American Law Review, 47 Stan. L. Rev. 1123 (1995).

The idea of presumptive page limits has been percolating among law reviews for a decade, but I have no knowledge of what triggered the move recently. UVA was a leader back then, too. It was the first to move from 2 week offers to 1 week offers in 1986, and the first to move to exploding 1-day offers in about 1994-95.

Jim Lindgren
7.1.2005 12:41am