The Length of Law Review Articles:

Over at Crooked Timber, Micah Schwartzman offers a response to Richard Posner’s critique of law reviews. This section on the length of law review articles caught my eye:

  Posner faults students for the ridiculous length of legal articles. But most articles are submitted at lengths well over 25,000 and frequently over 40,000 words. . . . Posner complains that student editors add unnecessary footnotes to articles. But when a submission is already 40,000 words long, and often badly researched or cited (even by the most minimal standards), what’s another 5000 words below the line? . . . .
  It’s true that law professors submit long articles in part because law reviews will publish them. But law reviews publish short articles, too. Some law reviews have started to institute word caps, but many law professors do what they can to avoid this and will negotiate at length with editors for more words. . . . [C]onsider what would happen if tenure committees announced that they were no longer interested in reading articles over, say, 10-15,000 words. The average length of law review articles would drop dramatically. Moreover, such a move might foster a change in the norms of legal academic publishing. What counts as a good “tenure” article has become the standard for all law review articles: 70 single-spaced pages and 250-350 footnotes. That is the target. Change the tenure standard, and everything else changes with it.

  A few random thoughts in response. First, I agree that most law review articles are much too long. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s masterpiece The Path of the Law is only 19 pages long; I don’t know why most law review articles have to be 60 or 70 or 80 pages long. Most of that is padding, anyway; most articles have about 20 pages that are the guts of the argument, and another 50 pages of literature review, discussion, and repetition.

  Who is to blame for the length of most articles? I’m not sure, and in all likelihood there is enough blame to go around. Schwartzman focuses on tenure standards, but I don’t know how far that goes. Most legal scholarhip is not submitted to obtain tenure, and my sense is that most tenure committees don’t have a preference for pieces longer than about 50 pages.

  What length do articles editors prefer? In my experience, law review editors do tend to prefer longer articles, and longer articles do tend to place higher in the pecking order. For best placement, the optimal length is probably in the neighborhood of 80 pages. Why is that? Perhaps student editors use length and footnotes as a proxy for measuring scholarly impact. Student journal editors who are in charge for just one year may want to select works that will be regarded as the end-all-be-all article on that topic, and perhaps they are more easily convinced that a given article will be so regarded if it is 90 pages long and has 500 footnotes than if it is 20 pages long and has 50 footnotes.

  Of course, that’s just my speculation. Whatever the reason, it does seem that articles editors generally prefer longer submissions. Once, before I started teaching full time, I submitted two short essays to law reviews in the same month. One journal made me an offer, but with a curious condition; they wanted me to put the two short essays together so the combined work would be the “right” length for an article. If I would combine the essays to create one full-length article, the editors explained, they would publish that article. The fact that the two essays were on different topics didn’t seem to bother them; they liked the essays individually, and expressed confidence that I would find some common theme if I put them together. As you might imagine, I declined.

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