How Twitter Can Save Law Reviews

By Steve Klepper (Twitter: @MDAppeal)

Recently, a New York Times column by Adam Liptak reignited a running controversy over the utility of law reviews. If you’re interested in that controversy, I recommend responses by Will Baude and Orin Kerr at The Volokh Conspiracy, plus a rebuttal by Christopher Zorn at Empirical Legal Studies. And, more to the point of this post, Derek Muller’s post, Why Aren’t More Journals Like the Case Western Reserve Law Review?, examines what certain law reviews are doing right. Building on Professor Muller’s observations, I’d like to offer my own observations on how an online presence, particularly through Twitter, can increase a law review’s readership and encourage a dialogue useful to the bench, bar, and academia.

Having spent over a decade failing miserably in attempts to publish with student-edited law reviews and peer-edited history journals, I have no great love for either system. The majority of practitioners are like myself—we didn’t make law review, and, even if we might find the idea of publishing a law review article intriguing, we find the law-review-submission process both mystifying and intimidating. We don’t want to take countless hours of otherwise-billable time writing an article that may not find a publisher. What is true of novels is also true of law review articles: many of the best articles are never written. Few attorneys, other than law professors or aspiring law professors, have sufficient incentive to write a 30,000-word scholarly piece.

Early this past year, I learned of the phenomenon of online companions to law reviews, which invite submissions (often responses to print articles) in the 3,000 to 4,000-word range. I learned only because Glenn Gordon, then the Senior Online Articles Editor for the Maryland Law Review, was clerking at my law firm. (He’s now clerking on the Court of Appeals, so there’s the connection for the Maryland Appellate Blog.) I discussed an offbeat idea for a short article, and Glenn suggested that I reframe it as a response to a print article about to be published. My piece, The Practical Implications of Recusal of Supreme Court Justices: A Response to Professor Swisher, 72 Md. L. Rev. Endnotes 13 (2013), appeared in Maryland Law Review Endnotes in August.

Also in 2013, I started using Twitter for professional development, and I followed various law reviews’ feeds. Penn Law Review tweeted a link to Four Conceptions of Insurance, by Kenneth Abraham, providing a broad overview of current scholarship on insurance law. Emboldened by my experience with Endnotes, I sent Penn Law Review an abstract for a proposed response. That piece, Whose Conception of Insurance?, 162 U. Pa. L. Rev. Online 83 (2013), was just posted. The process was delightful, and I’m grateful to Bianca Nunes (Online Managing Editor) and Jessica Rice (Online Executive Editor) for their great work in editing the piece. I didn’t work directly with Technology Editor Peter Wu, who deserves praise for Penn Law Review’s top-notch online presence.

To be sure, Case Western Reserve Law Review (@CaseWResLRev) has the most entertaining and innovative Twitter presence—even if I’m disappointed that I didn’t win the Lego Supreme Court that it awarded for the best Twitter review of one of its articles. But I’d like to offer Penn Law Review as a model for how law reviews can, without necessarily going to such lengths, improve legal scholarship through an online presence.

Here are seven things Penn Law Review is doing right:

  1. It has an online companion with online-only articles, which are citable and will appear on Westlaw. If your law review doesn’t have such a companion, it needs one. I’m talking to you, American University Law Review (@AmULRev). (Sorry, Miles! I did have the decency to tell you personally.)
  2. It recently ditched the pun-based title, “PENNumbras,” in favor of the descriptive “University of Pennsylvania Law Review Online.” I’m talking to you, Connecticut Law Review (@ConnLRev) CONNtemplations. (Sorry, from someone who grew up in the Hartford suburbs.)
  3. It has its own Twitter feed (@PennLawReview) separate from the Law School’s Twitter feed. I’m talking to you, Maryland Law Review. (Sorry for biting a hand that fed me.)
  4. It regularly uses that Twitter feed. I’m talking to you, Virginia Law Review (@VirginiaLawRev), with a total of 6 tweets. (Sorry to my alma mater, though I point out that Mr. Jefferson would have dominated Twitter had it then existed.)
  5. There is a separate tweet, with link, to announce each new print or online article. I’m talking to you, Texas Law Review (@TexasLRev), which tweets a single link to announce each new issue. (Sorry for messing with Texas.) Such a single link incorrectly assumes that online readers are interested that a new issue of a particular law review has arrived. Article-specific tweets are the ones most likely to draw a click and re-tweet, leading to dissemination beyond your alumni base.
  6. The tweets fit within the 140-character limit and are not cut-off mid-word or mid-sentence. I’m talking to you, California Law Review (@CalifLRev). (Sorry bec….) Use pithy “click bait” – like, for instance, this post’s hyperbolic title.
  7. When it held its recent symposium, “Federal Rules at 75,” it tastefully posted a few pictures or announcements. Hundreds of live tweets can cause a reader to click “Unfollow,”never to return. If you want to do a play-by-play, you can set up a separate Twitter feed for your symposium.

A constructive online presence can answer some of the criticisms of the law review model. If law reviews are to become more useful to the bench and bar, they need to encourage practitioners to read and contribute. That won’t happen unless practitioners read the articles in the first place and are presented with non-daunting opportunities to respond. A well-written response can provide a practical dimension for the scholarly discussion going forward. In the process, the author of the response will get a better feel for what law reviews want and, perhaps, actually will publish a full-blown article one day. (I personally make no promises.)

An online presence also can enhance a law review’s brand. If a professor genuinely wants a wide audience for an article, a law review that does an effective job promoting its articles to a broad audience may be attractive. If choosing between two law reviews that are ranked five spots apart, an online presence might make the difference for the lower-ranked publication—which may, in turn, help its ranking over time. And, through a stronger online presence, a law review can draw more authors and attendees for its symposia. Twitter, often maligned for reducing complex ideas to 140-characters, in fact can be an effective tool for expanding scholarly discourse.

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