Let the Law Journal Be the Law Journal and the Blog Be the Blog
I’m asked how the Internet will change what law journals do, but why are we assuming there should be any change at all? Law journals, distinguished by depth of scholarship and dedication to detailed and accurate support and citation, occupy a unique niche within the legal profession, and to preserve this important tradition may take all the energy you law students have.
You are now seeing some glittering things luring you away from this difficult and worthy path. Law professors seem to be amusing themselves endlessly with their high-flying blogs and their experimental new vlogs and their hoary old e-mail lists. And you may have arrived at the Journal with a heavy Internet habit and perhaps even ace web-designing and programming skills. Yet nothing you can do in the form of transitory innovation can begin to compare to the sacred trust that has been handed to you by the generations of law journal devotees who have preceded you.
For over a century, law journals have done important work that the legal profession has relied on, both because of the quality of the articles they have published and because of the way they have trained students in the rigors of legal research, writing, and editing. Sure, we law professors complain about law review articles. They’re too long. They’re boring. They obsess over arcana. They luxuriate in abstract theories and ignore subjects that bedevil courts and practitioners. The writing is obfuscatory. Not every clause requires a footnote. Not every sentence demands an introductory clause reminding us what we just read in the previous sentence. We don’t want to expunge split infinitives and capitalize “Internet.” And can’t I start a sentence with a conjunction, use a contraction, write in the first person, and pose rhetorical questions? We spew our cranky complaints, but the truth is that you can translate most of them into modest suggestions for improving the existing journal. And, more fundamentally, we need you to put up with us and carry on.
The law journal should survive in its traditional form, preserving a high and permanent standard of legal scholarship. It is perhaps inevitable that the physical volume itself will disappear. But what remains in digital form should strongly resemble what has gone before. There is something that you law journal editors do that must be done and that no one else is going to do. (Pay no attention to the perennial yammering about faculty-edited journals. It’s not going to happen.) It’s especially important now, when there is so much ephemeral writing, that we pay proper respect to the longstanding practice of crafting sustained works of scholarship. You law-review editors should feel proud and fully justified in upholding this classic tradition of law journals.
A law journal puts up a flashy website one year, but then what? Harvard Law Review has its Forum. The Yale Law Journal has its Pocket Part, and these sites look great right now. The Pocket Part is fun to read. I’m happy to get a chance to write for it. But I’m not on the inside over there at these journals, seeing what effect the web project is having on the rest of the work you students have to do. Are you reading all the submissions as closely as before? Do you still believe in perfecting the support and citation? Are you meeting your deadlines? Are you editing in a way that would satisfy the editors of two generations ago? I say two and not one, because when I was a law review editor one generation ago—at another law school—and I can remember laughing at The Yale Law Journal when it got so far behind that it skipped a volume to catch up with the calendar.
A year from now, what will the new board of student editors think about these web projects? Exciting and energizing? Drudgery and distraction? Reeking of passé blog envy? Will they happily continue on your path or mock it as a pet project? Will alumni care that you attracted some extra attention with tricky add-ons? I think the alumni have one question that will predominate over all others. Did you carry on the classic law journal tradition or did you let the standards of scholarship slide? In this era when the younger generations are apt to fritter away so much of their time on the Internet, there is one central accomplishment you have to nail before anything else counts as positive: Preserve the tradition!
But maybe you Yale law students can do that and also establish The Pocket Part as a new tradition. And maybe your future editors will heartily embrace the double work of the Journal plus The Pocket Part. Yale is a special place, and maybe The Yale Law Journal can maintain both a new and an old tradition. But the question I’ve been asked is how the will Internet change the role of law journals, not what will happen in the microcosm that is Yale. Do we seriously expect lots of other law journals to transform themselves into a dual project that does not result in a degradation of the traditional law journal? I think not.
You might be surprised that I’m taking this position, because at the recent “Bloggership” conference at Harvard Law School I staked out an extreme position in favor of free and experimental blogging, unchained by the conventions of legal scholarship. Nearly all of the rest of the participants in the conference searched for ways that blogging could gain respect by working to incorporate the values of traditional scholarship. I, on the other hand, thought that the other participants were missing what was most important about blogging, namely that it is an innovative format that challenges us constantly to think and write in new ways, that demands an intense, individual effort to generate a flow of ideas on a daily basis, and that forces us to lay open our minds for an unknown, diverse audience. Immersed in blogging, I might seem to be a big fan of innovation and experimentation, but I’m not. I’m intent on preserving the tradition of blogging, new though it is. At that conference, I fought against those who argued that we should try to improve blogs by making them more like law journals. For me, those arguments represented a failure to perceive the good that already inheres in blogging.
By the same token, I think that attempts to make law journals more like blogging also fail to recognize the great value of the existing institution. Do you want to make law journals better? Edit the articles to be more precise and clear, make absolutely sure no error creeps into the citations, and take the classic work of editing a law journal even more seriously. You might derive some inspiration from blogs, perhaps by writing with a pithier crispness and taking account of the real legal problems of the day. But don’t lose your bearings. You don’t need to be more like a blog. Be more like the perfect form of a law journal. Rededicate yourself to the essential work that law students did before anyone conceived of the Internet.
This is not to say you shouldn’t have an Internet presence. You should. There should be—the Journal has it now—a polished webpage that matches the style and gravitas of the rest of your law school’s website. This page should have a list of the current articles and the past issues, all hot-linked to the full text. You can send me and other lawprof bloggers an e-mail message letting us know when you’re putting up new links. We bloggers can take it from there, writing in our own bloggish way from our own highly personalized place on the Internet. If you want one more thing on your webpage, link to our posts when we write about your articles. You don’t need to host a blog to talk about your articles. In fact, it is better if you don’t. Institutionalized blogs tend to be flat and safe.
I have put some effort into starting a faculty blog at my law school, perhaps something like The University of Chicago Law School Faculty Blog. But I have little hope that this project will go well, and I note that the Chicago project has never gained much traction. Since the original spike of attention that greeted the announcement of its existence, the traffic to the site has waned. And there is no bloggish energy to the site, with a post - usually a long one - going up only every few days. I don’t think this is a special Chicago Law School problem, but a predictable consequence of worrying about preserving the dignity of the institution they so conspicuously represent. For this reason, I’m not sanguine about the value of law journal blogs.
Moreover, pushing your authors to blog on the law journal site as a condition of publishing a traditional article may cause problems. Many law professors—especially older professors and untenured professors—are wary of blogging. They will experience these new requirements as a burden. Such authors will balk or, worse, they may simply blog badly, pounding out ponderous paragraphs, making your blog pointless and dull, in the way that typifies institutionalized blogs. Meanwhile, the law professors who want to blog and have a feeling for how to blog probably already have blogs. They can discuss their articles there. And it’s the way of the Internet to have a network of links connecting multiple websites. That’s much better than consolidating and conglomerating the writing in one place.
In short, you don’t need to tart up your web presence with blog-like new features. The blogs already exist and are optimized to do things in the best bloggish way. And the law journals already have an important and enduring function that a secondary project might dilute. Let the law journal be the law journal and the blog be the blog. I think that trying to merge them will only make both worse.
Ann Althouse is the Robert W. & Irma M. Arthur-Bascom Professor of Law, University of Wisconsin Law School. She blogs at Althouse, http://althouse.blogspot.com/.
Preferred Citation: Ann Althouse, Let the Law Journal Be the Law Journal and the Blog Be the Blog, 116 Yale L.J. Pocket Part 8 (2006), http://yalelawjournal.org/forum/let-the-law-journal-be-the-law-journal-and-the-blog-be-the-blog.