Dave Hoffman has an excellent post on Concurring Opinions, pointing out that there's a very good argument for simply eliminating law reviews. He does some back of the envelope calculations that suggest around two million hours per year of law student time gets spent on law review work. Given that the whole law review publication and editing "system" is basically insane on its face, couldn't this vast expenditure of labor and capital be put to better uses?
This is especially true in an age of electronic publication, which has completely eliminated the gate-keeping function of journals in regard to reader access. Why not simply have legal academics put their writing on the internet so that law students can do something more productive with their time?
It's worth emphasizing in this context the utter absurdity of the law review publication system. Almost all law review editors have no academic training beyond an undergraduate education and two years of often intellectually useless and sometimes cognitively damaging law school classes. Almost none of them have ever edited anything. In other words these people are completely unqualified to do what they're expected to do, which is to evaluate literally thousands of submissions, written mostly by people who are neither lawyers nor academics but who are expected to pretend to be both.
The present system continues for all the usual reasons: institutional inertia, the laziness of law professors, the desperate hunger among both legal academics and law students for ever-more exquisite modes of hierarchical sorting, and perhaps most of all because of the fact that since this idiotic system gave the most gold stars to the very people who are in a position to change it, those people have extraordinarily strong psychological incentives for seeing it as something other than what it actually is.
Those incentives generate what could be called the Holiday Inn Express ideology of legal academia. (Do you actually know anything at all about what you're being expected to do? No . . . but I did do well on a bunch of issue spotting exams!). This ideology produces a rampant disregard for genuine expertise. Things like evaluating and editing -- not to mention writing -- scholarship (or for that matter anything else) are actual skills, that, if they are to be done well, need to be learned. They aren't the kinds of things one is automatically good at because you got eight more questions right on the LSAT than the person sitting next to you.
But of course once you start taking this kind of criticism seriously, you'll soon end up in a place where it will be "difficult to get a man to understand something that his salary depends on his not understanding."
Update: Bored JD has an interesting comment to the linked Concurring Opinions post, regarding how at one elite school journal membership has become a perverse signalling mechanism:
As a recently graduated student from a top law school, I’ll estimate that the percentage of journal participation among 2Ls was closer to 90%. Even students who didn’t do the flagship law review writing competition ended up doing a journal. It was a signaling function, true, but in a negative way. When everyone is on a journal and there are 13! student run journals to choose from, the lack of a journal stands out. The proliferation of journals seemed to be a way to ensure that everyone who wanted this signaling credential would have it, so that our students would not be disadvantaged against students at rival schools. A journal arms race of sorts.
This created some perverse behavior. Several students on my secondary journal quit a month or two after OCI. Most journals, with the exception of the flagship law review, advertised themselves to 1Ls by touting how little work the student would have to do. It was no surprise that most secondary journals had very low organizational cohesion or loyalty relative to more voluntary student organizations such as clubs or clinics. We couldn’t even get anyone but board members to show up for free bar nights.