April 24, 2007
Online Companions to Law Reviews and the Future of Legal Blogs
Posted by Gordon Smith

The Yale Law Journal has the Pocket Part, Harvard Law Review has The Forum, Michigan Law Review has First Impressions, Northwestern University Law Review has Colloquy, Texas Law Review has See Also, Virginia Law Review has In Brief, and University of Pennsylvania Law Review has PENNumbra. What is happening here?

When the Yale Law Journal introduced the Pocket Part, the editors described the site as "provid[ing] a forum for discussion and up-to-date additional information on articles." Nice idea. Not revolutionary, but nice. Harvard followed suit with The Forum, which consists of Responses (capital "R") to Articles (capital "A") published in the Harvard Law Review. Texas also recently embraced this model.

While HLR and Texas have remained true to that focused mission, the editors of the Yale Pocket Part have strayed, turning Pocket Part into an alternate publication outlet, with essays on a wide variety of issues unrelated to the content of the Yale Law Journal. For example, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal (Hi, Lee!) wrote a freestanding series on electronic discovery (start here), and the Pocket Part sometimes has a series of essays on recent judicial decisions or a bit of navel gazing. Presently the site contains a Call for Papers on cyber bullying.

Other online journals also are combining responses to articles in the printed journal with freestanding content. Penn established PENNumbra to serve as a "link between legal academia and the 'blogosphere.'" The site features "brief scholarly responses to ... articles, and online debates on topics of current interest."

The notion that these online journals fill a gap between traditional law reviews and legal blogs is catching on. When the Virginia Law Review announced the creation of In Brief earlier this year, the press release stated:

Attempting to balance the speed with which a blog can disseminate information and the academic weight that a traditional article carries, [Virginia Law Review's Technology Development Editor Chris Yeung] says that In Brief is designed to publish "more polished ideas at a quicker speed." Moreover, [Jim Zucker, Virginia Law Review's Editor-in-Chief] admits that publications like Virginia Law Review "can't compete with blogs" while also maintaining the degree of quality for which the legal community values them. Rather, he contends that a more balanced approach is the wiser course.

Northwestern University Law Review took a slightly different path, touting Colloquy as the "first scholarly weblog to be operated by a major law review." According to the editors this "new format will allow scholars to publish their thoughts within days of an emerging legal development." As a blog, it is fairly low on content, featuring only a few posts per month. Some of the posts are freestanding essays, others are part of an exchange, and others are responses to articles in the law review. (My initial reaction is the that blog format works less well for this sort of thing than the other formats, which are organized more coherently by subject matter rather than by date.)

The Michigan Law Review seems to have gone further than any other journal in creating an entirely separate product. The website for the online journal states:

First Impressions, an online companion to the Review, features op-ed length articles by academics and practitioners in order to fill the gap between the blogosphere and the traditional law review article. This extension of our printed pages aims to provide a forum for quicker dissemination of the legal community's first impressions of recent changes in the law.

Thus far, the Michigan journal consists of a series of online symposia that are unrelated to the content of the printed journal.

Over the years, I have encountered many professors who have expressed the desire to produce short-form legal scholarship. An essay, perhaps, or even something more modest. Such scholarship could be inspired by a longer piece in a law review or by a recent judicial opinion, statute, or regulation. Traditional law reviews have not been very hospitable to such work. In my view, legal blogs have succeeded in part because the academy has a substantial number of people who are willing to produce short-form legal scholarship and the demand for such work is (relatively) large.

Enter the "online companions" to traditional law reviews. How do they add value? In my view, the primary value added by these new publications is not their timeliness or their supposed "polish," but that they (1) link thoughtful responses to long-form legal scholarship, and (2) act as a gathering place for a variety of pieces of short-form legal scholarship on the same topic (online symposia). In short, the law reviews have an organizational advantage over individual bloggers, who organize via cross-linking, which is often haphazard.

Where is all of this headed? Here is an interesting tidbit from the Virginia press release: "counterparts at the nations' other leading law reviews are almost uniformly planning the near-term launch of an online companion to their print journals."

So we should expect more offerings in online publishing from student-edited law reviews. Soon. I suspect that someone will create an index of online publications, further formalizing these outlets. While the new online journals will not put legal bloggers out of business, many more law professors will be able to satisfy the occasional impulse to produce short-form legal scholarship without turning to blogging. As a result, I expect the development of legal blogs to plateau. (Actually, that may be happening already.)

UPDATE: Christine pointed me to the Concurring Opinions Law Review Forum, which reminds me of another aspect of this issue. In announcing the project, Dan Solove observed, "A wide readership for a website depends upon having daily content. Law review forums produce content sporadically throughout the year at intervals that are not regular enough to attract a significant readership." Exactly right. While law reviews have an organizational advantage over individual bloggers, blogs have the advantage of creating communities of readers.

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