Should Public Interest Students Do Law Review?

Welcome to back-to-school season! Most law schools have either already started or will in the next few weeks. At this point in the semester, most 1Ls are just trying to keep their heads above water, learning how to read cases and survive the Socratic Method. But when you come up for air, you may start to wonder what activities you should participate in outside of classes. Yes, in law school (unlike many graduate programs) there are a plethora of “extra-curriculars.” Some of these activities include law review, moot court, affinity groups, student government, and volunteer opportunities. As a public interest student, you may wonder which activities are worth devoting yourself to and which are just a waste of time.

In order to answer this question, you should reread my post on how you should spend your time in law school if you want to set yourself up for a public interest job afterwards. In short, you want to focus on getting real legal experience, on proving your passion for public interest work, and on making connections that will help you get a job. If an activity does not contribute to at least one of these three goals, it may not be the best use of your time.

Let’s take law review as an example. For those not familiar with what law review is, here is a short primer. In most academic disciplines, academic journals are staffed and edited by academics or career professionals and articles are selected for publication through peer review. In law, academic journals (also called “law reviews”) are staffed by law students, who select and edit the articles through a process that only occasionally involves peer review. A journal usually has a faculty advisor but law students do most of the work. This work can sometimes be interesting, but much of it involves fact-checking, citation formatting and proofreading, not exactly the most thrilling tasks. Students on law review will spend long hours locating sources and verifying quotations during evening and weekend work sessions.

You will soon learn, if you haven’t already, that getting on law review is competitive and usually involves having a high grade point average, a writing competition, or both. This makes sense if you think about it. If getting on law review were not prestigious, the entire system would probably collapse. Getting law students to spend hours and hours doing tedious work would be a pretty hard sell if it didn’t come with some career benefit. Usually, the process of applying to be on law review happens in the spring of your first year of law school, but the myth-making about the importance of law review starts now. By spring, you may feel compelled to apply even if six months earlier you didn’t even know what it was.

For some jobs, it really is an advantage to be on law review. For example, if you want to be a legal academic, you should do law review because you will learn something about the selection and publication process for legal scholarship. If you want to do a clerkship, you should do law review since many judges view it as a marker of law school success and potential. For jobs in the private sector, it is helpful (though not essential), especially for students from lower-ranked schools where it is important to distinguish yourself from your peers.

But I would argue that for public interest students, the calculus is different. It’s not that doing law review is bad exactly, but the advantages are fewer and the tradeoffs greater. In my experience, public interest employers don’t care much about law review. And it doesn’t advance any of the goals I outlined above. It isn’t real legal experience, doesn’t prove your commitment to public interest law, and doesn’t help you make connections in the public interest field. What it does do is take time away from other activities that do advance those goals. You do not have unlimited time in law school and you will not be able to do every activity, at least without your grades or mental health suffering. Law review is a big time commitment and will limit what else you can do.

You may feel tempted to try out for law review anyway because it is a gold star that is hard to resist. Law students are very good at pursuing gold stars, even if they don’t get them closer to their goals. If law review is something you think you will enjoy, then by all means you should do it. But otherwise, there are better ways to spend your limited time in law school. I’ll talk about some of these other activities in my next post.

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