They're outdated, impractical, and slowly dying. It's time to put them to rest.
In 2008 a federal judge sentenced nine executives of Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, to probation, fines, and community service over their role in a circulation scandal that had rocked the publishing world. Prosecutors said that the executives had schemed to overstate the tabloid's reported circulation over several years--by 15-17 percent in the 2002-03 period, for example--thus victimizing advertisers by significantly overstating its reach and influence.
I thought of the Newsday scandal when I read one of George Mason University law professor Ross Davies's witty yearly reports on the plight of law reviews, the most visible scholarly monuments of the nation's 200-odd schools of legal education. The circulation of law reviews has been plummeting for a generation; the most famous and widely circulated of them, the Harvard Law Review (HLR), has seen its subscriber base dwindle from 10,895 in 1963-64 to a mere 1,896 in 2010-11. That downward spiral did not keep the HLR from presenting a cheerful face to the world, though: according to Professor Davies, "as late as 2009 its website was claiming 8000." Oops!
Neither I nor, so far as I know, Professor Davies thinks that prosecutors should be marching some of tomorrow's brightest lawyers out of the HLR offices in handcuffs. No doubt it was a matter of mere inadvertence, not purposeful fraud. And not to be mean about it, but there's another big difference between a major ad outlet for Long Island car dealers like Newsday and the venerable Harvard Law Review, which is that when it comes to whether HLR distributes 8,000 issues, or 2,000, or 1,000, let's face it: no one really cares.
Besides, quibbling over a circulation difference between 8,000 and 2,000 (how many math majors wind up at HLS anyway?) diverts attention from the need to steer toward the right number: 0.
That idea isn't as extreme as it may sound. Every print publication that thinks about its future has wondered whether it should go web-only, and seldom is the argument for doing so stronger than in the case of law reviews, which lack glossy pictures, pass-around interest, or bathroom-stand appeal. No law school wants to give up and go web-only because it seems unprestigious, but the undeniably tony HLR could solve that problem by going first. Aside from saving on printers, there might be practical advantages such as not having to hold back an announced issue because one article runs late.
The page volume of law reviews has proliferated beyond reason with no corresponding rise in compelling content.
The wider question is whether the law review model of content--with its long lead time to publication, editing by students, and format that's resistant to after-publication editing--yields enough scholarly gems to deserve surviving in its present form even online.