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Workers of the Law Reviews, Unite!


Tal K. Rothstein (@TaliaRothstein) is the Law and Organizing Fellow for the LPE Project.

Law reviews in the United States are subject to the frequent criticisms of authors and readers alike. While the complaints are wide-ranging—encompassing submission procedures, the review process, length requirements, and citation practices—the most common critique is that in law, unlike in any other academic field, students run the show.

Missing from this familiar conversation, however, is an understanding of the deeper vulnerabilities that flow from journals’ student-run nature. Working on law review is widely understood to help students land prestigious jobs after graduation, subjecting students’ editorial discretion to the pressures of the job market—an arrangement whose flaws have been clarified in recent months. And most of the work students do on journals is uncompensated or undercompensated, gatekeeping the prestige of journal work from students who cannot afford to put in long hours without pay and thus reducing the diversity of perspectives among those who decide what topics and arguments in legal scholarship merit publication.

Yet the student-run nature of the journals also presents certain opportunities. At law schools around the country, students are collectively challenging these problems. They recognize journal work as a point of leverage, seeking compensation for the labor that produces value for professors, law schools, and corporations. Ultimately, this organizing effort has the potential to transform the landscape of legal publication and, in doing so, contribute to a culture of increased solidarity in law schools themselves.

The Prestige Economy

Law journals ostensibly serve an educational function—exposing students to legal scholarship, providing them with Bluebook practice, and allowing them to develop critical analysis and editing skills. But for most students, law journals are primarily credentialing tools, looked favorably upon by judges, academic hiring committees, and corporate law firms.

Journal work is thus best understood, like other law school extracurriculars, as part of an economy of prestige: students compete for scarce gold stars, or the opportunity to exchange free labor for the possibility of future reward. The kind of labor performed by student editors—coordinating with scholars, editing articles, and checking footnotes—is routinely compensated with an hourly wage when it is performed for a professor as a research or teaching assistant. Yet in most journals, this labor is not paid at all; in a select few, students receive meager stipends. Many schools award credit for journal work, but this form of compensation often is tied to units of time like the semester or to specific roles in the journal, rather than indexed to the number of hours worked, and thus generally undercompensates. As a result, the prestige economy privileges those who can afford to make greater sacrifices in the present. Financially constrained students who choose to forego paid work to join journal are often further debt-constrained on the job market—an additional force, among many in law schools today, that funnels students towards lucrative positions in big firms.

These structural conditions leave law reviews, and, in turn, American legal scholarship, vulnerable to repression. To illustrate, consider a recent incident at the country’s most-cited law journal. In October 2023, the Harvard Law Review solicited and edited a piece for the HLR Blog by Rabea Eghbariah, a human rights attorney completing his SJD at Harvard Law School. Then, following a vote of the full masthead, they abruptly reversed course and cancelled publication of the piece—what would have been the first piece for HLR authored by a Palestinian scholar.

This incident occurred within a climate of intense repression of pro-Palestinian speech at law schools, which included several prominent law firms rescinding job offers to students who had signed public statements of support for Palestinians. HLR editors present at the vote to pull Eghbariah’s piece told the Harvard Crimson that concerns were expressed about the “consequences of publishing an article on such a contested topic,” including “public backlash or doxxing” that would “likely disproportionately fall on people of color at the Law Review.” In other words, it seems likely that this act of censorship was motivated by HLR members’ concern for their career prospects—a direct result of the prestige economy.

There are other signs of increased pressures on law students to conform to professional expectations or risk future jobs. On the clerkship front, for example, several Trump-appointed judges announced an indefinite boycott of all prospective clerks from Yale Law School, citing concerns about “cancel culture” following protests of an anti-LGBTQ+ speaker on campus in 2022. Recently, many of the same judges threatened a similar ban of Columbia Law students in retaliation for the Palestine solidarity encampment at that university. So far, these bans and boycotts are limited in scope, but they set a precedent with a clear message: do not participate in anything controversial that might require disruption of the status quo—or you will face employment consequences.

Building a Politics of Solidarity on Law Review

Even amid this climate of fear, there are seeds of a renewed politics of solidarity within law journals—a development with the potential to fundamentally disrupt the prestige economy. Earlier this month, Eghbariah again attempted to publish a piece in a prestigious law review, this time a 100+ page article in theColumbia Law Review. The next day, in an unprecedented intervention into editorial decisions, CLR’s non-student board of directors took the entire website down, acknowledging in an email to student editors that they had done so in response to alleged process deviations related to Eghbariah’s article. But this time, in stark opposition to the HLR vote to retract publication, the student editorial staff at CLR informed the Board that if it continued to prevent access, they would cease all work on the journal. Within three days, the Board had restored the website—but with a disclaimer on the front page alleging that Eghabariah’s article had gone through a “secretive” editing process. In response, CLR editors voted to authorize a strike, demanding the removal of the disclaimer and complete editorial independence from the Board.

What accounts for the difference between the HLR editors’ vote in November and these recent events at CLR? One answer is the wave of student protests in solidarity with Palestine—the intensity of the collective uprisings may have shifted the political consciousness of many law students, even though the structural conditions of the prestige economy remain. But these recent events should also be understood within the longer context of student organizing within law reviews and journals.

As a historical example, UCLA’s National Black Law Journal, founded in 1970, explicitly identified itself with the Black freedom struggle. One of many journals founded with liberatory ambitions during this period, the Journal’s third issue situated itself within the broader movement ecosystem, including dispatches from the newly-formed Black Law Students Association (BLSA), the National Conference of Black Lawyers, and the Judicial Council of the American Bar Association (an association formed by over half of the country’s 269 Black judges at the time). Renewing these kinds of movement commitments today might begin to position more law reviews and journals as accountable to communities outside the university, rather than beholden to the specter of future employment. 

Even mainstream journals, often known as “flagship” law reviews, have also been the target of student demands for increased staff diversity, resulting in the widespread adoption of affirmative action plans; modifications of the selection process such as diversity statements; and Diversity and Inclusion Editors tasked with initiatives to increase outreach and recruitment. For instance, in 2020, NYU Law journal workers demanded that competition for law review spots be delayed, so that those 1Ls most affected by the repression of mass protests for Black life and a raging pandemic would have an equitable shot at joining law review. When NYU refused, journal workers went on strike, an act of inter-cohort solidarity; after several months, NYU agreed to hold a second competition later in the summer without penalty.

Finally, amid a wave of graduate student unionization, journal workers have begun to organize around the conditions of their labor, pressing administrations across the country for compensation. In a public statement released in December 2023, seventeen journals from around the country argued that “[u]ncompensated labor is wrong… Our demand is simple: each and every journal worker should receive credit, compensation, or both.” The statement made waves in mainstream news and on law Twitter, compounding news of the recently-passed American Bar Association resolution making a similar recommendation. But students at various law schools have been engaging in the less visible but necessary work of campaign planning and relationship building for several years now. For instance, a recent and successful campaign at Georgetown University Law Center united journal workers across the school in demanding an end to the $40 fee charged by the university to even compete for a journal position. At NYU in 2022-2023, an organizing committee with representation from multiple journals at the law school presented a collective letter to the administration asking for compensation, along with a petition signed by over four hundred students; students have now escalated by developing a cross-school coalition to advance the cause with a greater level of organization. At the University of Michigan, a similar campaign began with a survey of student opinion and a letter to the administration; developed into a committee engaged in raising consciousness among members about the value of their labor; and recently won a first-step victory in the form of a pathway to credit.

The demand for compensation is strong on the merits; as students and others have pointed out, pay or credit is likely to make journal work more accessible to students with greater constraints on their time and resources and therefore more diverse, bringing more voices into the production and publication of legal scholarship. Pay might also be a small step towards decoupling journal work from the prestige economy in itself, simply by opening up editorial roles to students seeking an interesting part-time student job and otherwise uninterested in the gold star effect. Both consequences could contribute to an increased editorial willingness to experiment stylistically, formally, and substantively, resulting in more a creative and dynamic field. Finally, pay specifically would open up a significant new work force on law school campuses for unionization, potentially expanding the power of graduate student unions across the university.

Merits aside, though, the level of struggle required to organize for compensation will require a much greater level of politicization and solidarity among students than currently exists—and that is the real benefit of the demand. As Professor Sam Ely Bagg has argued in his recent book, The Dispersion of Power: A Critical Realist Theory of Democracy, “it is the process of organizing, acting collectively, and extracting concessions . . . that has the greatest potential to shift participants’ social identity and political orientation.” In other words, as students organize around the demands of pay and credit, they may come to see themselves as part of a community of workers whose labor is valuable, whose time and efforts matter, and whose dignity at work depends on the collective. And it is this shift in consciousness that has the capacity to deepen and entrench the moment of solidarity that has erupted in the aftermath of the student uprisings this spring.

This cultural shift is a prerequisite to building student power over the long term. To truly unsettle the prestige economy—writ large, the hold that corporate firms, federal judges, and other enforcers of the status quo have over the legal profession—students, united with faculty, staff and community members, must act collectively to free themselves from debt, precarious employment, and the fundamentally conservative orientation of the legal profession. A more organized law student body—journal workers along with organized clinic workers and more politicized affinity groups—is better positioned to defend itself and other communities against the priorities of the administration and wealthy donors, and ultimately to help enact an affirmative vision of a more liberatory law school for the future.

These downstream effects of journal worker organizing are still speculative. But as this moment of student uprising in solidarity with Palestinians has reminded us, student organizing often asks us to think beyond the realm of the here and now to collectively imagine what is possible. Journal worker organizing at law schools around the country does the same, with the potential to call into being a future of greater dignity and solidarity within legal education and the profession more broadly.

If you’d like to join or support the cross-school efforts to organize journal workers, you can fill out this form, or contact Jack Travis ( and Savannah Baker ( And to stay updated on the ongoing CLR strike for editorial independence, follow @columlrev.