It's that time of the year again. No, not those damned comprehensive exams worth one billion percent of your final grade -- although of course that battle is very much raging as well. No, I am speaking of the 40,000 plus rising 2L law students around the country who will be inducted into a time-honored ritual. Or rather, brutally hazed into the process after having just survived their final exams. May the odds ever be in your favor.
I am, of course, speaking about the journal write-on competition. At this point, you're probably wondering who is this pretentious guy wearing the metaphorical grandpa pants and attempting to spit some gems of wisdom and truth. Well, to that I defiantly say...Guilty as charged. I'm sure I'm at least a bit pretentious, but hey aren't all law students by definition?
Guiltier yet, I am a rising 3L law student whose legal education has been far from orthodox. No taking courses just to "prepare for the bar." No participation in moot court or trial team (although this will hopefully change next year as I am working with several of my classmates to create two new moot teams to compete in International Humanitarian Law and International Arbitration competitions!) And...wait for it...*drumroll*...no participation in journal. Not just law review, I mean any journal.
I know what I just said is the equivalent of pressing control+alt+delete on the minds of most law students in this country. It categorically flies in the face of so much "conventional wisdom" regarding law school-and every one of those endless "law school prep" books -- that I surely appear just downright unambitious, lazy, crazy and stupid. When I further tell students (especially 1Ls and prospective/incoming students aka 0Ls) that in all my internship interviews I have never been asked why I don't serve on a journal, I get either dismissive rolling eyes or shocked gazes of sheer disbelief. DOES. NOT. COMPUTE.
Now let me be clear: Service on a journal adds some outstanding value to your education. You will gain a wide range of legal research and writing experience, editing skills and, at the very least, will be a certified Bluebook guru. All of these skills are especially relevant and valuable for students looking to clerk or pursue a career in Big Law.
Yet, in my experience, all too many students jump headfirst into journal without truly understanding all of the dedication and work it entails, and simply because they believe it is their only option to gain these invaluable skills. Whether out of fear of being shut-out of the job market, feelings of being perceived as "lazy" and "underachieving", or simply out of a sense of resigned inevitably, they flock to the journal competitions like the hordes of dutiful pilgrims descending on Mecca during the Hajj (it's totes not cliché for me to make this joke -- I'm Muslim).
Salvation, Thy Name is Independent Research
Well, my dear members of the legal community, I am here to tell you that this is not the case. Even the darkest clouds produce the most beautiful rainbows, and the rainbow in the dark and stressful cumulonimbus cloud that is law school is that all of those same aforementioned "journal skills" can be gained in many other way. Namely: independent research projects.
At William and Mary, for instance, students have the option of directly working under a professor to write paper topics of their own choosing. Students get outstanding personal feedback from their supervising professors for every step of the writing process, from topic outlining to producing the final draft. Yet, even more refreshing is the fact that we have a budding, comprehensive skills-based research and internship program in place for students interested in international law, which I sincerely believe is far superior to an international journal (or any journal really). Through the awesomely-named Program in Comparative Legal Studies and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding, students not only have the opportunity to serve with a wide variety of NGOs in post-conflict nations around the globe as summer fellows, but we also have established collaborative research partnerships with several of those NGOs.
Just last semester, a group of my fellow students and I partnered with the South African-based Centre Study of Violence and Reconciliation to draft country reports on transitional justice mechanisms in 21 different African countries. Unlike journal articles which all-too-often exist in a narrow "ivory tower" vacuum of academia, these reports will be actually reviewed by the African Commission on Peoples' and Human Rights as well as transitional justice experts and government officials from all of these countries. The African Commission is currently working on establishing a pan-continental framework to create transitional justice mechanisms addressing a wide variety of post-conflict and mid-conflict issues ranging from war crimes and genocide to women empowerment, and our reports will play a role in assisting this groundbreaking initiative. It also doesn't hurt that each of us will fulfill the writing requirement, receive a publication credit for each of our reports (i.e. a total of three publications to our name) as well as two graded credits out of it as well. For those keeping score (and if you are a law student, you know you are), that's two graded credits for each research collaboration (and up to three graded credits for independent research), compared to only one pass-fail credit for journal service.
In addition to the CSVR project, other students have worked on a seminal research project in which they analyze the role that women have played in constitutional building processes around the world. The CLSPCP program is also looking to initiate new research partnerships, particularly with regards to the open data movement. Students will conduct research on a variety of foreign investment, economic development, land rights, and environmental issues in order to arm citizens of the developing world with the knowledge they need to fight for their rights. The CLSPCP Program is a remarkable and profoundly cutting-edge initiative which gives students academic and practical skills necessary to work in a wide variety of areas in international law, and I honestly believe it is one of the best features of the W&M legal education.
Journal: A Labor of Love
Again I would just like to reiterate that I have absolutely nothing against journals -- on the contrary, I have all the respect in the world for my colleagues who give their time to serve on it. Yet I hope you have noticed that I have been using a key operative term every time I have referred to journal: service. Serving on a journal is precisely that -- an act of service which requires countless hours of selfless dedication in order to sustain what is very much a team venture. If you are willing to make that commitment, then by all means go join a journal. You will love your time on it, and likewise your journal will truly appreciate having you serve on their staff.
Journal Does Not Wield a Monopoly on Your Practical Legal Education
Yet if you aren't ready or willing to make that commitment -- or just want another way to gain those same legal research and writing skills, take a moment to explore the alternatives. Like every major decision you will make in your budding legal career, make sure it is an informed one. Consider independent research; consider breaking the mold of law school as a technical school and make your law education your own. And if you're a prospective law student trying to decide where you want to go to school next year -- and having read up on what service on journal entails and thought "screw that noise!" -- seriously consider coming to William and Mary. Because we are truly exceptional in all aspects of legal education, including giving you real alternatives to the Hunger Games-esque bloodletting that is journal write-on. #TribePrideTillIDie #ShamelessPlugForW&M
For all my 1L colleagues at William and Mary who wish to express their gratitude for their newfound salvation from the soul-crushing tyranny that is journal, you can send me your thank-yous, in the form of cash, candy, or baked goods. You guys know where my hanging file is at.
Follow Atif Choudhury on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@SultanOfSmiles