Membership on a law journal can be one of the most rewarding experiences in your law school career. You’ll improve your research skills and legal writing in a big way, and it’s also one of the few chances to work on a team in law school. Private and public interest law firms often expect to see a journal on a resume, and the lack of membership can be a red flag during an interview. If you’re considering a clerkship after law school, then journal membership (preferably law review) and election to an editorial position are highly valued.
But before you get to put it on your resume, you have to be accepted. This process, often referred to as the “write-on competition,” may be as straightforward as writing a single brief or may involve a weighted average of your 1L grades and the strength of a multifaceted write-on submission.
At the end of 1L year (or in late August to early September if you’ve transferred) you’ll have an opportunity to participate in a writing competition to earn a place on a journal. The write-on period generally lasts about a week. It’s pretty much the very last thing in the world you’ll want to do after finishing your 1L exams, but as mentioned above, there are some pretty excellent reasons to tough it out.
The write-on process varies by law school and sometimes by journal. At some schools, students enter into a single competition for consideration in all journals. Other schools offer separate competitions for each journal, with some journals—often law reviews—requiring a relatively time-consuming submission and others requiring merely a standard writing sample.
The typical write-on competition provides students with a “closed write-on packet,” which includes all the factual and legal information that you’ll need to complete the competition. Others may ask you to write on a legal topic of your choice that would be suitable for publication in that particular journal. (A separate competition is usually held for transfer students—as soon as you decide where you’re headed, follow up with your new school for details.)
Participating in a writing competition does not guarantee that you will be offered a spot on a journal. It also doesn’t mean that you have to accept if you are offered a position. So even if you aren’t sure if journal life is for you, we highly recommend participating in write-on.
Talk to Prior Members
Especially if your law school has multiple competitions for different journals, talk to students on those journals to get an idea of what membership entails. You might learn that Journal X requires many more hours per week of office hours or articles editing than Journal Y does, or that that Journal A would look better on your resume than Journal B but Journal A is boring and journal B is, well, not.
Keep the time commitments required by the respective journals in mind when considering your priorities for your 2L year. Do you want to be able to dedicate all of your free time to clinic work? Are you externing? Are you planning on taking up DJ’ing? These would be good things to think about before you spend every waking hour of the week immediately after exams (which tends to have the best weather of the entire summer) on a beautifully—or perhaps not so beautifully—crafted write-on submission.
Most journal competitions involve two parts: a proofreading section and a writing section.
Start with the Writing Section
Start with the writing section, since it is usually more time-consuming than the proofreading section. You can work on the proofreading section intermittently when you need a break from writing.
Follow the Rules Exactly
There will be instructions about exactly what you have to produce and in what format, and what you can and cannot do to get there. Make sure you follow every last rule to the letter. Journals care about your ability to follow the rules, so pick up every available point in this category.
As mentioned earlier, you’ll receive a large packet of materials that includes all the sources you’ll need to write your article. It’s a closed universe competition, so you won’t need WestLaw, Lexis, or anything else to track down information. In many competitions, using a source outside of the closed universe is grounds for disqualification from the competition. Though it may undermine everything that you’ve learned in law school thus far, you are to assume that all rules and sources (i.e., cases, statutes, legislative history, newspaper articles, etc.) provided in the write-on packet are good law.
Your journal competition might be a prompt requiring you to answer a specific question. Or the assignment could simply be to write an article about the materials, leaving you to come up with the topic yourself.
Regardless of the format, you will be well-served to keep the following in mind when crafting your write-on submission:
Take [Post-It] Notes
First, read the prompt carefully. Then read every last thing in the packet, taking notes on what each source tells you. Doing this on the front end feels tedious but will save you a lot of time. Try post-it notes: they not only tell you what a source says, but—assuming it’s stuck on the right page—exactly where that helpful piece of information is located. In a large packet, post-it flags are a huge timesaver.
Spend some time thinking about how you are going to respond to the prompt—after you read the prompt, while you’re note taking, while you’re making dinner. This has to happen at some point before you actually start writing.
Organize your article
It helps to jot down a quick outline. Start with an article roadmap, which is essentially a brief narrative of what the article will tell the reader. This roadmap should preview what each section of the article will say. Also, make sure to use headings and sub-headings. The write-on editors will have dozens of articles to read on the same topic and don’t want to spend their summers trying to figure out what you’re trying to say. Finally, don’t forget to have a topic sentence where appropriate (headings and subheadings don’t count).
Cite sources correctly
Put the same effort into Bluebooking the writing section as you did on the proofreading section. Also make sure to use citations for every proposition that needs one. This will likely be most sentences other than topic sentences and conclusions, and it’s better to err on the side of too many citations than too few.
You probably will not use every source, but do not rely heavily on only one or two sources. Demonstrate that you’ve read most of the materials by using different kinds of sources to support your arguments—cite journal articles and treatises in addition to cases and statutes. In addition, do not write lengthy passages into your footnotes. You aren’t David Foster Wallace, and even he couldn’t really pull them off.
Use plain English
Write clearly! Everyone reading and grading your article was in your shoes a year ago, and they are just as smart as you are, so you won’t impress them with archaic Latin phrases or excessive use of semicolons and em-dashes. Get your point across efficiently in plain English. You can add some artistic flourishes, but remember that elegant writing counts for less than the content and quality of your arguments.
You could write a great article, but if it’s laden with typos or punctuation errors, it will kill your chances at membership. Don’t forget to spell-check, but certainly don’t rely on it either.
The proofreading section tests your skills in Bluebooking and grammar. You will receive an article to proofread. This means that you’ll have to catch all of the misplaced commas and dangling participles, and learn the differences between citing a non-consecutively paginated journal and a magazine. You may also receive the sources cited in the article and be expected to check the page numbers of each source against each corresponding citation to see if the source supports the citation and the proposition for which it stands. These are skills commonly used by journal members, so be aware that the competition graders will be paying close attention to your attention to detail.
Consider doing three separate read-throughs of the article. First, read the article to get a “big picture” idea of what it’s about. Next, check grammar and punctuation against whatever manual of style your school uses. If you don’t know, ask the editors running the competition. As there is no true authority for punctuation in the United States, what you learned in high school and in college can be totally wrong in the write-on world.
Once you’ve checked grammar and punctuation, move on to Bluebooking. In case you don’t know it yet: the Bluebook is maddening. Half the rules seem to contradict the other half. Get familiar with the Bluebook before the competition. The key to accurate Bluebooking is to identify correctly what rule applies to what source and then apply that rule and all of its various subparts with consistency throughout the article. You will get a lot of different sources and variations to test your knowledge; just remember, the Bluebook’s index is your friend. Keep an eye on short forms (and the five-case rule for short-cites) and abbreviations. Make sure all quotes are verbatim or are properly altered.
Break Up the Tasks
For the proofreading section of the competition, try making several paper copies of the section you are editing. You can then use each copy to tackle a specific section of the document—errors in the main text, case citations in the main text, citation form problems in footnotes, and so on. Once you’ve completed all of your separate edits you can then compile them into your final submission. If your school uses electronic submissions, double (triple) check that you’ve transferred all your edits from the paper to the electronic file.
REMEMBER: once you’re in, you’re in
Fast-forward to the end of summer, when journals extend their formal offers to students. You do not have to accept an offer if you receive one. If you do accept, however, you can’t really back out; attempting to resign from a journal once you’ve accepted an offer is bad news. It will involve your school’s administration. At many schools, your resignation will appear in your permanent file with the school.
If you do receive an offer and aren’t sure whether to accept it, don’t hesitate to reach out to that journal’s executive board or faculty adviser.
Prepare to Dominate
The journal write-on competition is a time-consuming event, but it gives you the opportunity to improve your resume and your legal research and writing skills. So think positively, spend some quality time with your dog-eared Bluebook, and get ready to change the spacing on that resume so your future senior-journal-editor-self will fit.