In addition to all things corporate governance, we occasionally delve into a discussion about the impact of the Internet (and blogging) on legal scholarship. As discussed in Essay: Law Faculty Blogs and Disruptive Innovation, faculty law blogs have established a niche in the legal scholarship continuum. They outperform traditional law reviews by providing the legal market with commentary on legal developments in an accessibly written, quick format.
They can comment on pending legislation, proposed rules, and cases on appeal. Commentary on the same matters will be out of date by the time it is published in a traditional law review. Evidence of the usefulness of blog posts can be seen in the growing number that have been cited by courts (one blog, Sentencing Law and Policy, has over 40 citations) and by law reviews (one blog, the Volokh Conspiracy, has over 700 law review citations). The data for law review and court citations, current as of the summer of 2012, is here.
At the same time blogs have grown in citations, law review subscriptions, as was noted in Essay: Law Faculty Blogs and Disruptive Innovation, have fallen off a cliff. The data shows that in 2011 "no major law review had more than 2,000 paying subscribers. The Harvard Law Review remains the top journal, but its paid circulation has declined from more than 10,000 during much of the 1960s and ’70s to about 5,000 in the 1990s to 1,896 last year.” Law Review Circulation 2011: More Change, More Same, 1 JOURNAL OF LEGAL METRICS (2012).
So what's the explanation for this? One possibility is that lawyers read law reviews much the way they did before only electronically rather than in hard copy. Reviews are easily available in the assorted legal data bases. Moreover, some pieces are published on SSRN. They can, therefore, be easily obtained without the need for an actual subscription.
At the same time, the data may suggest that hard copy law reviews are read less often and, as a result, less relevant in the legal debate. In a different context, the WSJ suggests that the decline in hard copy subscriptions cannot be explained by a shift in reader preference to electronic versions.
First, the demise of the hard copy publication has been overstated. As the article noted:
Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency. The growth in e-book sales is slowing markedly. And purchases of e-readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt instead for multipurpose tablets. It may be that e-books, rather than replacing printed books, will ultimately serve a role more like that of audio books—a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.
Second, reader willingness to resort to electronic publication has become highly dependent upon the type of book involved. Much of the ereading phenomena has been in fiction. See Id. ("Screen reading seems particularly well-suited to the kind of light entertainments that have traditionally been sold in supermarkets and airports as mass-market paperbacks."). Other types of books are less likely to be read in that format.
Readers of weightier fare, including literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have been less inclined to go digital. They seem to prefer the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures, of what we still call "real books"—the kind you can set on a shelf.
Of course, the comparison is not precise. Lawyers may obtain an article through an electronic search and print it off. In other words, they do not need a subscription to read the article in hard copy format.
Nonetheless, the decline in subscriptions probably means that law reviews are read less often. At a minimum, lawyers access articles through data base searches. In those circumstances, the entirety of the issue will go unexamined. The idea that a practitioner, law clerk or judge will receive a hard copy of a law review (or a copy of the table of contents of a hard copy law review) and read something out of curiosity is likely in decline.
With all of that said, law review articles still represent the coin of the realm in legal academia. Hiring and tenure depend upon it. Blogging receives little credit (it is not a good idea for an untenured faculty member to blog at the expense of publishing traditional law review articles).