(Austin Milbarge is the pseudonym of the co-founder of Begging the Question.)
Here's the short version of my experience. I went to a top-25-or-so law school with one "regular" law review, two specialized journals, and a clinic that also produced a journal in its subject matter (my co-blogger Fitz worked on that one). I was on the Law Review, spending one year cite-checking articles and writing my Note, and my third year as a Board member responsible for shepherding a few of those articles through the process and nursing along a few second-years writing their Notes.
The application process for the LR was pretty light, as I recall. We had to write a brief memo based on a supplied fact pattern, using provided sources. (We had to pay a fee to offset copying costs.) Analysis and style mattered, and of course they were sticklers for all the Bluebooking. I prefer this type of "closed memo" to an "open" one because it avoids the temptation to gather every possible source and work oneself to the bone over it. And, for the LR Board, it's easier to grade if you have all the sources on hand. A few spots were awarded to the best writing samples, and the rest were awarded on a combination of grades and the writing score. (We were never told how we made it.) I think selection processes are largely fungible, because you're generally going to get the same people regardless of which method you use. The people with the best grades tend to write the best memos, so except at the margins, the points you assign to each won't matter much.
The clinic-journal process included an interview and was primarily dependent on the clinic director's assessment, while the specialty journals just had a written submission application, I think. While some schools' specialty journals are quite prestigious, ours weren't, really. But the clinic-journal was highly respected in its limited field, and I'm not just saying that for Fitz's benefit. That kind of thing varies widely.
Those facts highlight just how idiosyncratic the journal experience can be. In addition, our LR was relatively small, which gave me a different experience than I would have gotten at a bigger journal. (We had about 15 third-year board members and about 25 second-year staff members even though we put out a journal equal in size to those put out by staffs twice as big.)
Piece of advice number one is to get to know your journal a little bit before you apply. Most journals have, or ought to have, an open house to let interested students come by and see the offices, get a sense of the place, poke around a bit, and ask some questions. Failing that, just drop by. Trust me, those egocentric nerds love to talk about themselves -- they won't turn you away. (If they do, that tells you plenty.)
Ask them how the process works, ask them what second-years do, what third-years do, how one gets on the board, etc. Since they're hanging out in the office, ask them how much time they spend there. Ask if they have an intramural softball team. Ask them what they've missed out on because they've done the journal. Almost no one on our LR did Moot Court, which I sincerely regret now, but I just didn't have the time, and there was
also one class a semester I didn't get to take. If they have a refrigerator, that's good. If it's stocked with Red Bull and No-Doz, that's bad.
The point is that even though you're going to get the sales pitch, you're going to find out a lot about what's it like to be a member of the journal on an everyday basis. For some people, the office is The Office, and they spend very little time there. I basically lived there for two years. (It helped that our secretary made me pie.) At our LR, the third-year board members had a lot of management responsibilities over the second-years. Some journals have rigid divisions between "notes editors" and "articles editors," but we didn't. Since a big part of your time on a journal will be spent writing a Note, it's worth knowing what kind of support system you'll have and how that process works from picking a topic through publication decisions.
The upshot isn't that you have to know everything about the institution before you apply, but rather that more information is always good. It suprises me how many people apply for a journal without knowing anything about it, when so much information is readily available if they would just take a few minutes to scout the place. Now, that being said, it's important to have as many perspectives as possible. Talk to a trusted faculty member -- my suggestion would be to pick a younger one because he or she would have gone through all this more recently.
After the denizens of the journal office tell you how much they love it, ask them for the name of a member who hated it -- there's always at least one. Then go talk to that person and see if he or she just doesn't play well with others or has some valuable insight into why it might not be right for you. A handy tip is that if the disgruntled one hates the journal because of the people there -- a common complaint -- remember that most of the people you would work with will be classmates of yours. If you hate the people at the top of your class, chances are you might hate seeing them every day in the close quarters of the office (or better yet, answering to their petty demands).
Piece of advice number two (after Know Thy Journal Before Thou Applies) is Apply Anyway. Even though that sounds contradictory, it's really just a corrollary of the principle that more information is better. I know that some application processes suck. Ours was easy enough for me to do in one night about a week after exams were over. Even if yours is much more taxing, I still think it's worth a few nights' work
(a) so you won't regret not having done it when you see the doofuses that made the journal,
(b) so you can see the look on their face when you tell them to take their journal membership and shove it, or
(c) so that you at least have the summer to decide if you want to do it or not.
It's very, very tempting right after exams are over to want nothing to do with school, but that sensation will pass. Complete the application, and then spend some time over the summer thinking about whether you really want to do the whole journal thing. You can always turn it down if you make it, but at many schools you don't get a do-over once the school year starts if you change your
mind. (Our journal didn't allow third-years or transfer students to join, so we only had the one shot.)
I'm sure there's some Game Theory terminology I could employ here, but the idea is to put yourself in the advantageous position and give yourself more options. And if you don't make it, you're no worse off than if you didn't apply at
all. Finally, note that you probably won't know all your second-semester (or fifth quarter or whatever that system has) grades by the time you need to apply for the journal. Don't self-select out of it just based on some low first-semester grades -- your next set of grades might be a lot better, or at least enough to make a difference with a journal that uses grades in its selection process.
My third piece of advice, after telling you to Apply Anyway so you'll have more time to decide whether you want to do it, is to Decide Early. Okay, now I'm just messing with you. What I mean is to make that decision sooner rather than later. Because you followed piece of advice number one, you'll know in advance when you can expect to hear the results of the selection process. By that time (generally a month or so before school starts), you need to have made up your mind. This is especially true at a small journal like our LR or many specialized journals, but it's not fair to others if you decide you don't like it
and quit halfway through the semester. For one thing, the work that would have gone to you will now have to be done by others. Also, it might be too late to bring in a replacement, and that would have the effect of denying a spot on the journal to someone else.
Now, it's one thing if you've done some homework, think you know what you're getting in for, and then find out that it's vastly different in reality. (And of course, I'm leaving aside valid reasons to quit like genuinely hostile work environments.) But accepting a place on the journal is a commitment that should be honored. I'm not equating the two, but if a lawyer accepts appointment as counsel to an indigent person, the lawyer generally can't withdraw absent a showing of "good cause." Similarly, I think you should have a pretty good reason for quitting your journal, something more than the hope that you'll have more fun elsewhere. (This threshold requirement is of course a
little stricter if your journal is a credited or graded class, because quitting after the normal drop-add period would likely screw up your schedule, GPA, and progress towards graduation.)
Since you've taken piece of advice number two, you've got the summer to decide what your answer will be when you get the call congratulating you for making the journal. And in a perfect world, no one would be undecided (or quit once the school year starts) because they've taken piece of advice number one and know what they're signing up for.
I'll leave it to others to debate the value of the student-run law journal as an institution. I think there are pros and cons, and I think the institution will change a great deal in the near future. But you're not applying to some faceless entity; you and your buddies are applying for admission in the clubhouse in the corner of the law school building. Spending that much time and energy has to be a personal decision based on how you feel about that specific journal. Law Reviews as an institution may be the greatest thing in the
legal world since the Magna Carta, but that doesn't do you much good if your
time working on one is hell on earth. And regardless of the value of that membership once you leave school, the journey ought to be worth something, too. A year or two is a long time to be miserable. To avoid that, get to know your journal so you can make an informed decision about working there. You wouldn't say yes to a law school's offer of admission without doing a little investigation, and the journal experience should be no different. If you apply armed with that knowledge, you'll feel much better about your decision, whatever it is.
If anyone wants to discuss this at greater length or more privately, feel free to email me at milbarge AT gmail DOT com. Thanks to De Novo for the space, and good luck to those of you applying to journals!