The Road to 100 Years: Virginia Law Review’s Early History Had Its Uncertainties
An image of the first article published by the Virginia Law Review, titled "The Jurisprudence of Latin America."
With the Virginia Law Review Centennial Symposium this weekend, the law review will cap off a year of celebratory events in honor of the publication’s 100th anniversary at the University of Virginia School of Law. And while the review enjoys an enduring reputation for publishing top legal scholarship, early editorial doubts, a nearly insurmountable debt and criticisms about the value of law reviews created uncertainties during the review’s early history.
Planning for the review began with an informal meeting of 10 students and four faculty members on March 5, 1913. In attendance was a powerful advocate, William Minor Lile, who was the Law School’s first dean, founder of the state legal journal the Virginia Law Register, and an enthusiastic supporter of law reviews in general.
On April 23, an editorial board was elected and an incorporated Virginia Law Review Association endeavored to publish its first issue, which appeared that October.
Concerns Over the First Issue
In the foreword to the first issue, the editorial board acknowledged the relative inexperience involved in the student-run effort.
“The editorial work is entirely in the hands of . . . students, not one of whom has had previous experience with work of this character,” the editors write. “It is hoped that the crudities of this first effort in the line of published comment on the work of the courts may be less glaring in the future numbers when the editors have become more experienced.”
But the first article, titled “The Jurisprudence of Latin America,” was far from crude. Authored by Hannis Taylor, an attorney and constitutional history scholar who also served as U.S. minister to Madrid, the piece helped set the ambitious tone of the issue.
Aside from the glimpse into Latin America, however, the issue’s focus was primarily on domestic lawyering. Other contributions included a look at inheritance laws by UVA professor Raleigh C. Minor, who would go on to become acting dean of the Law School and a frequent contributor to the review, as well as articles on the exercise of federal power and recent court decisions.
Ronald J. Fisher, a current third-year student and the 2013-14 articles editor for the review, writes in the foreword to the first issue of the review’s 100th volume, released this month, that editorial focus was most likely another area of concern for the original editors.
“The Law Review’s national focus may have been a matter of some initial internal debate—this was, after all the Virginia Law Review, published by the students of the University of Virginia,” Fisher writes.
Despite any early jitters or debate, though, the review enjoyed a warm reception, with the editors of the second volume stating in their foreword that they had no regrets about the ambitious scope established by the review’s progenitors. The editorial board thanked the bar for the “kind encouragement received from lawyers in every part of the country [which] led the board to believe that no mistake was made in not confining the work to the local law of Virginia.”
Dean Lile Sends Out an S.O.S.
With the determined efforts of each successive board, the review built its reputation as a publication of merit. But the journal was barely into its teenage years when a financial setback threatened its future.
In 1927, the review was $1,000 in debt and in danger of being shuttered when Dean Lile and Professor Armistead Mason Dobie, who would become Lile’s successor and, later, a federal judicial appointee of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, stepped up with a promise to guarantee the review’s publishing costs.
They delivered on the promise with the help of some influential friends.
Lile’s diary entry on December 23, 1927, notes that he had “sent out an S.O.S. call to a few of the prominent alumni of the Law School . . . . The returns to date aggregate approximately $1,000.00, with several centers yet to be heard from.”
Lile later writes, “The Review is one of the best assets the Law School possesses, giving the Law School a prestige which cannot be measured in shillings or pence.”
A Reputation to Uphold
By its 25th anniversary, the review had solidly established its financial footing and its reputation as a prestige national journal.
Leslie H. Buckler, a professor who taught at the Law School for more than 20 years and who is credited with the inscription above Clay Hall, penned a congratulatory foreword to honor the quarter-century anniversary. In the article, Buckler extolled the review's tradition of excellence and its positive reflection upon the school. But with Buckler's comments also came a reminder of the responsibility borne by the students who work on the review.
"...[F]or the cream of the student body which rises through the selective processes of law review competition may be taken as a fair gauge of the general quality of the milk which first went into the pail," Buckler writes. "Here, then, the Faculty . . . must acknowledge that an important contribution to the reputation it enjoys for sound educational accomplishment has been made by the standards maintained in the Review, and that any decline of quality in that succession of student contributions would very quickly reflect upon the reputation of the school. And justly so."
Because of its reputation, the review has enjoyed a close relationship with a number of influential figures in the legal world, including U.S. Supreme Court justices and federal judges. The review's archives reflect these relationships—with correspondence on or concerning everyone from then-Justice Felix Frankfurter (serving from 1939-62) to future Justice Antonin Scalia (1986-present). (Additional archival material can be found online at the UVA Law Library's Special Collections site, and more material is expected to be added this year.)
But while the Virginia Law Review has enjoyed success—consistently being listed among the highest ranked and most frequently cited law journals in the country—law reviews in general have had their detractors over the past 100 years.
In fact, Virginia published some of the earliest criticism.
Goodbye to Law Reviews?
In 1936, the review published “Goodbye to Law Reviews” by Fred Rodell, the late Yale University law professor who became famous for his scathing critiques of the legal profession. In the piece, Rodell writes, “There are two things wrong with almost all legal writing. One is its style. The other is its content. That, I think, about covers the ground.”
Rodell's article, along with three other frequently cited pieces the review has published, will be discussed in depth during this weekend’s symposium.
Sarah Buckley, who served as editor-in-chief for the centennial year, said cynicism about the relevance of law reviews, now or in the past, doesn’t apply to reviews that adapt to the needs of their changing audiences. She said the Virginia Law Review will continue to thrive.
“There's no doubt that the content, readership, and in some ways the purpose of law reviews has changed in the last 100 years and VLR, like many of our peer journals, is working to adapt to an increasingly open and online world,” Buckley said. “. . . I am confident that our successors will adapt to the changing marketplace for legal scholarship and will continue to make VLR a great success.”
The review, which is financially and organizationally independent of the Law School, met a $1 million fundraising goal this year as the result of its Centennial Campaign, which was conducted with the help of the Law School Foundation. The endowment is expected to ensure the review’s operations for many years to come—which makes the review’s future much more certain than in the early days, when being $1,000 in debt could have meant the last word.
This article is part of a series honoring the Virginia Law Review’s 100th anniversary.