Jansen VanderMeulen ‘19
The editorial board of the Virginia Law Review (VLR) will vote Friday on a contentious plan that would overhaul how this Law School’s flagship journal selects its members. The new plan, obtained by the Law Weekly, would limit the number of members admitted on the basis of grades and select half the membership on the basis of a holistic review of applicants’ grades, writing competition performance, and personal statement. The managing board approved the plan by a narrow 16-11 vote.
Current VLR policy is this: The students with the top fifteen GPAs are automatically admitted to VLR, as are the top fifteen performers on the write-on not already admitted by grades. After that, the five students with the next highest grades who also score in the top half of the write-on are admitted, as are the next five highest write-on performers in the top half of the class in grades. Finally, up to ten students are admitted through the Virginia Plan, which considers personal statements specifically tailored to diversity, but is restricted to students in the top half of the class in both GPA and write-on score.
The new plan replaces the Virginia Plan with an authentically holistic review—eliminating the top-half requirement—and removes the Virginia Plan’s quasi-requirement that candidates come from a historically disadvantaged group. Some of the plan’s features are the same as in years past: the ten students with the highest GPAs would be automatically admitted (down from fifteen), as would the students with the top fifteen write-on scores. But the other twenty-five would be selected by VLR’s Membership and Inclusion Committee.
The seven-person committee would be made up of VLR’s Editor-in-Chief, Managing Editor, a new “Membership and Inclusion Editor” (all three selected by the outgoing managing board) and four members selected by the editorial board and new managing board. The committee would select between fifty and seventy-five students based on an evaluation of their personal statements and their written competition (with the understanding that some of their picks will make VLR through other means and the hope that they would have about fifty candidates to choose from after that). Those students’ information would be sent to the Student Records office, which would send back the students’ cumulative grade information based on relative GPA tier—the committee would not know students’ exact GPAs, just their position in tiers relative to their classmates. And for students whose GPAs come back in the bottom third of the class, VLR would receive no tier information; they would know only that the student is in the bottom third. The members of the committee would then weigh the students’ grade information, their write-on scores, and their personal statements to select twenty-five of them for membership on VLR. Students must receive the votes of five of the committee’s seven members to be admitted.
Supporters and opponents disagreed markedly about the new plan’s merits. Most VLR members who spoke with the Law Weekly did so on condition of anonymity: several pointed to an email sent by VLR Managing Editor Aparna Datta ’19—obtained by the Law Weekly—that informed members that the proposal was “internal and confidential to VLR.” (VLR sources say this was meant to avoid panic among the 1Ls at a stressful time.) Nonetheless, the Law Weekly spoke with nearly a dozen VLR members about the plan, including members of the managing board.
Supporters contend the plan will strengthen VLR by allowing for greater diversity of membership and removing arbitrary hurdles to getting the best students on Law Review. Opponents criticize the plan’s concentration of power in a small number of people, its potential for abuse, and its dilution of what it means to “be on Law Review.”
Several VLR members who spoke with the Law Weekly agreed the current lack of underrepresented students on VLR is a problem, but expressed concern with leaving the selection of half of Law Review’s members to a committee they claim is secretive, opaque, and rife with potential for abuse. “The opposition,” one member told me, “agrees the current lack of diversity is a problem, but thinks this plan is fundamentally flawed because it gives too much power to too few people.”
Another member concurred: “It’s problematic that our current system—one written exam graded on a curve—leaves an unrepresentative group at the ‘top’ of the class,” they told me. “Perhaps [grades and the writing competition] are arbitrary, but discretionary selection from a committee is surely more arbitrary.” Another VLR member agreed: This process “will create opacity, confusion, and stress among 1Ls” unsure how exactly one “gets on Law Review.” Other members worried about the potential for backroom politics, or at least the perception of unfairness. “People will inevitably wonder whether popularity, politics, networking, or other inappropriate factors played a role,” a member said. “Especially since the personal statements will be impossible to keep totally anonymous.”
Another member—who supported last year’s expansion of the Virginia Plan but opposes this plan—echoed that concern, worrying that this “gooey process” could spawn selection based on popularity or even corruption and collusion among the members of the committee, who, though required to give weight to each of grades, the write-on, and the personal statement, are under no obligation to disclose their weighting or have a consistent metric for balancing the three factors. One member called the committee’s discretionary power “insane.”
Supporters of the plan respond that these concerns are overblown or just plain wrong. Editorial board member Kareem Ramadan ’20 told the Law Weekly that while the small number of people selecting half of VLR is a “valid concern,” the concern that the committee would pick members based on politics or favoritism instead of merit is misguided. “I can’t imagine five of the seven people on the committee won’t care about grades,” Ramadan said.
Several supporters also pointed out that scores on the writing competition and GPA are highly correlated; perhaps unsurprisingly, those who do well on law school exams also tend to do well in the writing competition. This means that under the new plan, while the committee wouldn’t see the grades of applicants until after it has narrowed the pool to fifty-or-so candidates, it would have a good idea of candidates’ caliber based on their writing competition results. What’s more, supporters dispute the idea that grades and write-on scores are any less arbitrary than the holistic process that will be applied by the committee. “[M]argins for admission to the law review are incredibly fine,” one member told me, “and there are a vast number of extraordinarily qualified candidates.”
Supporters also contend the holistic review will allow the committee to take into account compelling life experiences that would benefit VLR. “[G]rades and journal tryout scores are clearly not the only markers of success,” Dana Raphael ’20, an editorial board member, told the Law Weekly. “People with fascinating and varied backgrounds—particularly backgrounds that would make adept members such as prior editing experience—should be considered fully for VLR.”
Another member concurred, telling the paper, “I believe that an array of skills, perspectives, and experiences prior to law school is not only valuable but necessary to the continued strength of this publication.” Responding to criticism that too much power is vested in the seven committee members, this member told the paper, “It is set up so that, functionally, the outgoing Managing Board is able to choose about half of the members and the full membership of VLR is able to choose the other half, and any student who is accepted to VLR through the committee process must receive a supermajority of votes, which I think will both do a good job of allowing various perspectives of the broader Law Review to be heard and ensuring that so-called ‘back-room politics’ are virtually impossible.”
Most contentious was the idea, pitched by some opponents of the plan, that selecting half of VLR’s membership through a holistic process will lead to a dilution of what it means to be on Law Review. “I worry that the new discretion-heavy process may take away from some of VLR’s cachet in job and clerkship interviews. Before, being on VLR meant you finished your 1L year at the top of your class or as one of the standouts in the writing competition,” the source told the Law Weekly. “I’m not sure what being on law review will mean to employers or judges if no one knows how students are chosen for membership.”
Another member told the paper the new plan would be “catastrophic in the long term” as it becomes clear that law review membership is no longer a proxy for either high grades or stellar writing. One member was blunter: “Excellent grades—grades good enough to place a student in the top 10 percent of the class—do not happen by accident but are the result of hard work. This plan diminishes the value of grades while vesting discretionary authority in a committee of seven.”
Supporters of the plan sharply disputed the idea that the plan would lessen VLR’s cachet, pointing to the law reviews of Harvard and Columbia Law Schools, which both utilize holistic admissions processes and have not suffered corresponding reputational damage. “The University of Virginia produces exceptional graduates,” Raphael said, “and changing the process by which students are admitted to VLR is unlikely to affect anyone’s employment opportunities.” Another member added, “I think that the implication that [the prestige element] will change is an exaggeration, if not patently false” but also said the worry about prestige “misses the mark,” and that the value in Law Review is not conferring the benefits of membership on its students, but “in the quality and diversity of its scholarship.”
VLR Editor-in-Chief Campbell Haynes ’19 voiced support for the plan in his personal capacity, writing to the Law Weekly, “This membership reform proposal is the result of months of hard work, research, and outreach to other law reviews.” He wrote that the new process “will make our membership process fairer and more open to all” because “selecting a sizable portion of the Review through holistic review will allow VLR to ensure that all students have the opportunity to be fully considered.” Haynes concluded, “It will also allow us to identify potential editors who are strong across the board. That will make us even better at our main job: publishing thought-provoking legal scholarship.”
This is the last edition of the Law Weekly for the semester; there will be no follow-up to this report until January. The leak that produced this piece, as well as long experience with law students, leave us skeptical that we will have to wait until then to hear of the result of Friday’s vote, however. Readers are encouraged to keep their ears perked on Friday. And a timely reminder: tips may, as always, be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Editor’s Note: This article has been edited to reflect that the initial review of candidates for VLR will take into account not just candidates’ personal statements, but also their writing competition scores. It has also been edited to reflect that the managing board approved the plan by a vote of 16-11, not 14-11.