Michael Froomkin is the Laurie Silvers & Mitchell Rubenstein Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Miami School of Law. He is the founding editor of JOTWELL and co-founding editor of ICANNWatch. For more information on Professor Froomkin visit his about page.
Where’s the best place to go to stay up-to-date on the latest and most pathbreaking legal research in your field? For a long time most scholars were able to turn to a small number of law journals as an answer. Now, with so many more law reviews and a growing number of innovative articles being published on the web, the answer is not so simple. For law professors, students, and practitioners, staying on top of the latest research in their field, let alone research in related fields that they’re interested in, can be daunting.
The Journal of Things We Like (Lots) better known as JOTWELL, an online law journal of short-form reviews of articles scholars recommend their colleagues read, is helping to solve this problem. Professor Michael Froomkin, of the University of Miami School of Law, says he started JOTWELL to give academics a place to find and discuss important new research in a positive way. I interviewed Professor Froomkin to find out more about how JOTWELL got started and how legal scholars, including law students, can get involved.
What happened was, I used to go to conferences and talk to people and I would ask them, what should I be reading? They would tell me and I would write it down on little bits of paper and I would put it in my pocket. Then I would go home and launder my pants, and I would end up with little wadded up balls of paper and nothing to read. And I thought, there’s got to be a better way.
That’s a small fraction of the truth. The real thing is I also read other subjects, like economics, and I noticed that in other subjects they commonly have reviewed articles that survey a field, and they also have all kinds of short reviews of articles. They don’t do what we do in law, which is very rarely review things. So I wanted, for myself and to share, to have a resource to help keep up with all of the different subjects that I am interested in. There’s so many law journals and there’s too many subjects that I am interested in to possibly keep up. So I tried to create something I wanted to read.
JOTWELL focuses on any scholarship that is relevant to the law. We will even look at things that are outside the law, if it’s something really special and that other lawyers would like to read. The audience is primarily lawyers and law professors, but things that we review don’t have to be by lawyers.
The section editors do the lion’s share of the work, they pick all of the authors. The way it works is authors get to write once a year. They write 500 to 1000 words about a very recent piece of scholarship that they read that they think other people would like to read too. Those authors are picked by the section editors and I pick the section editors. So I started JOTWELL with subjects where I knew people who I thought would do a good job as editors, then I gradually broadened the topics based on recommendations.
We have about 300 contributing editors now, and some of the best names in law. We’re really proud of the list. It’s an amazing group of people, who’ve bought into the idea of having a chance to say something positive for a change.
Can you explain how JOTWELL counters the common practice in the law of authors criticizing each other’s work?
When most law journals review things it’s usually books, and usually they’re by somebody who explains how if they’d only written the book it would have been better. It seemed to me that there was a need for a place to share reviews praising good scholarship just because there was an absence of it. I think a steady diet of just this would not be a good thing either. But it struck me that this is what was missing in the legal literature that I was consuming and that’s why I wanted to help provide it.
The internet actually increases our need for intermediaries, for people to help us and to point us to the things we want to read. So that’s one part of it. I write a lot about internet law and that made me realize just how important quality intermediation was.
Back some time before I became a law professor, there was a sense that with some major journals if you just read those you were keeping up with stuff. And maybe there would be one other specialty law journal in your field to follow. By the time I became a law professor that wasn’t very true. It’s not at all true now. I mean, great stuff can appear in any law review, and all kinds of weird stuff can appear in major law reviews. I should know, I’ve written some of it. And it’s just very difficult to feel comfortable that you’re reading all of the stuff you should read with so many law reviews out there.
In terms of topics it varies by contributors, which is one of the wonderful things about it, because you get a lot of unexpected treasures. When I started JOTWELL I had kind of hoped that we would do a little more with it to subvert the hierarchy of law reviews and the hierarchy of law professors, and that people would go out of their way to do publicity for more obscure articles by more junior people. That happens some, but it probably doesn’t happen quite as much as I expected. Either because that’s what people are reading or that’s what’s genuinely good, a significant fraction of the reviews are of articles from more established law journals by more established authors.
We’ve invited students to do that, but very few of them have taken us up on it. Whether a student, a practitioner, or a professor everyone is on equal terms in the call for papers. We’ve actually had submissions by graduate students more often than by JD students.
The student editors are all from the University of Miami where I am based. The university pays for the server and pays some stipend to the students for being editors. The University of Miami has been really supportive of this project.
What has your reach been like among students at universities, and do you think you’ll do more to appeal to them in the future?
Certainly the idea of getting people in law schools to be ones who sort of promote the idea that their friends should be reading JOTWELL is something we’d like. I would have thought that every first-year student would want to be reading the Torts section to see what their law professor is thinking about, because the professor is probably reading it. I would have thought the same thing from Civil Procedure. It’s hard to tell from the metrics how many student readers we’re getting. I sense that it is fewer than professors, though.
I am hesitant to tell students they should read more, especially a first year student, only because I think first years are pretty stretched. I would say, the nice thing about JOTWELL is the pieces are really short and they are very clear, so although it’s extra reading it’s not a lot of extra reading.
Have you noticed any patterns in what makes a good article stand out that early-career legal scholars may benefit from?
I am afraid the answer is exactly what you would expect. It’s to write clearly and well and to do something original. We have almost 300 different people writing these reviews, with 300 different sets of taste, so not surprisingly there isn’t really a consensus. What we have is a great variety of interesting perspectives.
There’s certainly not a house style about what makes an article worth reviewing, except that I always tell authors when they ask me - explain to the person reading why they would want to read this too.