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Why law professors should co-author academic articles with law students

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John Villasenor

John Villasenor.

I started writing law review articles in mid-career, after many years of publishing academic articles in STEM journals. Arriving to academic law with an outsider’s perspective (my PhD is in engineering; I have a faculty appointment at UCLA in both engineering and law), I was surprised to learn that law is an exception among academic disciplines in relation to authorship of scholarly works. In most other disciplines, it is routine—and in fact expected—for faculty to co-author scholarly publications with graduate students.

By contrast, in legal academia, the hiring and promotion process places strong pressure on faculty not to co-author with the JD and LLM students who comprise the overwhelming majority of students at most U.S. law schools. While law faculty do sometimes co-author academic publications, they typically do so with other professional academics.

This is despite the fact that today’s law students are particularly well suited to tackle challenging, interdisciplinary problems. They are part of the first generation of law students to be digital natives and are often far better than their professors at navigating and engaging with information obtained from sources spanning multiple academic fields. In addition, many students arrive at law school with academic training and professional experience that, when combined with faculty mentoring, places them in a particularly strong position to conduct interdisciplinary research. Faculty who recognize this and who invite law students to be research collaborators and co-authors will find that publications will be stronger than if the faculty had written alone.

Excluding law students from co-authorship opportunities is a lose-lose proposition. It impedes the legal academy’s access to the tremendous intellectual contributions to scholarship that law students can make. And it denies students the mentorship and professional growth that accompany writing an academic publication with a faculty member. This growth is valuable regardless of whether a law student plans a career in academia. After all, learning to write clear, carefully researched and well-cited analysis and argument is valuable for any legal career.

Why is law so different from other disciplines in its approach? At least two explanations might be offered. The first, which in my view does not stand up to scrutiny, lies with the nature of the degrees offered by U.S. law schools. The second and more substantive explanation is the culture of the legal academy.

The most “academic” degree offered by many U.S. law schools is the SJD. (Doctor of Juridical Science; other variations include a Doctor of the Science of Law and a PhD). Law doctoral students produce—and publish—terrific research. But there just aren’t that many of them.

For example, at the UCLA School of Law, where I teach, of the approximately 1,400 students enrolled as of fall 2021 across all degree programs (JD, LLM, Master of Legal Studies and SJD), only about half a dozen were SJD students. Contrast that with the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, where I also teach. At UCLA Engineering, as of fall 2021, there were about 1,100 PhD students, about 850 in-residence master’s students and about 500 students in the online master’s program.

Thus, it might be tempting to attribute the dearth of law student co-authors to the fact that law schools don’t generally have a large population of students enrolled in research-focused degree programs. But that explanation fails to account for the fact that in fields like engineering, doctoral students aren’t the only ones doing research. Engineering master’s students pursuing a coursework-based degree often elect to engage in research, even when doing so isn’t required by the curriculum.

My experience with law students makes clear that there is unmet demand among JD and LLM students who would like to augment their coursework with participation in research. To give one example, I recently worked with a second year JD student at UCLA to write a co-authored law review article considering the case law and First Amendment questions relating to online anonymity. At the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law and Policy, where I am one of two faculty co-directors, we have found strong interest among JD and LLM students in working as part-time research assistants.

The second—and more central—explanation for why the legal academy treats co-authorship so distinctly is culture. In the legal academy, the single-author law review article is the form of scholarship deemed most worthy of respect. While there is nothing wrong with according well-deserved recognition to the intellectual contributions of scholars who write alone, the problem lies in presumptively valuing co-authored papers less highly.

This is despite evidence that team authorship yields more impactful law review articles. In a 2014 article titled “The Dominance of Teams in the Production of Legal Knowledge,” Christopher A. Cotropia and Lee Petherbridge analyzed “a randomly selected half of all law review articles published by top 100 law reviews between 1990 and 2010.” Based on an analysis of citation counts, they concluded that “team research is on average more frequently cited than individual research, and teams are more likely than individuals to produce exceptionally high-impact research.”

The devaluation of multiple-author legal scholarship has multiple negative consequences. Most obviously, it disincentivizes collaboration. Of the over 19,000 law review articles in the database used by Cotropia and Petherbridge, about 86% had a single author. While Cotropia and Petherbridge did note trend toward more co-authorship over the 1990 to 2010 time period spanned by their study, in all of those years the percentage of single-author articles remained well over 80%.

An additional consequence of the publication culture in the legal academy is that it pushes law students to emulate the same single-author scholarship style favored by their professors. Many student-edited law reviews, in addition to publishing full-length law reviews authored (typically) by legal scholars, offer students the opportunity to publish shorter-form single-author “Notes.”

The glass-half-full way to look at this category of publication is that it provides a valuable forum specifically designed for students who want to engage in legal scholarship. But there is also a glass-half-empty view: Creating a partitioned category for law students to publish shorter, single-authored articles propagates the noncollaborative “lone scholar” model.

Is there hope for co-authorship—and in particular, co-authorship with students—in the legal academy to gain the respect it deserves? Despite the current climate, I’m optimistic. First of all, there is market pressure: Law in the 2020s is an increasingly complex enterprise, often involving intersections of multiple disciplines.

In my own work, which lies at the intersection of law and technology, I’ve seen that addressing the legal questions arising around issues such as artificial intelligence, digital privacy and cybersecurity requires collaboration among people with complementary expertise. Scholarship will be stronger when such collaborations are pursued rather than avoided. There are many other intersections—law and finance, law and the environment, law and medicine, etc.—where interdisciplinary collaborations are similarly vital.

We in the legal academy can do more than simply observe and respond to market pressures. We should acknowledge the drawbacks of the traditional emphasis on single-author legal scholarship. We should affirmatively work to provide law students with a broader array of research opportunities, making them co-authors when they contribute substantively to the resulting intellectual output.

When hiring and promoting law faculty, we should recognize and reward scholarship arising from collaborative research just as readily as we recognize and reward sole-author scholarship. This requires understanding the relative contributions of the co-authors, but if hiring and promotion committees in dozens of other disciplines can do this successfully, we can do it in law, as well.

Law students represent an enormous and often untapped reservoir of talent. They, and the legal profession in general, will benefit immensely if law faculty are more proactive in engaging them in the production of legal scholarship.

John Villasenor is a professor of law, electrical engineering and public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles, as well as the faculty co-director of the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law and Policy. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Villasenor’s work considers the broader impacts of key technology trends, including the growth of artificial intelligence, advances in digital communications and the increasing complexity of today’s networks and systems. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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