A message to the thousands of law school students who spend hours buried in the library cite-checking esoteric law review articles: your work matters. Kind of.
With the help of the ever-evolving state of legal research databases, librarians from Yale and Harvard Law Schools have compiled the most sophisticated rankings to date of the most cited law review articles of all time.
Updating his previous rankings from 1985 and 1996, Fred Shapiro of Yale teamed with Michelle Pearse of Harvard in determining which of the more than 1.4 million articles published by law schools and social science journals were the most often cited. The Most-Cited Law Review Articles of All-Time was published in the Michigan Law Review in June.
The main ranking, which Shapiro acknowledged is biased toward older published articles, awards the top honor to The Problem of Social Cost, a 1960 article published in the Journal of Law and Economics by Ronald Coase. The article, which theorizes that the law should be used to offset transaction costs in order to allocate rights more efficiently, helped win Coase the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1991.
Rounding out the top three were two nineteenth-century articles published in the Harvard Law Review: Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis’ The Right to Privacy, published in 1890, and Oliver Wendall Holmes’ The Path of the Law, published in 1897. The Harvard Law Review published six entries in the top ten and five of the top six spots.
Shapiro gained notoriety in the mid-1990s when the Wall Street Journal ran a front page article popularizing the phrase “citology,” the analysis of footnotes and legal citations that pervade legal scholarship. A 1996 law review article anointed Shapiro as the “the founding father” of citology. Citology remains popular among legal scholars today, who gain prestige and influence every time they publish a law review article.
The Top Ten All-Time Rankings:
1. The Problem of Social Cost by Ronald Coase, 1960, Journal of Law and Economics
2. The Right to Privacy by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, 1890, Harvard Law Review
3. The Path of the Law by Oliver Wendall Holmes, 1897, Harvard Law Review
4. The Supreme Court, 1971 Term – Forward: In Search of Evolving Doctrine on a Changing Court: A Model for Newer Equal Protection by Gerald Gunther, 1972, Harvard Law Review
5. Toward Neutral Principles of Constitutional Law by Herbert Wechsler, 1959, Harvard Law Review
6. Property Rules, Liability Rules, and Inalienability: One View of the Cathedral by Guido Calabresi and Douglas Melamed, 1972, Harvard Law Review
7. The New Property by Charles Reich, 1964, Yale Law Journal
8. The Id, the Ego, and Equal Protection: Reckoning with Unconscious Racism by Charles Lawrence, 1897, Stanford Law Review
9. State Constitutions and the Protection of Individual Rights by William Brennan, 1977, Harvard Law Review
10. Neutral Principles and Some First Amendment Problems by Robert Bork, 1971, Indiana Law Journal