A while back, a group of elite law reviews announced with great fanfare that they were fed up with long law review articles and weren't going to put up with it anymore:
The following statement reflects the commitment of 11 leading law journals across the country to play an active role in moderating the length of law review articles. Specifically, law reviews at Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Michigan, Stanford, Texas, U. Penn., Virginia, and Yale have endorsed the statement below. ...
The vast majority of law review articles can effectively convey their arguments within the range of 40-70 law review pages, and any impression that law reviews only publish or strongly prefer lengthier articles should be dispelled.
Each of the law reviews in question adopted supposedly strict word limits on the articles they would accept. This became an issue for me this fall when I had an article going through the law review submission process. The article was about 39,000 words, which put it slightly above most of the limits. I worried for a while about whether to cut it, but then decided to check whether the much ballyhooed limits were being enforced.
I started with the Yale Law Journal. Its policy claims that:
For Articles, we strongly encourage submissions of fewer than 25,000 words, including footnotes (roughly 50 Journal pages). ... For submissions that exceed these word counts, length will be a factor that weighs significantly against acceptance of the manuscript. (My emphasis)
Harvard Law Review's policy similarly claims that:
In an effort to address the growing length of law review articles, the Review has adopted a new policy limiting the length of articles we will accept or publish.
The Review strongly prefers articles under 25,000 words in length — the equivalent of 50 law review pages — including text and footnotes. The Review will not publish articles exceeding 30,000 words — the equivalent of 60 law review pages — except in extraordinary circumstances. (My emphasis)
So I counted the articles in YLJ's and HLR's most recent complete volumes and found these results:
In other words, the Yale Law Journal published 11 articles. None -- that's right, none, nada, zilch -- were shorter than the 50 page maximum. In other words, all of the articles Yale published that year were accepted despite their length supposedly counting "significantly against acceptance." It's like Lake Wobegon, where all the articles are significantly above average, I guess. Note also that the average length was more than 50% above the purported maximum and that one article was more than double the maximum length.
Turning to the Harvard Law Review, their record is even worse, especially considering their facially stricter standard. Every article they published in Volume 126 exceeded the 60 page limit above which they claim articles will not be published "except in extraordinary circumstances." It must have been a truly extraordinary year.
So are law review word limits just a joke? The problem is that after checking Harvard and Yale, I got bored. So I don't know if there are other journals out there enforcing the rules more strictly. At the very least, however, it seems that Harvard and Yale are just joshing us.
So my advice is: Write the article to the length you need and ignore the word limits.