When lawyers present legal arguments and judges write opinions, they cite authority. They lace their representations of what the law is and how it applies to a given situation with references to statutes, regulations, and prior appellate decisions they believe to be pertinent and supporting. They also refer to persuasive secondary literature such as treatises, restatements, and journal articles. As a consequence, those who would read law writing and do law writing must master a new, technical language "legal citation."
For many years, the authoritative reference work on "legal citation" was a manual written and published by a small group of law reviews. Known by the color of its cover, The Bluebook was the codification of professional norms that introduced generations of law students to "legal citation." So completely do many academics, lawyers, and judges identify the process with that book they may refer to putting citations in proper form as "Bluebooking" or ask a law student or graduate whether she knows how to "Bluebook." The most recent edition of The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, the twentieth, was published in 2015. In 2000 a competing reference appeared, one designed specifically for instructional use. Prepared by the Association of Legal Writing Directors, the ALWD Guide to Legal Citation (5th ed. 2014) has won wide acceptance in law school legal writing programs.
Differences between the two are microscopic (and noted here). In the way that dictionaries both prescribe and reflect usage, so do these manuals. Both also reflect their origins. They are prepared in law schools with comprehensive print libraries and access to the most expensive commercial online legal information systems. Their principal focus is on the type of writing that law students and law professors do and that academic law journals publish. The realities of professional practice in many settings, particularly at a time when digital distribution of legal materials has largely displaced print, lead to dialects or usages in legal citation neither manual includes. And the type of writing required of lawyers and judges and the context lead to citation practices quite different from those appropriate to published articles.
This introduction to legal citation is focused on the forms of citation used in professional practice rather than those used in journal publication. For that reason, it does not cover the distinct typography rules for the latter. Furthermore, it aims to identify the more important points on which there is divergence between the rules set out in the two manuals and evolving usage reflected in legal memoranda and briefs prepared by practicing lawyers.
As is true with other languages, learning to read "legal citation" is easier than learning to write it fluently. The active use of any language requires greater mastery than the receiving and understanding of it. In addition, there is the potential confusion of dialects or other nonstandard forms of expression. As already noted, "legal citation," like other languages, does indeed have dialects. Most are readily understandable and thus pose little likelihood of confusion for a reader. To the beginning writer, however, they present a serious risk of misleading and inconsistent models. As a writer of "legal citation," you must take care that you check all references that you find in the work of others. This includes citations in court opinions. In part this is because commercial publishers have long viewed citation as a subtle form of advertising through branding. Thus, citations in decisions published in the multiple series of the National Reporter System of the Thomson Reuters unit known as West (from the Atlantic Reporter to the Federal Supplement) have been altered by its editors to refer to other West publications. In addition, several important state courts, California, Illinois, and New York among them, have idiosyncratic citation norms for their own decisions. Many more cite their state's statutes and administrative regulations without repetition of a full abbreviation of the state's name in each reference, that being implied by context. While each of these courts is likely to accept indeed, may even prefer briefs using the same citation dialect, Federal courts in the same state may not. In short, copying and pasting citations from decisions and other references into one's own writing is almost certain to yield inconsistent, nonstandard, and even incomplete citations.
Changes in citation norms over time also caution against relying on source material for proper citation form. The Bluebook has been revised six times since 1990, substantially in 1991, controversially in 1996, and again in 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2015 (see § 7-200). Because of these changes, citations you find in legal documents published in prior years, although they may have been totally conformed to citation standards at the time of writing, may need reformatting to comply with current ones. In other words, imported citations, even those imported from the most carefully edited pre-2015 journal articles, books, or opinions, may not be in proper current form. It should also be noted that The Bluebook itself has throughout these revisions set forth two distinct versions of citation one for journals and an alternative set of "practitioner rules."
What about the feature now part of many online services that enables users to block text and copy it together with its “citation” into their notes? With some services users are even invited to select among a number of different citation formats. Regrettably, even the best (and most expensive) do not remove the need for researchers to know and apply the detailed citation norms applicable to the brief or memorandum they will ultimately prepare. There are several reasons for this gap between promise and performance. To begin, the most prominent services continue to view citation as a means of branding. Any statutory provision retrieved with citation from Westlaw or Lexis will cite to the publisher’s proprietary version of the jurisdiction’s code rather than provide the reference in its official or generic format. Case citations retrieved from Westlaw give unnecessary prominence to the publisher’s National Reporter System volume and page numbers. Secondly, none of the services delivers all the information that a writer will need for a complete citation across all types of material. Many fail to include the page or paragraph number of a specific passage copied from within a case. All fail to include the subsection, paragraph, and subparagraph numbers of a copied statutory or regulatory provision. What this means is that before you can safely rely on citations delivered by an online service you must have mastered legal citation sufficiently to know what additional information you will need to append to them manually in your notes, what portion of the citations furnished you can safely delete, and the extent to which you will need to reformat what remains.
Few people find a dictionary the best starting point for learning a new language. For many of the same reasons neither The Bluebook nor the ALWD Guide to Legal Citation is a good primer. Like dictionaries, both manuals are designed as comprehensive reference works. This introduction refers to them throughout. But while they aim at exhaustive coverage, these materials seek to introduce the basics through concise statements of principles and usage linked to examples. The aim is not to separate you from a full reference work; inevitably you will encounter unusual situations that require "looking up" the proper "rule" or abbreviation in a more comprehensive manual. Instead, this introduction aims at building a basic mastery of "legal citation" as codified in the two major references a level of mastery that should enable you to do all of your legal reading and much of your legal writing without having to reach for them. Since both The Bluebook and the ALWD Guide to Legal Citation embrace the full range of journal writing, they furnish guidance on how to cite all manner of references infrequently used in practitioner writing, including a variety of foreign law materials and historic references. By contrast, this introduction is limited to contemporary U.S. legal material.
Because this introduction is not a substitute for a comprehensive reference, you would be wise to introduce yourself to one as you proceed through this material. Read through its table of contents and introductory material. Each topic covered here includes links to tables providing references to coverage in The Bluebook and the ALWD Guide to Legal Citation. Observing how the manual that you have chosen (or others have chosen for you) arrays its more detailed treatment should be part of your initial exploration of each topic here.
There is no question but that striving for proper citation form will for a time seem a silly distraction from the core project of writing. But as is true with other languages, those who use this one carefully make negative assumptions about the craft of those who don't. Being a simple language at its core, this one should fairly quickly become a matter of habit and, thus, no longer a distraction.