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#DearFindLaw: Save Me From The Bluebook!

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on February 03, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019
#DearFindLaw - Advice for New Lawyers and Law Students from @FindLawLP

In today's #DearFindLaw, we tackle a subject that's near and dear to my heart: The Bluebook.

Forcibly embraced by the staff of law reviews nationwide, and derided by no less an authority than Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, The Bluebook has become the de facto standard for legal citations.

But just because we have to use it doesn't mean we like to use it.

Is It Just The Bluebook?

Dear Matthew,

Short answer: Not so much. In law school, there aren't really alternatives to The Bluebook, which means the law reviews of Harvard, Columbia, U. Penn., and Yale basically have a stranglehold on legal citations. (Some schools teach ALWD citation [by the Association of Legal Writing Directors] in first-year legal writing, but no one uses that in practice.)

If you're on law review, you get to learn a new meaning of terror as you cite-check law review notes for publication and come up with some, shall we say, "creative" ways to cite things for which there's no ready model in the Bluebook. (Pro Tip: Find a published article that cited something similar, then cite yours the same way they did.)

Once you get into practice, though, life gets slightly better. Judges aren't sticklers for citations; they just want to know where you got that quote from. They couldn't care less if there's a comma in the wrong place. Depending on where you end up practicing, all this talk might be irrelevant. Some states -- California being one of them -- have a totally separate style guide you have to use in state court filings.

Where's the FAQ?

The Bluebook can seem overwhelming at first, with its pages and pages (and pages) of examples. At least there's a uniform way to cite to debates of the European Parliament! (Rule 21.8.2.)

The stuff you'll use every day, though, consists largely of case citations and statutes. Case citations are easy: It's the party names, followed by the reporter, page number, and date, as in: People v. Diaz, 51 Cal.4th 84 (2011). The hard part is figuring out reporter names, sometimes.

Statute citations are also easy, but more variable because every state has its own statute structure. California, for example, divides its statutes into 29 separate codes. Other states lump all of their statutes together into one code, as in the Ohio Revised Code.

The really difficult stuff comes in the form of the minutiae that Judge Posner thinks makes the Bluebook tedious. You must, for example, abbreviate a word in a case name whenever it's possible. How will you know it's possible? Table Six contains a list of all abbreviate-able words, though if it takes more time to figure out how a word is abbreviated than it does to type out the whole word, isn't the Harvard Law Review just trolling you?

It's Not All Bad

Believe it or not, The Bluebook can be surprisingly helpful. The inside of the back cover contains some quick reference for citations to things like cases and statutes, and the front pages for practitioners (the "blue pages") are also a good source of quick reference.

There are other books and references out there to help you understand The Bluebook. Linda Barris' Understanding and Mastering The Bluebook is available from Amazon, but it hasn't been updated since 2007. You can also search online for materials from different law schools, which provide handy how-tos when it comes to learning The Bluebook.

Don't worry; you're not alone. Struggling with The Bluebook is a rite of passage, along with your first time being cold-called in class and having your computer stop working during a final exam.

Law students and recent grads, send us your questions! Write to us via Twitter (@FindLawLP) or Facebook (FindLaw for Legal Professionals) using the hashtag #DearFindLaw.

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