When I was in law school, everyone had to buy the infamous Bluebook, a small – and you guessed it – blue book that contains a consistent citation style used by much of the jurisprudence and legal profession. I thought at first that it’s crazy that now in law school I have to learn a whole new citation style since I learned the Chicago Manual of Style and other citation guidelines in college and as an MA candidate and now I would have to start from scratch . However, I knew the importance of learning proper citation in law school, working on a journal, and eventually in legal practice. That said, I later found that perfect bluebooking is usually less important in legal practice than it is in law school, and law students should breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the citation skills they learn in law school can be used in legal practice without too many problems a bit can be rusty.
Perhaps the main reason for a consistent citation system is that individuals can refer succinctly to authorities who support their arguments, and find such authorities if they wish to check them extensively. In legal texts, lawyers must relate their arguments to cases, laws, facts, and everything in between. Consistent citations are an important tool to support lawyers’ arguments in a way that is translatable for other lawyers and the court.
However, messing up the correct format for a citation does not mean that an opponent or the court will not be able to tell what authority an attorney is relying on to make a particular point. Of course, attorneys must be accurate with the name of the case, the reporter who published it, and other information about the case. However, if an attorney does not properly abbreviate the names in the case title, someone will still know which agency the attorney is referring to. In addition, others may research a case as long as the attorney cites a reporter that contains a case, even if that reporter is not the appropriate reporter under a consistent citation system. Furthermore, there are few practical consequences for failing to underline, italicize, or apply other style guidelines to quotations.
Additionally, the consistent citation system taught in law school often doesn’t apply too well to the real world of legal practice. Different jurisdictions typically have their own system of citing cases, statutes, and other authorities that attorneys rely on in their defense. If you look at court citations in Lexis or Westlaw, you’ll likely find a variety of ways to cite cases and other authorities based on jurisdiction, whether the court is federal or state, and other factors. Of course, the uniform citation system taught in law school can usually be used reliably if one is unaware of the particular citation style of the jurisdiction in which an attorney is practicing. However, since different courts use different citation styles, it’s not worth breaking a sweat if someone doesn’t remember the ins and outs of the unified citation scheme they learned in law school.
To be clear, in some situations it is more important to use the correct citation style so that an attorney looks professional and the court can see that an attorney has done everything possible to make the paperwork look as good as possible. In general, for appeals, it is more important that the citations conform to the citation system used by the court in which an appeal is being filed. In appellate proceedings, it is much more common for judges and their staff to carefully review the paperwork, since appellate courts generally have more resources than trials. In addition, the functions of appellate courts are typically more limited than trial courts, allowing appellate judges more time to review documents. As a result, appellate judges may value adhering to a consistent citation system more than others. In addition, appeal decisions are more likely to be made public, and appeal briefs can have a larger circulation than trial-level briefs, so attorneys must ensure their appeal briefs are as good as possible.
However, it is extremely rare for a judge to call an attorney for not using the correct citation style. As long as an attorney correctly cites an authority, I have never seen a judge complain about an attorney not abbreviating a name, underlining the wrong part of a citation, or making some other procedural error in the way he quoted on an authority. Of course, in some cases, strict adherence to citation schemes is important, and attorneys should do their best to make the papers as good as possible. Nonetheless, law students should be assured that proper bluebooking is not as important in actual legal practice as it is in law school.
Jordan Rothman is a partner at The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service law firm in New York and New Jersey. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website that discusses how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan via email at email@example.com.