Bluebook: Here to stay, but lawyers don’t have to like it

Scott Roberts
May 4, 2016
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A valuable way to standardize citations and make court cases and sources easier to find, or “560 pages of rubbish” as 7th Circuit Judge Richard Posner said in a recent article for the Green Bag? That’s been the debate over The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation for several years. There are staunch fighters on both sides, but they can agree on one thing — it’s here to stay for now.

The repository for how to cite everything from almanacs to Zillow has drawn complaints that with its italicized commas and overcomplicated entries, it’s too “pedantic” and “a waste of time.”

gjerdingen-don-mug.jpg Gjerdingen

“It’ll always be there because it’s too difficult to change,” said Donald Gjerdingen, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. He conducted a 1978 review of the 12th edition of the Bluebook for the William Mitchell Law Review. “Some of it has to do with it’s a default rule, and who’s going to change it?”

Another reason it won’t be changed, according to Gjerdingen, is that no one wants to challenge the Harvard Law Review, the publisher of the Bluebook. Other law schools and publishers feel they don’t have the standing and sway to change it, even though some might want to.

“Especially among the non-Ivy League schools, no one feels like they can change it, and that’s unfortunate. They might do a good job,” he said.

mcgregor-deborah-mug.jpg McGregor

Deborah McGregor, a professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law who’s taught legal writing for 29 years, wasn’t as sure about the Bluebook’s future. She said it’s easy to find a correct citation in a number of places, including on Lexis Nexis, and sometimes it doesn’t matter if citation is not absolutely correct.

“Online research systems are now trying to provide proper citation form. As a result, the Bluebook may be unecessary in the future.”

ryznar-margaret-mug Ryznar

Margaret Ryznar, another IU McKinney law professor, agrees with Gjerdingen that the Bluebook is likely here to stay.

“I suspect lawyers will always have a love/hate relationship with the Bluebook,” Ryznar said. “However, law is a pretty formal field and so I think uniform citation is not going away anytime soon. I still require Bluebook for all the papers that I supervise at the law school and have no plans to change this policy.”

edwards-george.jpg Edwards

George Edwards, director of the international human rights program at IU McKinney, says the Bluebook provides a consistent form for citation across law disciplines.

“If a system is not effective, I could understand the need to shift away from it,” Edwards said. “I have seen no evidence that the Bluebook has lost its ability to provide a set of rules useful in helping lawyers, judges, students and law professors communicate effectively and efficiently.”

“When one uses words that aren’t familiar and are not well known, confusion, inefficiency and ineffective communications ensue,” he explained. “The Bluebook is an important tool that leads to consistency, predictability and clarity in legal briefs, judicial opinions and scholarly writing.”

McGregor said she certainly sees some redeeming qualities to the Bluebook, but also understands the arguments of people who think its control on citations and focus on miniscule details has gotten out of hand.

“Requiring Bluebook citation form does force students to pay attention to detail, and a ttention to detail is an asset for all lawyers. However, it’s more important that students pay attention to the detail in the content and form of their writings. The key to a citation is that allows readers to know the source of the information and how to access taht source.”

McGregor said other legal citation manuals have done a better job of being consistent in how different works are cited and those manuals make things simpler.

“I’ve never understood why the Bluebook requires different forms for text and footnote citations. But the Bluebook has been around a long time; changing the traditional is a challenge.”

Gjerdingen also said the Bluebook is not as uniform as it claims and found out when he did the review of the 1978 edition.

“I found out just how un-uniform it is,” Gjerdingen said. “It had a lot of typographical errors and it changes so much from issue to issue. If you submitted an issue from the seventh edition to someone who was using the 12th, they’d reject it all.”

Gjerdingen said some changes in citation style have changed the meaning of some federal court opinions to where they might be interpreted differently, and that cannot be allowed.

“I’m not going to argue about italics, that doesn’t matter,” he said. “But if you’re talking about dictum, that’s a big deal.”

He also agreed with Posner that the Bluebook is too cumbersome. He said it was a manageable size when it started in 1927, and he understands it has to change to keep up with technology, but it’s gotten too big for its own good.

“My sense is you could probably take about 10 pages and use those 95 percent of the time,” Gjerdingen said. “All the other pages really don’t do much.”

He says law schools feel learning Bluebook is a “right of passage” and one way a law student can impress their professors and/or their boss if they are a law clerk. However, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

“A 2L student can become hypersensitive. They’re going to prove they’re really, really good at this and that will show how diligent they are. I know some professors who hate turning in things they wrote to the student publications because it will get changed so much.”

He also complained the Bluebook is not easily accessible by everyday people who are not lawyers, and that also hurts the consistency as well as quality of writing.

“It’s a priest-like sacred text only a few are allowed to interpret,” he said.•


  • Detail
    "a ttention to detail is an asset for all lawyers." Well played, Indiana Lawyer. Well played.

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