At some point, every 1L will scan over their list of textbooks for the upcoming semester. Unsurprisingly, the list may include books on torts, criminal law, or some other subject that seems appropriate for law school. Most of these books will match the appearance of those that received some airtime in your favorite legal show (Suits anyone?!). But an odd object will also be looming on the list. You will ask yourself, what the heck is the Bluebook? Perhaps you will silently mock its “creative” title—it has a blue cover and it’s called the Bluebook. You will wonder, is law school really this straight forward? Spoiler: it depends.
If your previous degree was not writing-intensive, then your eyes may fixate on a particular word on the Bluebook’s cover: citation. When I first saw this I had flashbacks (i.e. short nightmares) to my limited experience with citations. In pharmacy school, we “learned” the Vancouver method. Your brain may return to poor experiences with MLA or APA citations. Regardless, your citation memories may be similar to your wisdom teeth extraction—painful yet vaguely remembered. You might have a moment of panic when you realize that citations are back in your life. But wait! A positive memory brings your pre-law-school optimism back. Citation Machine!! You recall that delightful website that served as your flotation device during prior citation floods. Just plug as much info in as possible and voila—a legitimate-looking citation emerges! Sadly, legal citations give Citation Machine a migraine, so it’s all on you. But I have a few tips that will ease the pain and may even make the process enjoyable!
I have always enjoyed writing, but found that formalities such as citations ruined the fun. Making decisions about italicization and abbreviations stifled the creativity that I valued. You will learn, however, that legal citations are not required merely to make your life more difficult. Rather, citations tell your story and convey your creativity. They speak about where you have been and give your argument or analysis credibility. Long story long, the Bluebook is your ticket to citation success. I encourage you to embrace it, rather than resist it out of fear.
I am approaching the conclusion of my 2L year. In addition to class requirements, I have relied on the Bluebook extensively when drafting my Comment as an Associate Editor on Dickinson Law Review. I still wouldn’t consider myself a “Bluebook pro”, and am not saying you need to reach that level. But it is my hope that these tips will foster a tighter bond in the prearranged union between you and the Bluebook!
The Bluebook consists of three main parts.
- The Bluepages come first. These pages are literally blue—entirely blue, not just on the edges. The Bluepages outline the basics of legal citations. This section will likely be your home during 1L year and legal internships. If you come across a practicing lawyer that still utilizes the Bluebook, she will likely rely on these pages.
- The white paper. You guessed it—these pages are white. The authors of the Bluebook refer to this section as the “heart” of the Bluebook system. If you become a law review editor, this will be your home.
- The tables. These tables are referenced in many of the rules. They will be used primarily for abbreviations.
Three Forgotten Pieces
I am baffled by the approach that many writers take when searching through the Bluebook. If you are working on a citation but you are uncertain which rule applies, don’t start flipping pages! I believe this is one reason why so many people hate the Bluebook. Skimming through 500+ dense pages, with the hope of getting lucky, is a recipe for failure. If this is your “methodology” then your Bluebook will be collecting dust in the corner of your room in no time.
There are three sections of the Bluebook that will make your life easier and they may even increase your affection for the spiral-bound pages that you have learned to loathe.
- THE INDEX! I am starting with one of the last sections of the book because it is critically important. The Bluebook’s Index is well organized and likely holds the mysterious page number that you are searching for. Use the Index—it inhibits the growth of gray hair.
- Table of Contents. Another useful tool lies prior to the Bluepages. The Contents section enables you to see the “Bluebook forest”—rather than the trees. The pages that lie between the Bluebook’s covers are a mysterious place. Use this section to get a perspective from 30,000 feet before you dive in. Don’t try to memorize the structure, just revisit this section often to improve your perspective. Want a super-simplified version of this section? Check out the Bluebook’s back cover!
- Quick references. Inside of the front and back covers, you will find “quick references.” I do not recommend relying on these when you are learning how to cite. I recommend that you begin using them during your first legal internship and when you are stuck on a law review footnote. Currently, the quick reference for law review footnotes lies inside the front cover—the quick reference for court documents and legal memoranda lies inside the back cover.
Split the Rules
There are 21 rules in the Bluebook. The rules are labeled B1–B21 in the Bluepages and R1-–R21 in the white pages. They can be categorized into two groups. Rules 1–9 represent general standards. These rules apply to all forms of legal writing. Rules 10–21 represent specific rules of citation. These rules may be used for cases, statutes, periodicals, etc. This tip is another attempt to help you see the forest instead of the trees!
Reading a Rule
Many of the rules contain a large amount of content (e.g. R10, R12, R15, and R16). Most rules, however, follow a similar methodology when it comes to instructing the reader on citations. I see four main components of each rule. This structure won’t hold true for all rules, but it is another tool that can help you gain perspective. This is how I see most rules:
- Basic citation forms
- This section shows the foundational structure of a given citation format (e.g. the backbone for case citations).
- In-depth guidance on the citation structure
- This section discusses the individual components of the backbone structure (e.g. how to cite an author’s name correctly in a book citation).
- Specific/special citation forms
- Most rules contain a section (or multiple) that outlines the proper citation format for specific situations within a given citation category. For example, R17 provides guidance on citing “unpublished and forthcoming sources”—R17.2.4 provides specific guidance for citing E-mail correspondences.
- Short citation forms
- R4 provides general guidance on short form citations. Rules 10–21, however, include more specific guidance on short form citation formats for the specific type of source that you are citing.
One day during 1L year I had the “bright” idea to read the Bluebook. I am laughing about it as I type this. Don’t read the Bluebook—use the Bluebook. My experiment failed and I retained nothing because the Bluebook is not meant to be read. This approach will also make you hate the Bluebook even more than you currently do.
If you want to build your Bluebook confidence and truly learn how to cite, you need to practice. Luckily, there are several great resources that you can rely on—many of which are FREE for law students! Here are my recommendations:
- The “Interactive Citation Workbook for the Bluebook” can be found here. If that title doesn’t scream “fun Friday night” then I don’t know what does! 🤪 If you are a student, check with your legal writing professor or librarian—they likely have access to it. It is revised annually so you may be able to find the previous edition for little to no cost.
- CALI! The “Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction” is excellent. I fulishly ignored this resource during 1L year—I’ll blame the massive amount of schoolwork. CALI has tons of great lessons for most law school courses. Lessons such as “Citation Form for Briefs and Legal Memoranda” can get you started. FYI, I was not able to find any lessons focused on law review citation formats. 🤔
- Google. There are plenty of great lessons floating around the world of Google. My only recommendation is to select your source carefully. The Bluebook can be a devious bugger. If you are among the small group of people that will actually practice with citations, you don’t want to waste your time learning incorrect information. Here is one of the first sources that appeared when I searched for lessons (I have not used or vetted this).
The Bluebook is like that highly intelligent—yet very annoying—kid in class. You want to know its ways and absorb its knowledge, but you don’t want to hang out with it on the weekend (although law review will force you to). If you can find ways to make peace with the Bluebook then you may find that its spiral-bound pages aren’t so bad after all.
Thank you for reading! Comments and feedback are always welcome. Nothing in this article or on this website serves as legal advice or a legal service. I am a law student, not a practicing attorney.