Don’t Hate the Bluebook

By Ivy B. Grey

There’s no faster way for law students, lawyers, law clerks, and judges to bond than through shared hatred for the Bluebook. Conversation grinding to a halt? Simply throw out a casual gripe about the Bluebook! It doesn’t need any substance or specifics. “Ugh…the Bluebook” will do. 

But you can change the place that the Bluebook holds in your life and how you feel about it (even if your newfound tolerance must be your dirty little secret). As Cornell University Law School's (CULS) Legal Information Institute states, accurate and properly formatted Bluebook citations matter in the real world because sloppy errors diminish your credibility as a lawyer. First, start by rethinking the purpose of citations. They’re for delivering information, not interrupting the flow. Second, learn some basic principles that will make Bluebook rules seem less arbitrary. Third, let software help you with the formatting details so you can focus on how your cites support your assertions.

Automate Bluebook and Other Legal Formatting Right From Microsoft Word

PerfectIt with American Legal Style addresses thousands of errors in citations such as misplaced periods, transposed letters in court and reporter names, incorrect capitalization, and missing or extra spaces in Bluebook citations right from MS Word. For example, now “E.D.T.X.” will be corrected to “E.D. Tex.” and incorrect citations to bankruptcy courts as “Bank.” will be corrected to “Bankr.” It also checks for proper treatment of id., supra, and certain signals and subsequent history. And it can fix errors in automatically generated citations. There’s a free trial available so you can quickly see the difference it makes.

Citations Convey Meaning

According to Professor Alexa Chew, people are set up to hate the Bluebook because law schools and legal writers largely focus on cosmetic Bluebook formatting rules (not to mention Bluebook exams) when they should be teaching citation literacy. “Citation literacy is the ability to read and write citations.”

In her law review article, Chew describes four purposes for legal citation:

  • to locate the cited source;
  • to communicate information, such as weight of authority;
  • to demonstrate credibility and attention to detail through impeccable formatting; and
  • to avoid plagiarism through attribution.

Chew argues that writers generally accept the first and fourth reasons for citing, but resist the second and third because citation as a proxy for credibility and citation to show weight of authority are particular to legal writing. At the very least, weight of authority is a key legal concept because it shows whether the precedent is binding or current.

According to Professors Elizabeth A. Keith and Julia C. Colarusso, citations can show even more: “They can communicate the longevity of a particular proposition in a given jurisdiction, the scope and availability of authority in support of a particular legal argument, and the [author’s] understanding of the weight of different authorities.”

Because in-line citations are extremely helpful for the reader to evaluate authority on-the-fly, they are common in most practical legal writing. But it also means that readers will notice errors in the formatting. This placement elevates the importance of formatting.

Decoding Formatting Principles

A major Bluebook critique is that the rules seem arbitrary. This causes a focus on memorization rather than understanding. However, drawing from the Legal Information Institute by Cornell University, remembering just these six rules will help the Bluebook feel more digestible.

Reporter Publication Abbreviations:

  • If one letter, then no space. Do not include spaces where successive words are abbreviated with a single capital letter. Treat numbers, including ordinal numbers (i.e., 2d, 4th), as single letters.
  • If two letters, then one space. You should separate abbreviations from each other with spaces if they are two letters or longer. Apply this rule when placed next to single letter abbreviations.

Case Name Abbreviations:

  • Don’t mix apostrophes and periods. Abbreviations should end in a period unless the abbreviation ends with an apostrophe and the last letter of the word.
  • Save periods for new abbreviations. Entities that are commonly referred to by their initials may be abbreviated using those initials without periods.
  • Plus eight? Abbreviate. Even if not listed in the Bluebook tables, any word of eight letters or more may be abbreviated if it saves substantial space and reasonably connotes the original word.
  • Standard plurals are generally safe. Except when the Bluebook abbreviation list explicitly provides for a plural version, the plural of a listed word is abbreviated by adding an “s” to the abbreviation of the singular.

Software that Knows the Bluebook

Software has come a long way and it can help you move through the mechanics of Bluebooking swiftly so that you can focus on meaning.

When researching, use automated citation generators as you go through and collect your quotes and references. They’re a great start for making sure that you have accurate reporters, courts, and page numbers. But the automated citation generators from even the best electronic research engines still contain presentation errors. If you rely on them, your citations will have presentation mistakes. These errors are difficult to spot. PerfectIt can help with that.

PerfectIt with American Legal Style is a robust proofreading program. It checks for formatting, spacing, spelling, and capitalization errors in the court and reporter names in Bluebook citations. It also checks for proper treatment of id., supra, and certain signals and subsequent history. It works well for fixing automatically generated citations or for correcting your typed entries. It’s inexpensive and even has a free trial.

There Are Better Ways to Bond

If you stop hating the Bluebook there will still be plenty to bond over—and your work (and life) will improve. Plus, there are still universal truths that can provide the basis for a shared gripe: the bar exam is beastly, office coffee is the worst, and FedEx has a conspiracy to close 3 minutes early every time you need to send something out.

If you approach it the right way, you won’t consider the Bluebook something to hate at all. Citation formatting can be painless, and your work can be stronger when you think about the meaning that you convey through your cites. Study the six tips above. And use software anywhere you can. At $70 per user per year, PerfectIt is affordable for both students and lawyers. You can get free trial and start changing your relationship with the Bluebook today.


Ivy B. Grey is the author of American Legal Style for PerfectIt. It adds polish, reduces frustration, and saves non-billable time. Ms. Grey is also a Senior Attorney at Griffin Hamersky LLP. She's been named as a Rising Star in the New York Metro Area five years in a row, and her significant representations include In re AMR Corp. (American Airlines), In re Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP, In re Eastman Kodak Company, and In re Nortel Networks Inc.

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