It’s that time of year when first-year law students are developing their understanding of legal citation, whether they use the Bluebook, the Association of Legal Writing Directors (ALWD) Guide to Legal Citation, or some other citation guide. Law students face a perennial struggle with identifying and using appropriate citation forms for legal authority. The rules for legal citations are much different than those used in other types of writing. The legal citation rules are complicated, and it’s easy to become frustrated when the professor takes off points because you should not have put a space after the period in the citation. Even upper-level law students struggle sometimes with citations. It is one of those aspects of legal writing that law students generally dread.
So why is there so much emphasis on citation in law school? Why do these details really matter? I’m not talking about universal reasons here—of course there are benefits to having a uniform system of legal citation so that it is easier to identify law and locate it in the original legal sources. But what I want to talk about today is why citations should matter to you. Why should you care if you apply the appropriate citation rules and your citations follow the proper form? A sarcastic student might say, “Because the professor cares, and he or she will lower my grade if my citations aren’t accurate.” This reason is also true, but there’s still more to it than that.
Specific, accurate citations are important because they signal information to the reader about your competence as a law student and, ultimately, as an attorney. Clients want to feel confident that their attorney pays attention to the legal details, and they are more likely to feel that confidence if they see that the attorney pays attentions to details even when it comes to the small things like citation. (In law school, your professors are your clients—these observations still hold true in that context!) If you make mistakes in punctuating citations because you have decided that the punctuation and spacing rules are unimportant, you signal that you might not pay close attention to nuances in the law as well—even if that is not your intent, and even if it is not actually true.
Likewise, providing specific pincites (in other words, the page number(s) on which the information can be found) is also important. When you provide generic citations, you are basically saying, “Trust me. What I am saying here is found somewhere in the case, but I can’t be bothered to tell you where.” That approach does not build the reader’s confidence in your writing. Like accuracy, specificity builds the reader’s confidence in your legal competence.
If you reframe how you think about citations, you can use them to strengthen your legal writing. Specific, accurate citations are an opportunity to add to the persuasive quality of your writing, and they can increase the reader’s confidence in your professionalism and analytical skills.