How to Bluebook

Where the Rubber Meets the Road in Legal Citation

How to Bluebook
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Sure, you paid attention to the minutiae of legal citation when you were in law school or paralegal school. You knew your small caps from your italicization, footnotes versus endnotes, and the difference between Id. and Ibid., right? Yet that very first time, on a clear sunny day when your supervising attorney gives you an assignment with the instructions to “Bluebook this,” the clouds just might begin to gather.

How do I do this again?, any legal newbie might wonder.

At the outset, try to establish what exactly your lawyer means by the request that you Bluebook something. Are you just checking the accuracy of citations? Are you to cite roughly written citations in appropriate format? Are you pulling copies of documents mentioned to verify that the citations are correct?

Then, of course, it helps very much to have an actual copy of the Bluebook, preferably the current edition of it. As of this writing, the 20th edition (issued in 2015) is the current one. If you’re really new at the office, you might inquire about which version of the Bluebook your attorney uses. Some are still wedded to the edition they bought back when they were in law school. You’ll get a better sense of how strict a disciplinarian your supervisor is by which Bluebook edition he is using. If it’s a number of editions ago, he clearly isn’t a stickler.

And that’s fine.

Also see if you can get some sample documents from your supervisor that he considers to have been Bluebooked well. What you will quickly glean is that there is a vast array of ability in the Bluebooking world. No lawyer ever concedes it, but a lot of lawyers are sloppy Bluebookers. They’re just not paying super close attention to the minutiae of citing.

To many, simply being able to retrieve a copy of a document based on the information provided is sufficient. Not everyone cares whether italicization is used appropriately.

If you are not sure how the material you are to Bluebook is going to be used (is it a brief? a journal article? a client memo?), ask. You might also inquire whether your firm has its own style guide. Typically, firms pick and choose the Bluebook rules they’re going to follow and establish their own citation style to substitute for rules they dislike. Whether the firm style guide can be used on any given occasion can also depend on the sort of document being prepared and to whom it will be presented. Some courts are more particular than others about the quality of Bluebooking.

Finally ready to crack open that Bluebook? Don’t be intimidated by the fact that there are 560 pages of citation instructions. Lawyers! Try to spend a few minutes flipping through the Bluebook. My favorite part is the back cover, which is essentially a truncated table of contents identifying both rule numbers and page numbers in an easy-to-see format. Both the inside covers provide helpful examples of properly cited documents along with identification of the appropriate rule number.

While you are thumbing through the Bluebook, you might also take a look at the tables at the back of the book (the pages with a blue stripe along the right margin) as these list the courts (in descending order of authority) and reporters where various documents are published at the federal level and by individual state. The index is also extraordinarily detailed and thus very helpful. Use it. The pale blue pages at the beginning of the book, referred to appropriately as bluepages, get into detail about the type of print you will be using (underlining, italicizing, large and small capital letters).

You’ll need to pay attention to the sort of document you are Bluebooking; there are different rules for court documents and legal memoranda than there are for law review footnotes. (Yes, it seems, the Bluebook authors have indeed seemingly tried to make all of this as complicated as possible.)

For any given citation you are checking, you’ll need to figure out what exactly is being cited — whether a case, a statute, a regulation, a secondary source like a law review article, and so on. If you are citing a case, you will also need to determine whether you are citing a federal decision or a state one.

So, here’s how to do it:

  1. Determine the type of document you are citing (for instance, a case).
  2. Look on the back cover for the rule covering cases.
  3. Flip to that rule and look at the basic citation format; get into the details as needed.
  4. Look inside the front and back covers and possibly at the bluepages to determine whether portions of the citation require italicizing, underscoring, etc.
  5. Check out the tables at the back to make sure the appropriate abbreviations for courts and reporters are being used.
  6. Use the index to look up the rules on subsequent citation forms for the second reference to the document.

To remember: Bluebooking, like so many legal skills, gets easier over time. Soon, many of the basic citation formats will be engrained. At first, though, crafting citations in appropriate format can be slow-going. Don’t let the Bluebook intimidate you.