One Book, Two Books, Redbook, Bluebook

“Generations of law students, lawyers, scholars, judges, and other legal professionals have relied on The Bluebook‘s unique system of citation in their writing.”  As an opener for the Bluebook website, this comment is not particularly snazzy, but it does state a truth.  We use the Bluebook, because a lot of people before us have used it.  But, why do we use a “special” citation style for legal writing, as opposed to using one of the existing styles (MLA, APA, AMA…it’s like an alphabet soup!)?  Does the Bluebook offer something specially and uniquely suited to the law, or is it sheer dumb luck that allowed it to rise to dominance in legal writing?  And, why are almost all of the reference guides for legal citation named after a color?  So it can be located easily in a lawyer’s library?  Are we (lawyers) really that unimaginative?  Surprisingly, the Bluebook’s cover was changed from brown to a more “patriotic blue” to avoid associations with Nazi Germany!

One suspects that a lot of it has to do with luck and prestige.  It got its start at Harvard, originally published in 1939 as a convenient pamphlet containing the legal citation styles used for Harvard Law Review articles.   It’s still going strong in its 19th edition, but is the Bluebook really so grand?

Richard Posner doesn’t think so.  In his rather vitriolic criticism of student-edited law journals in general (which, he argues, are overly footnoted, with student editing adding little to the article besides citation-checking), he maligns citation styles as being arcane and contrary to the citation style often used in legal practice.  He’s not wrong.  When I interned this summer, the clerks in the chambers of the Chief Judge in the Federal District of New Jersey basically told me that they didn’t actually use Bluebook citations and showed me the style that they used, which was much simpler-basically just the case name (either underlined or italicized) and the municipal brief number.

If many practitioners don’t use the Bluebook, then who does?  Poor law school students struggling to master it in time for their 1L memos and for, hopefully, having a chance at publication when they finally finish a Student Note, that’s who!  Many of us may also distinctly remember our Lawyering professors explaining the difference between scholarly and practical Bluebooking; remember, the blue and white pages, Bluebook for scholarly footnotes as opposed to Bluebook for memos.  There weren’t a lot of differences, but a few stylistic discrepancies designed to keep law school students on their toes.  I’m sure none of us questioned it at the time, but why not have one universal style—across disciplines and certainly across legal writing genres?

That’s what other countries do.  Looking at legal citation in Wikipedia shows that most other countries have one universal style for all legal writing.  Wouldn’t that be easier than the hoops we have to jump through to conform to the Bluebook?  Probably, but that does seem to have diminished the Bluebook’s tyrannical hold.  In fact, the Bluebook has spurred a few competing reference books for legal citation styles to try to capitalize on the opportunity.  Some have even won wide acceptance in law schools, like the ALWD Citation Manual, a citation manual designed purely for instructional use, and the Redbook, which is touted as a basic guide to everything you need to know about legal writing.  There are “very few” distinctions between these styles and the Bluebook, and they are still not telling you how to cite legal information in the way used by practitioners.  Read:  they add little to practical legal education and serve only to muddy the waters swum by befuddled law students.

And there are still more reference guides out there, like the Tanbook, a simpler citation style used in New York, or Maroonbook, a simpler citation style used in Chicago.  The proliferation of these reference guides will just have to remain an unsolved mystery, and here are a few more questions for you to ponder.  Why don’t we have a universal citation style for legal writing?  What would such a style look like anyway?  Could it be simpler without leaving out valuable reference information?  Could it be closer to the form of citation used by the majority of practitioners?  Could there even be a single style of citation for ALL sources of legal information?  One can only hope. As Dr. Seuss says, “from there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere!”


  1. The American Association of Law Libraries developed a “universal citation” system in the late nineties. For a PDF of the original publication, go to
    It’s now in a second edition, published by Hein,
    To my knowledge, no court has embraced it and no law schools teach it.

  2. Following along from the above, I’ve personally created an automatic bluebooking system called Citeus Legalus to expedite the whole Bluebooking process.

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