Citations are like the weather: Everyone complains about them, but nobody does anything about it!

Until now.

If you’re a reader of this blog, you’re likely interested in legal writing. And you likely realize that legal writing is full of italicized text and parenthetical information and weird abbreviations that often come between sentences—the citations. I’ve previously written about citations. But I focused mostly on the isolated, narrow issue of citation format. I was interested in the citation as a citation. My take: The Bluebook, for lack of a better word, is good.

But an excellent new paper by Professor Alexa Z. Chew (of UNC School of Law) takes a much broader and more functional approach to legal citation. You should read it.

The paper, titled Stylish Legal Citation, builds on Professor Chew’s previous (and also great) article, Citation Literacy. In Citation Literacy, Professor Chew calls on students, professors, and lawyers to shift away from a focus on citation format and toward a focus on citations as units of legal communication. In other words, spend less time thinking about the difference between So. 2d and So.2d, and more time thinking about what a citation tells an expert legal reader (or should tell that reader) about the authority of a particular source. [So are you saying that the difference between So. 2d and So.2d isn’t important?ed  Of course it’s important! Everything is important. But some things are more important than others.]

This communicative and pragmatic approach to citation demystifies the process of learning legal citation. It provides some purpose for all those punctilios we (okay, I) like so much.

Stylish Legal Citation then provides the logical next step. Once we recognize that citations are things expert legal readers actually read, then we must recognize that one’s use of citations can be more or less readable. And they can therefore be more or less effective at getting the author’s point across.

This may seem obvious, but it’s worth pointing out that Professor Chew’s contribution here is somewhat revolutionary. As she notes in the article, most legal writing texts don’t provide any instruction on how to use citations (apart from format, of course). Many texts actually remove the citations from examples of effective legal writing, so the reader can’t even see how the effective writing used citations.

Perhaps most notably, Bryan Garner has recommended moving all citations to footnotes, so they don’t clutter up the substantive prose of legal writing. By doing so, the head honcho of legal style essentially declares that citations are beyond stylistic analysis—that there is no advice to be given for lawyers looking to effectively use citations in the traditional above-the-line manner.

Whether these prior approaches ignore citations, remove citations, or relegate citations to the footnotes, they are all basically the same: When it comes to citations, they quit.

Stylish Legal Citation is a call to action: Don’t be a quitter! Apply your judgment, learning, study, and critical thinking—the same things we’ve all been doing for substantive prose—to the style of legal citations. Even if you don’t like any of Professor Chew’s advice on how to create stylish citations, you should at least join her in this mission. And in a way, even if you disagree with her advice, she’s already won, because there you are, thinking about how to more effectively and stylishly use legal citations. See? She got you.

Which is not to say that you shouldn’t follow Professor Chew’s advice. You should. The article concludes with some strategic advice about string cites, single cites, signals, explanatory parentheticals, and various other citation-related headaches. Many many people complain about all these things. But in Stylish Legal Citation, Professor Chew actually does something about it. And it’s something good. Give it a read!