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The Dark Side of The Bluebook

by Cathy Roberts

Usually a book reviewer reads a book from cover to cover, even if it’s bad. This is a review of a review of a book that I guarantee I will never read entirely.


As law students learn, The Bluebook is an essential reference book for legal citation. Its prestigious sponsors (the Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Pennsylvania law reviews), its heft, and its “first mover” advantage in its field, have made it the repository of the correct way of referencing every source of knowledge a lawyer might need since 1926. But I suspect there are numerous dust-covered copies of The Bluebook staring at attorneys from the shelf with cold disdain, as mine does, knowing that without its help we will misplace a period, use a period instead of a comma, or, heaven forbid, italicize rather than underline. Now, there is a new edition: The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation 107 (19th ed. 2010). The 16th edition was long, at 255 pages. The 19th edition is over 500 pages long.


The practice of law consists of learning lots of rules, many of which appear mindlessly complex. When the interpretation of these rules relies on an even more mindlessly complex code by which we verify the source of the idiotic rule, we have made the elevation of form over function into an art.


Richard Posner, judge of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, sees the dark side of the growth of the Bluebook since the 16th edition, which he reviewed in 1986, in Goodbye to the Bluebook, 53 University of Chicago Law Review 1343 (1986). In The Bluebook Blues, 120 Yale L. J. 850 (2011), Posner compares its “monstrous growth” to that of cancer: the 19th edition of the book is almost twice the size of the 16th.


Back when the 16th edition was relatively svelte, Posner recommended it go on a diet. It ignored him like a defiant spouse, and kept creeping out of bed in the middle of the night, tiptoeing to the fridge and gorging on maritime law, intellectual property law, and digital licensing law, eventually packing on 256 pages.


This growth, according to Posner, has been driven by “grim capitalistic logic.” If The Bluebook is the first mover and leader in its field, he argues, it must grow and develop more rules to stay necessary to the legal community. He also contends that the growth in size and complexity reflects the “reflex desire of every profession to convince the laity of the inscrutable rigor of its methods.” Get over yourselves, lawyers, he advises. Doctors use “genuinely professional methods to diagnose and treat disease,” while legal reasoning lacks scientific rigor, and requires careful reading, rhetoric and common sense.


Many attorneys depend on law student interns or recent law graduates to use correct citations, directing them to The Bluebook. (If I have a citation question, I simply use other appellate opinions in my jurisdiction as a guide to citation.) Posner points out that even West has no standard method of citation. He bemoans The Bluebook’s obsession with abbreviations which convey no meaning to the reader. Having given up on the possibility that the Bluebook will follow his recommendations of self-restraint, he and his clerks developed his own manual of rules, which is one-hundredth the size of the Bluebook. An example of that manual is an appendix to his article. (Time will tell if Posner will publish his own blue book and sell it at a competitive price, thus creating an exciting war in the legal reference field.)


Posner’s article is a serious critique and well worth reading. Still, his observations are often wryly humorous, an adjective rarely applied to the discussion of something as arcane and bone-dry as uniform citation.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 12, 2011 4:44 AM.

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