New lawyers and law students spend a lot of time worrying about legal citation. But most of that time is spent worrying about the wrong thing—formatting. The primary purpose of legal citation is to communicate information to the reader. Thus, legal citations are integral parts of the legal documents that lawyers read and write. But rather than viewing citation as communication, law students, and the new lawyers they become, tend to view it as a formatting sideshow dictated by the Bluebook or other citation style guides. This view is both inaccurate and counterproductive.
I argue that the reason for this detrimental and misplaced focus on citation form is because law schools do not teach what I call citation literacy: the ability to both read and write legal citations. Despite the pervasive presence of citations in judicial opinions, which first-year law students spend most of their time reading, pondering, and discussing, law schools teach students only how to write citations. This “write-first” approach to teaching citation deprives legal novices of opportunities to learn to make meaning from citations as readers. Were students able to understand as readers how legal citations operate as communication, the tedious task of writing legal citations would be grounded in an intrinsic purpose rather than a seemingly arbitrary style guide. As things stand now, students must be prodded to follow citation norms for extrinsic gains, which satisfies neither student nor professor.
The citation literacy pedagogy I propose would first teach law students to study the citations in the documents they read—the edited judicial opinions they find in casebooks, the unedited judicial opinions they read in legal writing courses, and sample memoranda or briefs. To teach students to make meaning from citations, citation should be introduced concurrently with foundational lessons in legal authority. Once students understand what citations mean, they can more easily write the citation forms set forth in citation style guides and adapt that knowledge to the heterogeneity of citation forms they will encounter in practice.