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By: Daphne Drescher, CP

The legal profession is a scholarly one. Lawyers take positions on behalf of their clients, and seek to convince the court their position is the right one. They must argue their case compellingly enough to win their motion. They must cite case law, statutes or other legal authorities as support for their propositions. And as in any scholarly discipline, they seek uniformity in the way they cite to their sources of proof, because if their citations aren’t uniform, they look…well…unprofessional.

Reprinted with permission from Proparalegal: http://proparalegal.com.

Purpose of legal citation

The primary purpose of citing to legal sources of authority for one’s argument is to prove that the law backs up what we’re saying. Judges make rulings based on the law, and they’re looking for reasons upon which to base their decisions that are firmly grounded in the controlling law within their jurisdiction. So when lawyers make arguments in legal briefs, they cite to case law and statutes which they hope will sway the judge to decide in their favor. What then is the purpose of the actual citation? The main purpose is to give the reader the information she needs to go and locate the cited source and read it for herself. The secondary purposes are to provide information about why we’re citing this particular source in relation to our argument, and the weight that should be given to it.

Anatomy of a case citation

To accomplish those things, a typical citation has three components:

  • A signal, which is an abbreviated phrase that shows how the source relates to the author’s proposition. Examples are: see, which means “this authority supports my point,” or cf., which means “compare this authority with my point.”
  • The actual source or authority, including its title, information about where it’s published, which court or legislature or person authored it, and when.
  • Parenthetical information, if any, which helps the reader decide how much weight to give the source, or which might briefly describe exactly what the source says.

So with that in mind, when we cite to a case, the identity of the source is usually comprised of the names of the parties, typed in italics (or possibly underlined). Then we need the identity of the reporter in which the case is printed, the court deciding it (if the reporter name doesn’t indicate this already), and the year the decision was issued. (Note: The Bluebook format puts the court and year at the end; other formats place the court and year just after the case name.) Or a case might only be published in an online research database such as Westlaw or Lexis, in which case the cite is to its numeric identifier.

Finally, if there is any other information bearing on the weight the case should be given or showing its disposition, this must be included as well. For example, this might include what happened to the case after the decision we’re citing was made (subsequent history), or the author of the portion we’re referencing (such as a dissenting opinion).

Here is an example:

Lamont v. Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, 269 F. Supp. 880 (S.D. N.Y. 1967), aff’d, 386 F. 2d 449 (2d Cir. 1967), cert. denied, 391 U.S. 915 (1968).

This citation tells us the name of the case, that it was decided in the Southern District Court of New York in 1967, that the 2nd Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision, and that the United State Supreme Court declined to hear it.

Which format to use?

How do we know exactly in what format our citation should appear? There are two main citation style manuals used nationally. One is The Bluebook [1]. The other is The other is the ALWD Citation Manual [2]. (The University of Chicago has one too.)

In addition, many states have adopted their own formats and use their own citation guides. An example is the California Style Manual [3]. The highest courts of some other states have printed style sheets containing citation guidelines. An example is the Washington Courts Official Reporter of Decisions Style Sheet.

So the first thing you must know is whether your state has citation requirements. For example, the California Rules of Court (C.R.C. 1-200) require that citations in all court-filed documents comply with either The Bluebook or the California Style Manual. Next, you should check your local rules. Some courts have unique citation requirements that must be followed. Finally, you should know which style manual is used in your office, or preferred in your region. The most important thing is to be consistent in the style of your citations, whichever format you choose.


[1]The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation (Columbia Law Review Ass’n et al. eds., 19th ed. 2010). [2]ALWD & Darby Dickerson, ALWD Citation Manual (Aspen L. & Bus., 4th ed. 2010). [3]Edward W. Jessen, California Style Manual, (4th ed. 2000).

Daphne is a virtual litigation paralegal and owner of California-based Drescher ProParalegal. She is also an instructor in the Paralegal Degree Program at Empire College. For more information, visit Daphne’s website http://proparalegal.com where you can subscribe to the free Drescher ProParalegal Newsletter full of litigation practice tips and resources for legal support staff.

©2011 Drescher ProParalegal. All rights reserved.


A special thanks to Daphne for stopping by TPS on this rather fabulous Monday to transform a dull, dry topic into something far more practical, interesting, and helpful!  Wishing you the most productive week you’ve ever had. Heck, while we’re at it — wishing you the least stressful one, too, complete with a desk full of chocolate lined pleadings, friendly esquires, a personalized wall plaque hung wall-side in your honor, just prior to the desk-side massages to begin promptly at 3 pm! (Might as well go for the gusto – after all, it is Major Monday).

Be sure to check back mid-week to see what we’ll be running fresh off of the blogging presses. Until then, guard the esquires, cling to the sanity (at least what’s left of it), and make it a great one!

Carpe di-crazy! We know you will.