In a previous post, I waxed philosophical about legal research. Today I am feeling philosophical about legal citation. I warn my students on the first day of class that when it comes to citation they are going to think I’m the pickiest person in the world and although they are respectful enough not to say it to my face, by the end of the semester they agree. How could anybody care about whether a comma is italicized?
Really, I only care about the comma because of the information it conveys. Legal citation does more than give credit where credit is due, though that is important and legal citation does that too. The ALWD Citation Manual notes the other purposes of citation as well: citations tell readers where to locate sources; they convey information about the weight and persuasiveness of your sources and the type of support they provide your argument; and they show that you have done adequate research. ALWD & Darby Dickerson, ALWD Citation Manual 3 (4th ed., Aspen Publishers 2010). Legal argument is based on precedent and in legal writing, citation is more than a footnote; it is part of your argument.
But that still doesn’t address my pickiness and why I care whether the comma is italicized or why I don’t just hand my students a citation manual and just let them follow the examples. The short answer to the italicized comma is that I only care because the rule says it should be italicized. Legal citation has its own grammar and just like you carefully follow grammar rules making your written argument, you should follow citation rules in supporting it. Incorrect grammar stands out and distracts readers; correct grammar– and correct citation– conveys information without causing readers to pause. Your argument shines.
Careful citation demonstrates that you are conscientious and conveys to your readers that they can trust that your work. The sources you cite show that your argument is well-researched. Flawless citation, including properly italicized commas, tells your readers that you paid attention to detail. If you care that much about the details of citation, your readers can trust that you researched thoroughly and thought about the nuances of the issue. Proper citation reflects your high standards and professionalism.
The rules may seem picky, but citation format is standardized so that it conveys a great deal of information in a little space without forcing the reader to stop and think about it. Each element of a citation conveys necessary information about the source; the entire citation is consistent with other citations. The rules may be detailed, but they are logical. And that comes back to why I teach citation. Just as somebody taught me the rules of grammar so that I can communicate my thoughts and ideas, I teach my students the rules of citation so they can communicate their legal arguments.