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Sunday, November 21, 2010

The (Untenured) Demise of the ALWD Citation Format

Dave Hoffman at Concurring Opinions posted an interesting article about ALWD, a citiation format taught in many legal writing programs. The upshot is that, although similar to the Blue Book citation format, it is not identical and is thus being rejected at many schools because employers desire students who know how to "bluebook" rather than use some other format. The post has a lot of interesting feedback from LRW professors about their experiences.

I had a couple comments on the post, and they turned out to be long enough for a post of their own.

I think the worries about imperfect bluebooking or ALWD in practices are overrated. I was (and still am) a terrible bluebooker, and I never got chided by a district or appellate court (and I've been in front of some tough ones). Indeed, courts often fail to follow the bluebook.

That said, I do think lack of knowing bluebook has two important effects, both of which are created by over-rigidity, IMHO. First, if employers are asking if you know the blubook (instead of knowing how to do citation), and you can't answer yes, then that's a problem. Granted, it's an overly rigid question to ask and an unprincipled sorting mechanism, because one can learn the basic bluebook principles pretty quickly and the hard ones should be looked up anyway to make sure they haven't changed.

More important (to me at least) is the role of students as research assistants. When I first started teaching, my first two RAs were not on law review. I asked them to put citations in memos and to bluebook articles. The citations were always just off. For the longest time, I was really irritated. Then I realized that they were doing ALWD, not bluebook format. Incidentally, we started teaching the bluebook a year later; there was just no justification for teaching a system that no one in practice actually uses.

Now, why was I irritated when judges might not have been? Because of the rigidity required by the law reviewsto which  I submit articles. They want bluebook, and submitting a draft that's not in conformance reduces the chances of acceptance by some amount when I'm competing with others that have perfect citations. (I don't mean to imply that all articles editors consider the amount of work in editing, but it's not a chance I want to take, especially pre-tenure).

If I knew that any consistent citation format that indicated source would be sufficient and equally judge by every review, I wouldn't have checked so closely or have been so irritated initially. Thus, it's a closed system. We use a rigid format because we are told we have to; we don't want editors to be irritated in the same way I was. Perhaps at some point the rigidity will relent, but it won't be before I get tenure, so bluebooking it is (and goodbye ALWD).

Posted by Michael Risch on November 21, 2010 at 06:42 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Frank, I don't think we disagree substantively. If the ALWD was simply a better organized Bluebook, then it might work. Where we do disagree is having any sympathy with the ALWD authors when they made changes to the the BB rules.

Maybe some hypothetical "Better Organized Bluebook" can be justified in the way you propose. But for the backers of the actual ALWD, defending the substantive changes they made, they face exactly the contradiction I outlined earlier (the changes are different, and different=useless in a networked world); and anybody who has ever heard the term "network effects" could have predicted this problem right from the outset.

Posted by: TJ | Nov 22, 2010 10:00:51 PM

TJ, the claims that ALWD is "not much different" but is "easier to use" are not mutually exclusive. The Bluebook rules, once understood, aren't too difficult, but the Bluebook's presentation of those rules is frequently confusing and sometimes even impenetrable.

The original idea for the ALWD book, as I recall, was to simply put the Byzantine BB rules into a format that a student could learn quickly or a practitioner could check briefly if some novel question came up. Unfortunately, the authors couldn't resist making a few changes to the dumbest of the Bluebook rules. I sympathize with them, but this is what led to the resistance, which is led by the same elite law reviews that own the BB and profit by introducing wholly unnecessary new versions every few years.

If ALWD would simply change its rules to conform to Bluebook usage but keep its much better interface, I think it would have huge bestseller.

Posted by: Frank Snyder | Nov 22, 2010 6:47:20 PM

The Bluebook is not especially difficult to use. The practitioner section, however, is valueless. Why, for example, do they want practitioners to underline case citations when all of us have word processing software that permits italicizing (especially since italics are more pleasing to the eye than underlined text)? The ALWD manual was unnecessary when it was first published and is useless today.

Posted by: Doug Richmond | Nov 22, 2010 9:06:08 AM

Mike, I think you're right that this debate is overrated. I have taught legal writing for 8 year, which means I have taught legal citation for 8 years. I have taught both ALWD and Bluebook. Therefore, unlike some previous posters, I actually know something about how students respond to both books.

Bluebook is much harder for students to learn. Millennial students in particular, who (as a whole) have not ever been forced to focus on details), struggle to remember which cover to start with -- the front (for law-review style) or the back (for everything else you might possibly do). The Bluebook also adds a layer of complication because students often have to seek answers in the "white" pages and convert them to practitioner style.

Strong students could do that easily. I had student research assistants who were not on law review convert my early articles into law review-style without any trouble. But I had to pick carefully.

That being said, even though we now use Bluebook, I would have the same problem with a non-law review student. That's because there is no place in the curriculum for LRRW professors to be teaching law-review style!

So IMHO, it's not a question of ALWD versus Bluebook when it comes to finding a good research assistant who knows law review style. It's finding a student who can figure out which parts of the Bluebook apply in the law review context.

Posted by: Hollee Temple | Nov 22, 2010 7:47:23 AM

And Scott, the two claims often made to defend the ALWD contradict each other. The two claims are that (1) it is not that different from the Bluebook, so students can easily learn the Bluebook themselves, and (2) the ALWD is easier to use.

The reason they contradict each other is that you cannot have both. To the extent the ALWD is the same as the Bluebook, it cannot be easier to use. To be easier to use, the ALWD has to be different from the Bluebook. But to the extent the ALWD is different from the Bluebook, it is entirely irrelevant how easy to use those differences make it -- because nobody is using those elements that are different from the Bluebook; and given network effects nobody will be any time soon.

Posted by: TJ | Nov 22, 2010 4:12:25 AM

John, it is not a good answer to say that it doesn't take much effort to learn the Bluebook after learning ALWD. If it is true, then why don't they just teach the Bluebook? We can also teach students only English law for all of first year and tell them that learning American law by themselves after that is not much of a transition; but nobody would think that a very good idea.

As for not wanting to be hired at a place that demands Bluebooking skills, I think you misunderstand why people care about Bluebooking skills. It is not that people care about beautiful citations to verify a source. Rather, non-conforming citations send the same negative signal as typos in the cover letter. Someone who cannot be bothered to do a simple task that is expected (even a silly task) is not someone any law firm would want as an associate.

Posted by: TJ | Nov 22, 2010 4:01:47 AM

ALWD developed the ALWD Manual because the Bluebook was difficult for students to use.

Posted by: Scott Fruehwald | Nov 21, 2010 11:31:08 PM

Employment Prospects: If someone isn't going to hire you because you can't Bluebook then I'm not sure it's a place you want to work.

Citations are important, but more important is the ability to read the law, apply it to a situation, and then write an elegant memo or brief or motion regarding that situation.

Besides, if you're good at ALWD or Bluebook it just takes a day of reading either to get up to speed. It's not hard; Citations are the easy part (even if time consuming).

Posted by: John W. Nelson | Nov 21, 2010 11:20:43 PM

ALWD is Esperanto. It might be better--in the abstract. It serves an important political purpose for some people. But in a context, citation, where only one language is useful, it is useless, and it is quite harmful and selfish of Legal Writing Folk to try to make their political point at the expense of the employment prospects of their students.

Posted by: Jimmy | Nov 21, 2010 10:49:59 PM

I've used just about every citation system in the U.S. and the OSCOLA (Oxford Legal) citation in the U.S. I have to say I prefer Bluebook.

Still, wanted to jump in on the Law Review bit: My experience as a law journal member and as someone who submits to journals is that perfect Bluebooking is not a huge deal. After all, the job of Junior members is to, in large part, make the citations work. It's a worse issue if a law review team has to go out and FIND the citations. (Yes, this happens a lot -- at least with the lower tier journals.)

Correcting case or journal cites or adding pincites isn't as big of a deal as adding new citations with appropriate references to support an assertion. The latter is a huge pain, the former a function of the value law reviews provide students.

As for whether good citations matter: I think they do, but only for marginal article. For example, I'm not a professor and still a relatively recent law graduate. My articles don't have the name cachet.

My articles are thoroughly Bluebooked and well formatted, though, and this helps when my article goes against a law professor's marginal article. If a journal is looking to fill out some space and cram another article in, and the name cachet isn't as important, then my well-cited, formatted, and Bluebooked article might get picked over another's article.

Also, a well cited, formatted, and Bluebooked article might get my article read and, if a great article (and no, nobody writes a great article every time) might get me selected for a better journal.

My experience of the importance Journals put on articles is something like this:
1A. Author name, recognition; (I.E. Chemerinsky, few would turn him down)
1B. Topical importance, timing; (A TSA bodyscan article? Probably going to get a look)
(1A and 1B are often interchangeable or play off each other)
2. Quality of writing (does it make sense, logically follow, have a purpose, have a conclusion [you'd be surprised how many really don't])
3. Formatting and Citations (The last factor that might decide a push or tie, or decide who fills out a busy semester).

Just my two cents.

And no one has ever asked me about my Bluebooking skills in an interview; although Judges do like a well-cited motion. Nevertheless, well-cited doesn't depend on Bluebooking accuracy; a well-Bluebooked motion might not cite the right cases, or the applicable statutes, or provide the judge context.

Posted by: John W. Nelson | Nov 21, 2010 8:25:34 PM

Then the question becomes: why do law review editors care (if indeed they do)?

For that matter, why do they keep changing it? Why don't they just reduce it to a simple five-page list of rules?

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Nov 21, 2010 7:29:23 PM

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