It was a Saturday in early September. Fall had not yet come. From a distance, trumpets, cheers, and occasional cannon fire—to announce the Longhorns had scored—would remind those of us in the law library that outside it, not too far away, people were having fun.
I was hunched in a carrel, reading a few pages of a draft, cite checking. Making sure case names were properly abbreviated. That commas were italicized when they should be, and that they weren’t when they shouldn’t be.
That first Saturday was a home game. The following week, the team was on the road—which meant we weren’t missing a game but the music festival that was scheduled so as not to interfere with home games. Football, after all, is important in Texas.
I spent most Saturdays that fall in the law library leafing through The Bluebook. Trying to ensure its rules were followed to the letter. Not thinking too much about what sense they made.
When I began practicing, I thought that those Saturdays, tedious as they were, had been useful. When I edited someone else’s brief, I could at least make sure the citations were correct, even if I didn’t know enough to help with much else. When briefs I wrote myself were edited, the citations in my drafts wouldn’t return covered in red ink.
At first, I wondered if my citations weren’t marked up simply because no one was paying much attention. Then I got a brief back from my boss. In the margin was a note: “Never abbreviate American. It’s not patriotic.”
So I stopped. And not just there. Not for patriotic reasons, but for practical ones, I promptly discarded “Bhd.,” “Cmty.,” “Cnty.,” “Corr.,” and other abbreviations that saved little space and made little sense.
A few years after my awakening, I was given license when Richard Posner reviewed the then-latest edition of The Bluebook in the Yale Law Journal.
Among other things, he criticized The Bluebook’s abbreviations, which he rightly said violated the first rule of abbreviating: “avoid non-obvious abbreviations.” Richard A. Posner, The Bluebook Blues, 120 Yale L.J. 850, 853 (2011). To my boss’s liking, Posner even said you should never abbreviate “United States.” Id. at 855, 857.
Posner is not The Bluebook’s only critic—though he is certainly a long-standing, and perhaps exasperated, one, having criticized a still earlier edition in 1986 in a review optimistically titled “Goodbye to the Bluebook.” See Richard Posner, Goodbye to the Bluebook, 53 U. Chicago L. Rev. 1343 (1986).
Indeed, there is a cottage industry of criticism for what has been called a “comically elaborate thicket of random and counterintuitive rules,” which is “both grotesque and indispensable.” Adam Liptak, Yale Finds Error in Legal Stylebook: Contrary to Claim, Harvard Didn’t Create It, N.Y. Times, Dec. 8, 2015, at A24. (The same might be said of the whole common-law enterprise. But that’s a different story.)
Still others have acknowledged The Bluebook’s human toll—after all, I wasn’t the only law student who missed out on football games and music festivals. A professor at Berkeley described The Bluebook as having “inflicted more pain on more law students than any other publication in legal history.” Robert Berring, Introduction to The Bluebook: A Sixty-Five Year Retrospective, at v (1998).
But for all the criticism, it is hard to argue with The Bluebook’s staying power—its 21st edition was published in 2020, and in just five years, the publication will celebrate its centennial—even if many of its users won’t.