Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Student’s Vent


reference books 2-28-13

Image courtesy of Surachai at

Today, I read a line in one of my textbooks that gave me some hope:  “A pox on the rules of classic writing”, Celia C. Elwell & Robert Barr Smith, Practical Legal Writing for Legal Assistants 35 (1996).

It was hopeful to me for two reasons.  One, because I’m a big believer in a natural approach to writing, without feeling the need to show off a huge vocabulary or an intimate knowledge of how to properly craft and punctuate 50 word sentences.  I don’t necessarily buy into the idea that writing should be geared toward an 8th grade reading level, but I also don’t think reading should be a chore.

Secondly, I wanted to grab onto the idea that legal writing could be simple because I’ve spent the last couple of days grappling with an assignment on proper citation formats.  It’s bad enough that I spent most of my formative years trying to familiarize myself with the MLA format, with occasional forays into APA.  But now, entering into a brand new field of knowledge, I have discovered that the legal world isn’t satisfied with the way others do things; they have to have their own citation format.  OMG.

Really, things should be simple.  I mean, I get the idea that if you’re using a case or a law as the basis of an argument, you need to make sure readers can go and find the information and read it themselves.  But you can look at the style book—known as The Bluebook—and know that it is far from simple. 


  As you can see, it’s a couple of inches thick, with topics divided into many different sections.  The book is designed to be the (almost) one-stop-shop for legal citations.  So what’s included?  In addition to the federal government, you’ve got states, municipalities and agencies creating laws right and left, and countless courts across the country publishing opinions, so you have to know how to cite each of those.  There are abbreviations that are not just suggested but required, including state abbreviations that are different from the postal abbreviations we’ve all grown up with.  That’s the basics, but there’s a lot of other stuff jammed in there, too.  Oh, and all those courts?  Many of them have their own preferences about how things should be cited, so, in addition to this monstrosity of a book, we have to learn how Oklahoma differs from what’s inside it.  (And hope that we don’t some day end up working in some other state.)  Nothing simple at all. 

  So, since apparently citations aren’t going to become simple any time soon, I hope my text was correct in saying that legal types are trying to move away from more complex writing styles.  Because, honestly, if I have to figure out how to properly cite everything from constitutions to supreme court cases to legal journals, and everything in between, I really don’t want to have to also learn to decipher a bunch of wherefores and hereins.  Please, let’s do keep it simple.