Forming Healthy Legal Citation Habits

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Much like healthy eating and nutrition, good legal citation habits are formed early. I have had the good fortune to have taught legal skills in three different law schools – one in the US and two in The Netherlands. In each law school, I have observed that good citation results from a combination of good training and consistent enforcement. Students that learn the mechanics of citation when they first walk through the doors are much more likely to continue to properly cite when they enter practice. Likewise, when schools (and professors) do not enforce citations by requiring its use in written work and bringing about consequences for those who fail to comply with policy, the student body will also be inconsistent in using citations in their own written work.

How, then, can you discourage students from playing fast and loose with the citation rules? The first step is to introduce students to what I like to call the what and the why of legal citation. 

What is legal citation?

Legal citation is a systematic manner of referencing the sources used in written work that aims to permit the reader to find that same source on their own. Legal citation is systematic, in that it uses the same format and gives the same type of information for all sources cited. It involves referencing because it is consistently placed in a certain part of a document (within the text, in a footnote, or at the end of the work in end notes) which allows the reader to access it more easily than in a general bibliography. It permits the reader to find the source because it gives the exact location by stating the page, article, section or paragraph number.

Why do law professionals use legal citation?

Legal citations lend credence to a proposition or argument by proving that other scholars and experts have written on the same topic and made similar conclusions. In international law, the writings of highly qualified jurists constitute a source of international law and are of great consequence for decision making by international bodies. As a result, students should liberally reference these writings in their work, using proper legal citations.

Legal citations permit writers to send a reader to a body of literature that talks more extensively on their topic. Listing several sources in a footnote to give the reader more information is a way to inform the reader without taking up additional space. It is also a way to reference literature with opposing ideas without specifically treating the information in the present work. It signals familiarity with literature that expresses other viewpoints and encourages the reader to consult that material and arrive at their own conclusions as to how those viewpoints hold up to the writer’s own proposition.

Legal citations also attribute ideas, concepts and quotations to their authors. In this way, they help writers avoid being charged with plagiarism. While the act of plagiarism is an example of a lack of academic integrity, using someone’s ideas without properly attributing them is also a way to undermine a writer’s own work because it gives the impression that all ideas are merely their own opinion. In international legal settings, arguments and propositions are always stronger when they can be attributed to a highly qualified jurist or when they are widely held by a number of such jurists.

Now, having told the what and why of legal citation, how can you teach students to approach citation in a healthy manner? That is best done by teaching a process to approach citation with discipline.

Citation must be practiced with discipline. That is to say, each time one finds a good, credible source to be used, it should be immediately saved, preferably in a citation manager like EndNote, Ref Works, Mendeley or Zotero. Next, the actual citation for that source can be generated. I will give a visual aid for generating a citation below.

But first, I am going to digress a moment to talk about citation systems in international law. This will be a short, short conversation because there are NONE. Thus, all law faculties teaching international or regional law, adopt their own style manual or they use one of the citation systems from the national law jurisdictions. In my university, the Oxford University legal citation system, called OSCOLA, is used. There are some real challenges to using citations from such national jurisdictions. Among them is the fact that most of these citations have only started including substantial guidance for citing international law sources in the last decade or two. This means that many of the documents consulted by international law students do not have a specific rule for citation. This can be frustrating for law students and their professors!

3-steps to good legal citations

To help students approach citation with more discipline, a graphic organizer to guide the process may be useful. Here is an example that you are free to use (with an attribution to Legal Ed):

  • Ask students to identify whether the source is a primary or secondary source and whether it is print or electronic.
  • Search for an appropriate rule from the citation book, keeping in mind the type of source. Then list the main elements of the citation that they will need to identify in their own source. This is usually the author, title, date, article, section or page number.
  • Locate the elements in the source being cited and use the rule to construct the proper citation.

Healthy legal citation habits can be taught. Start early, by letting students know the expectations that you have in your course. Give students a graphic organizer or another visual aid to assist them in building their citations. Review the law school’s policy about plagiarism with students and follow the protocol when students ignore those regulations.

To view or purchase an e-textbook about legal analysis, including one chapter covering legal citations, click here.


Legal Skills Lecturer in The Netherlands. (J.D. Columbia University; PhD Maastricht University International Human Rights Law.)

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