Legal writing is tough. You have to learn how to do legal research, you have to re-learn how to write, you have to master complex substantive law, and you have to Bluebook your citations. With all of those challenges, signals and citation sentence formatting can easily be overlooked. But the good news is, with a little bit of attention, you can master this aspect of legal writing and stop giving away points on your legal writing assignments. A detailed treatment of signals and citation sentences can be found in The Bluebook at Rule B1.2 and Rule 1.2, but hopefully this post can highlight some signal basics.
Why Do We Use Signals?
The Bluebook introduces signals as “a shorthand message to the reader about the relationship between a proposition and the source or authority cited for that proposition.” Rule B1.2. More simply, they explain to the reader in a glance the kind of legal support you have for what you wrote in the preceding sentence. Think of every sentence in your legal writing as a proposition of law that you have to defend. The authority you cite for each proposition tells the reader the weight of legal authority supporting your proposition. Signals help you to describe your authority to the reader. When signals are used correctly, the reader should know exactly what to expect if she pulled the case or statute you cited. For example, if you cite to a case with no signal, the reader can expect that case says exactly or nearly exactly what your proposition says. In contrast, if you use a see signal, the reader knows that you have support, but that there is some space between your proposition and the cited authority. The signals you can use to tell your reader about your authority are discussed below.
At least in law school, turn to The Bluebook as your authoritative source on signals. See Rule B1.2, 1.2. Signals come in three different types: signals for supporting authority, a signal for comparing various authorities, and signals for contradicting authority. See Rule 1.2(a)-(c).
Support Signals See Rule 1.2(a).
- [no signal] – As important as knowing which signal to use, it is important to know what you are saying if you use no signal before your authority. Citing a source without a signal, a direct cite, indicates to your reader that your proposition is directly supported by your authority (if not quoted).
- e.g., – “Exempli gratia” is the Latin term for “for example.” This signal indicates it is one of many authorities that support the proposition, but this is the best example.
- Accord – This signal tends to be rarer than the others. As Black’s Law explains, it is “a signal … to introduce a case clearly supporting a proposition for which another case is being quoted directly.” Black’s Law Dictionary 18 (9th ed. 2009).
- See – This signal indicates that the cited authority supports the proposition, but the reader will need to make an inference. The see signal can be overused if used as a default signal by a writer afraid to cite a source directly or otherwise. Try to only use it intentionally to signify support, but support requiring the reader to do some intellectual work.
- See also – This signal indicates supporting authority, but support that is a bit more removed. It usually includes a parenthetical to explain to the reader in what way it supports the proposition.
- Cf– This signal is the abbreviation for the Latin term “confer,” which means “compare.” Black’s Law Dictionary 260. This signal can be used if your authority does not directly support your proposition, but it does by analogy. It is best to use a parenthetical after your authority to explain the analogous support.
Compare Signal See Rule 1.2(b).
- Compare … with … – If you need to compare two or more authorities, such as two statutes or two cases, you can use this signal to setup a contrast in authority that you can explain by adding a parenthetical after each authority.
Contradict Signals See Rule 1.2(c).
- Contra – This signal is used to show that an authority contradicts your proposition—it is the negative form of using no signal in the positive context.
- But see – This signal is the negative form of the see signal, so it indirectly contradicts the proposition.
Signals make up the structure of your citation sentence and your authorities make up the substance. When constructing your citation sentence, remember to order your signals and, within each signal, order your authorities.
Order of Signals – If you have more than one signal, they come in the order they are listed in above. Rule 1.3. If you are including signals from two different types of signals as divided above, you have to start a new citation sentence for each type. So, for example, if you cite two cases behind a see signal and then want to also provide a but see case, you will put a period after your second see case and capitalize the but see signal.
Order of Authorities – Within each signal, your authority needs to be in a particular order. Turn to Rule 1.4 for a full, detailed list, but generally, remember these three rules: 1) federal authority comes before state authority, 2) statutes come before rules, which come before cases, and 3) statutes and rules go in numerical order from low to high; cases go in reverse chronological order (i.e., the newest case goes first).
Punctuation & Capitalization – Capitalize your first signal after your proposition. Place a semi-colon between each authority and signal. And remember, if you change to a new type of signal, use a period to close out your first string of citations and begin the next citation sentence with a capital letter.
While easy to overlook in the writing process, signals and citation sentence format matter to your reader. Pay attention to signals this week as you read legal writing, and you will see how much they can truly convey. Correctly used signals and neat citation sentences will improve your legal writing both in terms of precision and polish. If you put in the effort to make your signals send the right signals, readers (including your law professors) will be sure to notice the difference.
Looking for some help to do your best in law school? Find out about our law school tutoring options.