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Legal Citation Is Outdated. Here's How Folks Are Trying to Fix It.

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on July 27, 2016 7:00 AM

If you want to understand why a federal district court in Oregon ruled that kids could sue over global warming, you've got to look all the way back to shellfish gathering under Emperor Justinian, among other things. Which is to say, to understand the law and how the law works takes a lot of referencing. And the legal system has developed a host of ways to make sure references are cited and explained, from "The Bluebook" tables, to local rules, to Westlaw Next.

And those systems could be in for an update, if some legal innovators have their way.

Moving Beyond "The Bluebook"

Some of the changes coming to legal citation are less drastic than others. Take "The Indigo Book," née "Baby Blue," the brainchild of NYU Law's Chris Sprigman. The goal of "The Indigo Book" is to take the system of citation enshrined in "The Bluebook" and make it available online, for free.

Not only is "The Indigo Book" free and open source, though, its organization and examples are a significant improvement on its spiral-bound competition. And after some complaints of copyright infringement by the Harvard Law Review Association and a switch in names, "The Indigo Book" seems to be ready to take off.

Forget Experts, They've Got Algorithms

Of course, if you're not writing legal citations, you're probably researching them. And there are plenty of resources out there to help you with that. FindLaw, of course, offers many state codes online, for free, while Thomson Reuters Westlaw, our sister company, has been aiding legal research for decades.

And while companies like Westlaw employ an army of human experts and editors to help draw connections between legal codes, caselaw, and secondary sources, some competitors are taking a different approach.

Bloomberg Law, a relative newcomer to the legal research market, is taking those humans out of the equation. On a recent "Law Technology Now" podcast, Bloomberg BNA Legal Division President David Perla talked about how Bloomberg was using algorithms, not legal experts, to guide its users' legal research. In this model of legal citation and annotation, it's code that interprets how a case cite might impact precedent, based on the strength or weakness of a reference.

Harvard, too, is on the post-human bandwagon. Last fall, Harvard Law School announced that it was digitizing its massive, paper-based law library and handing it over to Ravel Law, a California startup. Once digitized, Ravel Law wants to apply data analytics to those legal resources, presenting the library for free online along with "visual maps developed by the company," according to the New York Times, "which graphically show the evolution through cases of a judicial concept and how each key decision is cited in others."

Will these innovations revolutionize legal citation? Who knows. Improve it? Probably. In the mean time, we're just happy that the Supreme Court has started to use email. Sort of.

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