Legal Writing Matters: Cracking Citations, One Post-it Note at a Time

By Irina V. Gott

When new law students try to decipher citation, they are understandably overwhelmed and intimidated. But by customizing their ALWD Guide they can crack any citation.

Some students may not know where to begin when scanning through the myriad of citation rules in the Guide. Some even admit to burying it under a pile of books and pretending it doesn’t exist for the greater part of the first semester.  Although students may never have to memorize the rules, they must learn how to efficiently locate and apply them.  ALWD contains a plethora of user-friendly features, including its Fast Formats, index and a multitude of citation format examples. Many students can only successfully navigate it after they have had ample opportunities to engage with the Guide and make it their own.

We recommend students use the Post-it method. Students label and tab every rule they encounter during the year with Post-it notes. This way, students can conquer their citation fears and recognize ALWD as a valuable resource. The first year of law school presents multiple opportunities to employ the Post-it method, including:

  • Each time a professor introduces a new rule in class, or mentions a rule during office hours;
  • Whenever a professor conducts an in-class citation exercise or game;
  • Whenever a professor reviews relevant rules after a writing assignment has been returned;
  • When encountering new rules during work on a writing assignment; and
  • While preparing for or reviewing a citation quiz.

Students should set aside time outside of class to locate all rules encountered above and tab them.  Students can locate rules more efficiently by using different colored post-its for various citation topics, such as green for cases and yellow for statutes. Students also should highlight relevant portions of the rules.  Additionally, students can tab the Fast Format pages, index and appendices using the tabs provided at the back of ALWD.  With each Post-it, students reinforce their citation knowledge and gain confidence when reusing the same rules over and over.

Professors can incorporate in-class exercises and games that allow students to actively engage with ALWD in groups. Faculty also can model the Post-it technique by showing students their own ALWD Guides, flanked with multi-colored Post-its and highlighted rule sections.

Maybe students will never enjoy citation. But the Post-it method ensures a thorough engagement with the Guide and encourages students to create their own customized ALWD that they can confidently use to tackle any citation problem.

Irina V. Gott is a Visiting Professor of Legal Writing at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. For more info about Suffolk’s Legal Practice Skills program, visit

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