Should lawyers use a citation manager?

Legal citation is very specific, and citation managers have not been built to deal with lawyers’ needs. So why bother using a citation manager at all? Wouldn’t lawyers be better off referencing manually?

Why is law so special?

  • Because lawyers cite special types of documents, like cases, laws, treaties, UN resolutions; treaties are very special, indeed, as they generally have several “publication dates” (date of signature, ratification, entry into force).
  • Because they use specific citation styles;
  • Because legal databases are not very user-friendly (and not very citation managers-friendly, as they have a strong tendency to keep their metadata – title, date, court for a case –  inaccessible for machines). Citation managers can access the metadata of journal articles in HeinOnline, but Westlaw or Lexis-Nexis are fully closed.

“More than any fundamental difference in the materials themselves, captive metadata accounts for the striking gap that has emerged between the research tools available in law and in other disciplines.” (Frank Bennett)

This is the reason why, unfortunately, the references of case-law or treaties cannot be downloaded automatically, but still have to be entered manually.

So why use a citation manager at all?

Computers are generally better than humans for tedious and repetitive tasks such as formatting bibliographies or making sure that all elements are in the same order with a unified presentation. On the other hand, humans are still better than computers for researching, thinking and writing, so it seems logical to concentrate on these tasks, which are at the core of the student/researcher’s craft. There is nothing to gain by wasting time with boring tasks. You may have to enter a case manually, but you will only have to do so once before you can reuse it as many times as you need.

You might think that citation managers are just tools to make referencing quicker, easier and better, but they are more than just this. As Sebastian Karcher, a very active contributor to the Zotero project, explains in a recent tweet: “The real value in using Zotero is building a searchable, sortable, annotated, and organized database of litterature. That’s what will really pay off 10 years down the line”. Whether your future is in the academia or not, your readings, references, annotations are part of your professional capital, you have worked hard collecting them, and you should take care of them.

Which one should I choose?

No citation manager is perfect for lawyers, but I really believe Zotero is the better choice. Zotero is free, open-source, works on Mac and PC (think about the day where you will wish to collaborate with a colleague using a different OS) and always improving itself. Furthermore:

  • There are currently 70 legal styles for Zotero; even if some (French or Swiss styles for instance) are still missing, that is clearly much better than the 2 legal styles available for Endnote (Oscola and the Bluebook); I have personally created 2 styles (the European Journal of International Law and the Journal of International Economic Law styles) and I have taken particular care to ensure that the legal reference types (case or statute) work well.
  • Entering case law, treaties or UN resolutions in a Zotero library is not that complicated, check the examples I have built!
  • You will not be locked in: if one day you find a better tool than Zotero, you will have no problem to export your references. Some non open source citation managers, like Endnote or Mendeley, make it difficult to export libraries to other programs.
  • You may wish to try Juris M, an unofficial variant of Zotero built to meet some specific legal needs, created by Frank Bennett. It may however be less stable than the regular version.

Lawyers could possibly benefit from better referencing tools if they became more demanding clients for legal databases, and if some of them were ready to contribute to Zotero, for instance by creating the styles they need and adding them to the Zotero repository.


Interested in Zotero? Have a look at Catherine’s Web guide. Graduate Institute students can also register for a basic or advanced training session.

Original illustration (cropped): SCY, CC0

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