Reference from Coast to Coast – Filling In Those Legal Abbreviations

View previous columns

Welcome to Reference From Coast to Coast: Sources and Strategies, a monthly column written by Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen.

Jan Bissett is a Reference Librarian in the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan office of Dickinson Wright PLLC. She is a past president of the Michigan Association of Law Libraries and has published articles on administrative and research related topics in the Michigan Association of Law Libraries Newsletter and Michigan Defense Quarterly. She and Margi Heinen team teach Legal Information Sources and Services for Wayne State University’s Library and Information Science Program in Detroit, Michigan.

Margi Heinen is the Librarian at Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer & Weiss in Detroit, Michigan. She teaches Legal Resources at the University of Michigan’s School of Information and is team teaching with her co-columnist, Jan Bissett, at Wayne State University’s School of Library and Information Science. She regularly does Internet training of legal staff at her firm and recently collaborated with Kathleen Gamache on an I.P.E. presentation, Internet Strategies for the Paralegal in Michigan. She is active in the Law Librarians of Metro Detroit and is a member of the American Association of Law Libraries.

Legal researchers can find mountains of resources without using a complete word. Just think about the days when each request seems to be made up of abbreviations like F.Supp, F.R.D, U.S.C.A., ERISA or FLSA, etc. While many professions are replete with jargon and acronyms confusing to the novice, our publication-heavy universe has developed efficiency by formalizing these abbreviations and using this shorthand to refer to specific documents. Even a seasoned researcher encounters an abbreviation that may be unfamiliar. So what strategies do we use to find the full title of these abbreviations? We hope these suggestions may help guide you the next time you encounter an unfamiliar abbreviation which threatens to halt your progress.

Remember the Basics

If you’re a legal researcher, somewhere along the way you’ve learned how to read and recognize legal citation and probably are familiar with a great many abbreviations without giving them a second thought. Until you encounter that one, you know, the one you can’t keep your eyes off; the one on the page calling out begging to be found. You may answer that call by using basic reference tools such as a citation manual or legal abbreviation dictionary. A Uniform System of Citation , Association of Legal Writing Directors (ALWD) Citation Manual or Bieber’s Dictionary of Legal Abbreviations are three of these popular handbooks. Zimmerman’s Research Guide at LLRX’s “Abbreviations & Acronyms”, Harvard Law Library’s Legal Citation Guides and Abbreviations Lists as well as Jenkins Law Library’s Abbreviations & Acronyms provide additional suggestions and titles that may help you identify your wayward citation.

Go Beyond the Basics

You’ve diligently searched every citation manual and legal abbreviation list you’ve managed get a hold of and still no luck. Your abbreviation may have been created post publication of all these manuals or it may be part of such a narrow specialty that the basic guides missed it. Go beyond the basics and approach your citation another way. Check your legal periodicals index for publications indexed and you may get lucky with a title match. You might want to start with Index to Legal Periodicals, Legal Resource Index and LegalTrac.

Create your own citator using LexisNexis, Westlaw or your favorite search engine. By running a search in one or all of these sources, you may find a fuller citation or you may find the context in which your abbreviation appears. Often the context is the clue you need to locate the document. We are often pleasantly surprised to find a Google search for a difficult abbreviation or acronym leads us, if not to a specific document, to a document that clearly and quickly illustrates which government agency or organization produces these documents. Search law reviews to determine if someone (or their editor) has been more thorough than your source and has provided information that has identified your mystery citation. If others have cited the publication, you can feel more comfortable continuing the chase, knowing that the abbreviation you have references an existing publication. Consider the possibility that the abbreviation is not strictly “legal”. It may be an acronym from an organization and the Encyclopedia of Associations may be of help. This encyclopedia is available on Dialog® [Bluesheet description] or Westlaw® using the database identifier EOA.

Consider the Context

If you’re having problems identifying a citation after some preliminary checking, question your information. Consider the physical context: where was this mystery publication cited? Did you see it or was it relayed to you by phone, email or some other transmission which may have been garbled? Has the requestor flubbed citations before? If you’re certain the citation is indeed valid, ask these same questions with a different slant. What’s the subject area of the citing material? Is this citing material reliable? What’s the practice area of your requestor? Might the citation be to unpublished or “in-house” material?

A Little Help from Your Friends

It’s nice to have knowledgeable colleagues. Don’t give up on your mystery citation. After you’ve completed your own diligent search, it may be time to ask for assistance. Perhaps you work with other professionals or can phone your local law library, or post to a local law librarian’s discussion list.

The thrill of research dims considerably when an unknown abbreviation slows you down. We hope your future hunts will be easier with these suggestions.

Links Mentioned in this Article

Abbreviations & Acronyms

  • Link:

Association of Legal Writing Directors (ALWD) Citation Manual

  • Link:

Bieber’s Dictionary of Legal Abbreviations

  • Link:

Encyclopedia of Associations – Bluesheet description

  • Link:


  • Link:

Legal Citation Guides and Abbreviations Lists

  • Link:

Uniform System of Citation

  • Link:

Zimmerman’s Research Guide: Abbreviations & Acronyms

  • Link: //
Posted in: Reference from Coast to Coast, Reference Resources