Quotable Quotations for your Legal Writing

by Robert Hegadorn

As student lawyers are aware, our system of law in the United States relies greatly on precedent, and to demonstrate precedent in your legal writing you must cite to authority, and citing to authority generally requires you to provide quotations from said authority (along with proper citation).  Quotations, therefore, are often found liberally sprinkled throughout legal documents.  But these quotations are not always from cases or scholarly analysis of the law.[i]  Many are drawn from poets, philosophers, playwrights, “wits” and humorists, novelists, from folklore or scripture, or from any of a thousand other such sources.

Walking Quotation MarksThe Law, of course, is not merely about disputes over contracts to buy so many gross of shoelaces or who actually holds title to a bit of swamp-land.  The Law is concerned with, and attempts to bring order to, the momentous incidents of human life:  crime and punishment, love and hate, tragic suffering, the redress of injury, the search for truth, the triumph of justice, and much more.  Law students know (being college graduates, for the most part) that poets and philosophers have, throughout history, spent a great deal of time and energy thinking and writing about these and other such things.

This poetic and philosophical “work-product” regarding human affairs can find a place in your own legal writing.  When you are searching for just the right phrase to describe a situation or to sum up the facts, you may sometimes remember that something has already been, as Anatole France put it, “said and well said.”[ii]  So why not, when it seems apropos, add an already well-said saying to your own legal writing?  And even if you did not hang on to your old copies of the Norton Anthology or The Riverside Shakespeare from undergraduate days, never fear:  The Villanova University School of Law Library makes available a number of works on quotations for (nearly) all occasions; “quotable quotes” suitable or even specifically for lawyers and legal writers.  A few such works are:

  1. THE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF MODERN QUOTATIONS, (Elizabeth Knowles ed., 2nd ed. 2002), Reference PN6080 .O94 2002
  3. THE ULTIMATE LAWYER QUOTE BOOK: WORDS OF WISDOM AND HUMOR (Malcolm L. Kushner ed., 2014), Lower Level K58 .K87 2014
  4. THE TIMES BOOK OF QUOTATIONS (New York, HarperCollins 2000), Reference PN6081 .T55 2000

To find such additional works, use the Library’s online catalog (or OPAC), the Falvey Memorial Library’s OPAC, the OCLC WorldCat database (available through Falvey Library’s Databases A-Z page), or the catalog of any other library you may visit.  A quick Google search or Bartleby’s Quotations can help you find quotations online, as well.  And don’t forget, you can always ask a Villanova Law Library Reference Librarian to quote you some good legal research advice.


[i] For example, see Coy v. Iowa, 487 U.S. 1012, 1016 (1988) (quoting Shakespeare’s Richard II); Browning Ferris Industries of Vermont, Inc. v. Kelco Disposal, Inc., 492 U.S. 257, 290 (1989) (quoting Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet); Floyd v. Lykes Bros. S. S. Co., Inc., 844 F.2d 1044, 1047 (3rd Cir. 1988) (Quoting Herman Melville’s White-Jacket); “and so on and so on,” as they say.

[ii] “When a thing has been said and well said, have no scruple; take it and copy it.”  A source for this quote may be seen here.  It is probably just as well that Anatole France apparently never went to law school—his attitude toward plagiarism would have sooner or later landed him in some difficulty.  As a legal writer, you should always attribute your quotes in the proper fashion (see the Bluebook for more).

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