Oh, the Legal Cites They Are A-Changin'

by Sandhya Bathija
National Law Journal
November 8, 2006

A law professor finds out which musicians lawyers, judges cite most often.

Bob Dylan has topped yet another chart -- the legal-writing chart.

Alex B. Long, an Oklahoma City University School of Law professor, has discovered that Bob Dylan is the most frequently cited musical artist by legal writers, with the Beatles taking second place.

Long researched the ways judges, academics and lawyers use music lyrics to advance legal themes or arguments. The results will be published in the Washington and Lee Law Review early next year.

Long's research included searching the LexisNexis database for writings by judges, academics and practicing attorneys to compile a top 10 list of the most-cited artists in legal writing.

Nine out of the top 10 are white men, with Joni Mitchell being the only woman. He also recognized that all the singers were popular in the 1960s and 1970s. It's not surprising, Long said, because the legal profession is made up mostly of white men of the baby boom generation.

The other musicians to make the list, in order of popularity are: Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Woody Guthrie, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Simon & Garfunkel and R.E.M.

But as the baby boom generation retires, there will probably be fewer Beatles lyrics, and more of someone else's. While Long declined to speculate on the next wave, his research provides some hints. Lyrics by hip-hop artists Public Enemy and Tupac Shakur brought up a significant number of citations, but not enough to make the top 10 list.


There were no search hits for Motown artists like the Temptations, and Long claims that "disco is dead in legal writing." Lawyers don't just hate disco, they apparently also hate country music, with the exception of Johnny Cash, who pulled up almost enough citations to make the top 10 list.

Claiming to be a frustrated musician at heart, Long said he recently began noticing references to music lyrics in law review articles and judicial opinions. While it is hard to say how long this has been going on, Long believes using lyrics is far more common now than it was 30 years ago.

"Legal writing is meant to be persuasive and oftentimes lyrics get in the way," he said. "I never asked anyone why they do it, but I think it is because it is fun to do and they're bored."

Although he finds a few occasions when the lyrics work, Long mostly criticizes the use of lyrics because "legal writing is easy, comedy is hard." He cites many occasions when it feels like the author is stretching by using the lyrics or "reaching for a way to plug a favorite artist."

But there are times when it can work well, said Michael Perlin, a professor at New York Law School who has used Dylan song lyrics in his titles in at least 30 law review articles during the past decade.

Perlin mentioned that California courts have successfully used Dylan's lyrics, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," to express the idea that expert testimony is unnecessary when there is common knowledge. A court first used the lyrics in 1981, Jorgenson v. Beach 'n' Bay Realty, Inc., 125 Cal. App. 3d 155 (1981), and California judges have been citing to it ever since.

"Quoting from a song makes the point and people remember it. It is very vivid," Perlin said. "It makes a connection for me between the poetry of [Dylan's] song lyrics and the seriousness of the law."

Using lyrics also provides an outlet for creativity, said Sheila Simon, a legal-writing professor at Southern Illinois University School of Law and a song writer.

She has her students draft haiku to narrow in on a particular legal concept. It works for students who are creatively frustrated in law school, and for students who are not as creative, it shows them how to get the message across in a clear, concise way.

"Song lyrics do the same," she said. "There is something appealing about the structure of song lyrics. It makes you think of a melody or an image, so there are certainly occasions when it can add to the message."

'HOE' VS. 'HO'

But lyrics don't always have to convey a message, said Judge Terrance Evans of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who often uses lyrics to break the monotony of a dry opinion.

Long -- using the subhead "Holla If You Hear Me" -- discusses a case out of the 7th Circuit, U.S. v. Murphy, 406 F.3d 857 (7th Cir. 2005), in which Evans explained a court reporter's error in transcribing witness testimony. Instead of using the derogatory term "ho," the transcriber spelled "hoe." In a footnote, the opinion defines the difference between the two spellings, using lyrics by rap artist Ludacris, "you doin' ho activities with ho tendencies."

"I don't think using lyrics is really necessary, but anything you can do to liven them up I am in favor of," Evans said.

Associate Justice Richard Huffman, who sits on the California 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego, also uses lyrics occasionally in his opinions for the same reason. Simon, who also made Long's top 10 list, was the artist of choice in his opinion, People v. Shaw, 97 Cal. App. 4th 833 (2002).

"We have to be serious because we are dealing with people's lives," Huffman said. "We aren't there to make light of it, but it doesn't have to read like Black's Law Dictionary."

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