The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
The Bluebook is the primary authority for legal citation. Produced by the editors of the law reviews at several top tier schools, the Bluebook is followed assiduously by most law reviews. But just because most law reviews follow it, does not mean the Bluebook is always right.
According to the Bluebook, footnotes should generally not list more than two authors for multi-author works. The relevant rule in the latest edition provides that when a cited work has more than two authors, law reviews should "Use the first author's name followed by 'et al' when saving space is desired and in short form citations. List all the authors' names when particularly relevant."
As David Hoffman notes, this rule creates a default against listing all of the names, and that means many authors of co-authored works who are not listed first do not get credit for their work. This is unfair, and there's no real reason for it.
Later-listed authors are often more junior scholars, who may often be responsible for a greater share of the work on an article, and for whom failure to get credit in cite counts and the like is more consequential. Use of "et al" can mean folks get omitted from citation count studies which are increasingly important in academic rankings and, at some schools, in promotion and retention decisions. For people like me who have tenure and have the benefit of a last name beginning with "A," the Bluebook default rule is no big deal. For junior scholars and those not blessed with early-alphabet names, this can mean not getting credit for their scholarly contributions and influence.
Interestingly enough, the Bluebook did not always endorse an "et al" default for works with more than two authors. In the 1980s, it endorsed listing all authors the first time a work is cited. I am not sure what prompted the change, but I suspect it was concern about word counts and ever-lengthening law review articles.
Fortunately, some law reviews have decided to reject the Bluebook's default rule, adopting an alternative default rule of listing all co-authors. Such law reviews include the Columbia Law Review (which is one of the law reviews that produces the Bluebook) and the Case Western Reserve Law Review. This is a good move, and other law reviews should follow suit.
UPDATE: Back in 2013, Derek Muller had a related post: Was Barack Obama's greatest contribution to legal scholarship the Bluebook?