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3 Typography, Layout Rules Every Lawyer Should Know

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

You wouldn't walk into court wearing a T-shirt and jeans, would you? Then why are you filing documents written in a 12-point monospace font with tiny margins? And if you don't know the difference between monospace and sans serif, that's a problem, too.

Enter Matthew Butterick, a graphic designer-turned-lawyer whose book and accompanying website "Typography for Lawyers" instructs the font-challenged of us on the finer points of desktop publishing.

As you may recall, this blog talked about Butterick several years ago, but on recent reflection, there are still things we can learn about good page layout. Here are three rules every lawyer should be familiar with:

1. Give Yourself (and Your Arguments) Room to Breathe.

All too often, there's a temptation to cram as much information as you can onto a page. Wrong, says Butterick: White space is your friend.

The eye can tolerate only so much stuff on a page. In terms of increasing reading comprehension (and you want the judge to be able to easily understand what you're saying, right?), more white space is better. Butterick recommends line spacing of about 1.5, which puts a pleasant amount of space between lines while keeping enough information on the page. White space can also be used to divide documents into sections.

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2. Have Some Style(s)!

If you're making headings by manually adjusting the font every time, you're making more work for yourself (which might not be so bad if you're billing by the hour).

Butterick advises you to learn what a style is. In both Microsoft Word and WordPerfect, styles are preset formatting settings. For example, you can preset a style called "Heading" that's bold, all caps, centered, with extra space above and below the heading. Doing this for individual headings would be nightmarish, but with a one-time investment, you can craft a style that is as easy as highlighting and clicking to apply in the future. (Styles also help if you're engaging in the Herculean task of generating your own Table of Contents.)

3. Be Super-Consistent.

If your visual style changes abruptly, people will notice. If you're going to underline case names, then never italicize. But if you italicize, stay consistent also. A sudden change is mildly jarring and can come across as careless. (If he didn't notice the font suddenly changed size, then what else hasn't he reviewed? Do I need to check his cites, too?) Just like you take the time to spell-check and proofread -- and you are doing that, aren't you? -- take the time to scan the document to ensure you don't have multiple fonts or changes in style that don't belong there.

Even though we still have to deal with anachronisms like pleading paper (seriously, when was the last time you cited to a line number?), at least following Butterick's rules where you can makes a legal document actually look like something pleasant.

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