The end of excuses for ugly documents.

by Rebecca on December 6, 2010

I like to think I know how to design a document. You won’t catch me using two spaces after a period. I don’t use all caps. And my AutoCorrect options are set to use curly quotes. So I was feeling pretty good through the first 50 pages of Typography for Lawyers: Essential Tools for Polished & Persuasive Documents by Matthew Butterick. In fact, the day it arrived in the mail, I read a just-filed brief written in Courier, with underlining. That’s not how my briefs look.

I had preordered the book, and it happened to be my road-trip reading over Thanksgiving. I wanted to knit, but a little voice in the backseat kept saying, “Mommy, hold me my hand!” You can’t knit with one arm stretched behind you. But Butterick’s book wasn’t a bad substitute. In fact, it was enjoyable. I was reading parts out loud to my husband. It was affirming. And then, somewhere along I-75, I reached the section called, “Advanced rules.” And then “kerning.” And “line spacing.” So by the time we reached I-16, I felt mildly alarmed about what I didn’t know.

Vacation is over. Now I’m working on developing customized paragraph styles—starting with one for memos and one for briefs. I’m learning a few more keyboard shortcuts, including the shortcuts for nonbreaking spaces and the apostrophe. And I’m paying attention to line spacing and line length. Microsoft Word can do more than I was giving it credit for.

So, legal writers, learn to use your tools, including your word processor. There are other good articles that provide an overview of what lawyers need to know about typography, including Gerald Lebovits’s Document Design: Pretty in Print—Parts I and II, and Ruth Anne Robbins’s Painting with print: Incorporating concepts of typographic and layout design into the text of legal writing documents. But Typography for Lawyers is the full treatment with practical advice and a good index. This book should be on every legal writer’s bookshelf, right next to your Garner books.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Rebecca Phalen December 22, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Thanks for your comment.

Yes, I think this book is good for anyone who drafts documents, including attorneys who don’t litigate and even nonattorneys. Especially if you have some discretion about how you format your documents, then the book provides practical advice. And if your correspondence is lengthy and you use headings, then the book will assist with the formatting. The benefit of good typography extends to any reader and the advice in the book is not limited to briefs. Be sure to check out the book’s companion website to get a feel for the information that the book provides.

B.R. December 22, 2010 at 11:59 am

Hi Rebecca. I am curious whether you think this book would be useful for lawyers who do not litigate. I’m a public interest attorney and primarily work in direct services and policy advocacy. Do you think the book is worth getting when I primarily draft correspondence and policy, rather than briefs and other court documents? Thanks for your thoughts.

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