Typography for Lawyers

Posted on Categories Legal Education, Legal Practice, Legal Writing, Public

“The four most important typographic choices you make in any document are point size, line spacing, line length, and font, because those choices determine how the body text looks.” Matthew Butterick, Typography for Lawyers: Essential Tools for Polished and Persuasive Documents, “Summary of Key Rules” (2010).

Does that sentence make any sense to you? If so, find Butterick’s book: you will love it.

If not, run out and get Butterick’s book: you need it.

After running a website on typography for lawyers, www.typographyforlawyers.com, Matthew Butterick last year published a book on the subject. The book seems designed to do for typography what Bryan Garner’s work has done on matters of style and usage—to convince more lawyers that this “small stuff” matters in their writing, in their approach to the practice.

Indeed, Butterick’s belief that “typography” should become part of the vocabulary and professional awareness of lawyers forms the “core principles” of his book:

  1. Good typography is part of good lawyering.
  2. Typography in legal documents should be held to the same standards as any professionally published material. Why? Because legal documents are professionally published material. (Corollary: much of what lawyers consider “proper” legal typography is an accumulation of bad habits and urban legends. These myths will be set aside in favor of professional typographic habits.)
  3. Any lawyer can master the essentials of good typography.

To some extent, typography already is and always has been of concern to lawyers. Lawyers have always had to consider not only the words they write but the other communicative features of their documents. Legal writing professors have written articles on the subject, see, e.g., Ruth Anne Robbins, Painting with Print: Incorporating concepts of typographic and layout design into legal writing documents, 2 JALWD 108 (2004), http://works.bepress.com/ruth_anne_robbins/2/, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ Practitioner’s Handbook, http://www.ca7.uscourts.gov/rules/handbook.pdf, which devotes an entire section to “Requirements and Suggestions for Typography in Briefs and Other Papers.”  And many lawyers have spent at least some time debating which font looks best for a printed brief, whether (when permitted to choose) one should select single- or double-spacing, and whether to leave one or two spaces at the end of every sentence.

Still, some not-insignificant proportion of lawyers has little patience for this kind of information, perhaps because the substance and style of most legal writing is so important, and already so challenging, in itself, to master.

To be honest, I myself did not warm to Butterick’s book right away. And although it has grown on me, I still cannot say I enjoy poring over, for instance, the “font samples” pages that make up one chapter of the book, offering the same text printed out in various similar-but-subtly-different fonts. Some of the fussier, more historical, and technical information in the book may be mostly of interest to specialists in typography.

But the same could be said about usage handbooks, like Bryan Garners’ books Modern American Usage and The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, and yet I still think that every lawyer should have a usage handbook on hand. In the same way, I think Typography for Lawyers does earn a place in law office libraries. The 28 “key rules” Butterick proposes are, in the end, fairly simple, and, if they were widely adopted, would certainly improve the readability of legal documents. While reading Butterick’s book, I thought of my experience reading hundreds of briefs during my year as a clerk at the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The briefs submitted by the state attorney general, unlike most other briefs, were formatted with single-spacing, double-sided pages, with wide margins. In addition to being so much lighter to carry around, the formatting of the pages (shorter line-lengths, more white space) made for more pleasant reading. In a long, hard day of reading, those typography choices did lighten the burden in a noticeable way.

So, I encourage you to review Butterick’s typography book, or at least his website. If you don’t know the difference between a serif and sans-serif font; if you don’t know the difference between mono-spaced and proportional fonts; if you don’t know why italicizing is probably better than underlining; and if you are still leaving two spaces after your sentences, inject some fresh energy into your practice (well, at least into your documents) by reading his advice and trying some of his suggestions in your own work. Take a quick look at his re-design of a caption page (http://www.typographyforlawyers.com/?page_id=1437), a resume (http://www.typographyforlawyers.com/?page_id=1655), or another legal document, and I think you will have to admit that this stuff does make a difference. Even if you wish it didn’t.

Though I am a convert on Butterick’s “rules” and his idea that lawyers should care (and know) about typography, I am not a whole-hearted fan of the book Typography for Lawyers. I think the reason Garner’s advice on style and usage in writing has become so authoritative is in large part because of his soft-sell approach on those matters. Garner persuades the reader that his judgment is worthy to be followed, rather than just assuming the position of The Authority on usage. As David Foster Wallace wrote, “A distinctive feature of ADMAU is that its author is willing to acknowledge that a usage dictionary is not a bible or even a textbook but rather just the record of one smart person’s attempts to work out answers to certain very difficult questions.”(http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/DFW_present_tense.html)

Butterick’s approach is more like a traditional grammarian approach, presenting himself as The Authority for the Rules because “the rules here reflect the customs of professional typographers and the majority views of authorities on typography, filtered through my experience as a professional typographer and as a lawyer.” An example would be his response to one of the objections he has heard to the “one-space rule” for spacing after sentences. The two-space rule proponent says, “I think two spaces look better so that’s what I’m going to use.” Typography at 43. Butterick’s response? “I’m telling you the rule. If you want to put personal taste ahead of the rule, I can’t stop you. But personal taste does not neutralize the rule. It’s like saying, ‘I don’t like how the subjective tense sounds, so I’m never going to use it.’” (p. 43)

I find that exchange unhelpful. For one thing, refusing to change from one to two spaces, when most lawyers currently use two, is not really like refusing to use the subjective tense, which is part of the grammar of the English language. Instead, it’s more like the debate about whether to use the Oxford comma (see http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2011/06/30/137525211/going-going-and-gone-no-the-oxford-comma-is-safe-for-now). That’s a question of usage, and one about which reasonable minds differ.

More importantly, even if the consensus on the one-space/two-space debate is clearer than the Oxford comma consensus, his failure to provide the reasons that the professional consensus has developed leaves the reader feeling scolded, more than persuaded. Especially when he says,

Similar objections [to the one-space/two-space objections] could be made against any rule in this book. This is the only time I will indulge them at length. These objections only serve to impede learning and preserve bad habits. If you’re afflicted by the urge to protest, suppress it. That way, you can approach the rest of these rules with an open mind. (p.44)

What I do not like is the underlying vision of the lawyer as uncurious and unqualified to enter the debate about professional typography that Butterick seems to have in mind. It’s such a contrast to the bright, persuadable lawyer audience that Garner seems to presume in his books.

Still, in any event, I did use one space after all the sentences in this post.

2 thoughts on “Typography for Lawyers”

  1. This is an old article that I have just seen, so I may echo earlier comments unintentionally. But my understanding of the reason behind the “only one space, never two” rule is the fact that word processors automatically insert extra spaces when “full justification” is turned on, in order to even up the lines. If you use two spaces, you run the risk of the program adding additional spaces on top of the one you have already inserted, and the line s p r e a d s o u t until it just looks silly. Since typewriters did not use proportional spacing, the additional space between sentences made it easier to see when a new sentence was started, and thus made the text easier to read. But the use of proportional spacing makes it easier to see distinct words because the letters form a more distinct group, and makes the additional space between sentences unnecessary. Since the extra space is unnecessary, and may actually interfere with the readability of the text, it makes sense to have a “one space only” rule.

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