Lawyers have carte blanche to change the typography of their letters, and have surprisingly few limitations for pleadings filed with the courts. Butterick makes a number of recommendations (and describes how users of Word, Wordperfect, and Mac Pages can implement those changes) to improve readability:
Font: Unless required by a court, all fonts should be proportional instead of monospaced. A monospaced font is one where every character, including the i and the m, are the same size. It was the way most typewriters worked. A proportional font conforms to the way letters are actually written, and different letters have different widths. Monospaced fonts take up more room, give lawyers fewer words per page, and are inherently harder to read.
Most lawyers use Times New Roman for their filings. That font was designed in 1929 for the London Times newspaper, and was created to be used specifically in a newspaper’s column-format. Per Butterick:
When Times New Roman appears in a book, document, or advertisement, it connotes apathy. It says, “I submitted to the font of least resistance.” Times New Roman is not a font choice so much as the absence of a font choice, like the blackness of deep space is not a color. To look at Times New Roman is to gaze into the void. If you have a choice about using Times New Roman, please stop. Use something else.
Other (better) font choices include Bell MT, Book Antiqua (my favorite), Californian FB, Calisto MT, Century Schoolbook, Franklin Gothic, Garamond, Gill Sans, Gill Sans MT, Goudy Old Style, Hoefler Text, Optima, and Palatino. Try them all out and use something that you like. Just not Comic Sans….
Spaces After Periods: This is one of Butterick’s hard-and-fast rules. He argues that two spaces after a period is a holdover from typewriter days and used to help set off sentences for monospaced fonts. The problem is that in large blocks of text, those double-spaces add up to create rivers of white space. He counsels that major publications, including books and newspapers, all use one space after periods.
Line Spacing: Line spacing is the amount of vertical space between lines. Most people use double-spaced or single-spaced lines. However, there are other options. Butterick advises that optimal line spacing is between 120% and 145% of the point size (meaning that a 12-point font should have between about 14 and 17 points of line spacing). Single-spacing is about 117%, 1.5-spacing is about 175%, and double-spacing is about 233%. Adjusting the line spacing is also better than modifying point size for shortening a document.
Line Length: One of the major modifications that lawyers can make to their documents is to adjust the line length. This is the length from the left side of the text to the right size. Shorter lines are easier to read than longer lines, and lawyers should strive for 45 to 90 characters per line. Though font choice and point size have an impact, the best way to modify line length is to increase page margins. The default on most word processing programs is one inch per border. However, the left and right borders should be between 1.5 and 2.0 inches each.
Using two-inch side margins is going to produce a drastically different-looking pleading than what you’re used to. When used in concert with a slightly smaller font (even 11 points), and better line spacing, the result will still be more words per page than a double-spaced, 12 point font with one-inch margins. Further, it will be a document that is easier to read. If two inches make you nervous, start with 1.5 inches on each side.
Quotation Marks and Apostrophes: Straight quotes are commonplace, but should be shunned in favor of curly quotes. The same goes for apostrophes, which should be curly and point downward. They are more legible, and match the other characters better.
Emphasis: Another holdover from the typewriter is underlining, which was formerly the only way to emphasize text. Underlining is mechanically applied, and has no relationship to the font. Other means of emphasis, like italics and bold, are designed to harmonize with the specific font, and give a more pleasing result.
Indentation: The first line of a new paragraph is often indented. The size of the indention should be proportional to the font. It must be at least the same as the point size, and no larger than four times the point size. With a 12-point font, the first line indent should be between 12 and 48 points, which equates to somewhere between 0.17 and 0.67 inches. The typical default tab stop on most word processing systems is 0.50 inches. Importantly, if you have extra space between paragraphs (not lines), you should not indent the first line of new paragraphs.
Keep Text Together: Certain blocks of text need to be kept together. Headings should not be separated from the first line of text, and signature lines should not be broken up across multiple pages.
Kerning: Kerning is the amount of space between specific pairs of letters. In default mode, most word processing software places an identical amount of space between each letter. With kerning turned on, the software will change the spacing between certain letters. Font designers customize the spacing between these letter pairs, and intend for it to be used. In Word 2010, kerning can be activated by right-clicking the text, selecting Font, clicking the Advanced tab and clicking Kerning for fonts. Ideally, kerning should be turned on.
For a lawyer to make all of these changes on a pleading-by-pleading basis would be time-consuming and likely lead to inconsistent application of the rules. The easiest way to create pleadings using your preferred typography methods is to create styles. The three major word processing programs all allow you to customize styles for easy application in your documents.
Word users can rely on Styles to format their documents. Here is the process (you can make a new style or modify existing Word styles):
- Click the Home tab on the Ribbon
- In the Styles group, click the dialog launcher (that small square with an arrow at the lower right-hand side) (alternatively, hold down Ctrl-Alt-Shift-S)
- Click the New Style button, or click an existing style to make changes
Here is the process to create a new style based on some of the recommendations in this article:
- Name the Style (for example, Pleadings Body Text)
- On the Style Type drop-down menu, select Linked (paragraph and character)
- For Style for Following Paragraph, select the same style that you are creating (this will ensure that the entire document has the same styling)
- Change the font and point size
- Click the following boxes: Add to Quick Style list, Automatically update, and New documents based on this template
- Click the Format drop-down menu, and select Font; click the Advanced tab
- Click the Kerning for fonts checkbox, and select 8 for the point size. Click OK.
- Click the Format drop-down menu, and select Paragraph
- Spacing Before and After should be set at 0 points
- Set the Line Spacing at Exactly 15 points (or other points that you deem reasonable)
Margins cannot be set as part of a Word Style, but you can set default margins for all Word documents. To do this, click the Page Layout tab on the Ribbon, click Margins, and select Custom Margins. Set the margins that you prefer, then click Set As Default. Clicking Yes will change the default for all new Word documents.
The world of typography is a rabbit hole—once you start finessing your documents, you will begin trying to maximize the effect of every document. You might find yourself rethinking papers and printers, for example. Hard copy documents are usually best created with a laserjet printer over an inkjet printer, because the lines and edges are more refined. Documents which must be duplicated look better when printed directly, as opposed to making multiple copies from an original.
For a laser printer, the best type of paper to use is smooth. Choose paper that is designed for laser printing as opposed to “copy” paper or inkjet paper. Use white paper that is as bright as you can justifiably afford.
In the end, our primary job as lawyers is to advance the interests of our clients. When making typographic choices for pleadings, the primary considerations will be court rules on typography and readability. Most of the changes espoused by Butterick are small and will not be consciously noticed. A few (wider side margins, for example), will be noticed and may impair a judge’s appreciation of a pleading’s substance. Even if a pleading is created using scientifically-sound typography, a judge may not be able focus on the substance of the text when faced with a document that is non-conforming by conventional standards. Use your best judgment.
About the Author
John J. Cord (John Cord Law, LLC) graduated from the University of Colorado School of Law. He concentrates his practice on automobile negligence, medical malpractice and workers' compensation. He provides a wide range of technological services to law firms, including blogging and trial presentation. Find his firm on Facebook and Twitter.