Caring About Legal Typography

Yesterday, the popular legal blog Above the Law took a break from its busy schedule of ridiculing lawyers, law firms, and law schools to ridicule the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Not for any decision or ruling, mind you, but for the latest update of its unique "Requirements and Suggestions for Typography in Briefs and Other Papers." Unlike the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure and the local rules of most courts across the country, the Seventh Circuit not only cares a lot about how submitted documents look, but is kind enough to offer more than minimal guidance to practitioners.

The aggressive snark-wielders at Above the Law (both writers and commenters) have never been very open to the idea that legal writing might benefit from something other than 12-point Times New Roman with one-inch margins. Ninety-two bile-filled comments followed a post suggesting that one space after a period at the end of a sentence is more appropriate than two. A post about font choice (with a plug for Typography for Lawyers author Matthew Butterick), inspired 140 hostile comments including these:

Attention to font = douchebag (14 upvotes)

What a stupid horrible waste of time this article was. (40 upvotes)

And no judge is going to rule against a party because the lawyer went with the default font. Rather, using some ultra-fancy font might indicate that you're trying to improve the appearance rather than the content of your argument. Cf. pigs wearing lipstick. (48 upvotes)

This is terrible advice. As a law clerk, I get pissed off when lawyers submit briefs NOT in times new roman. You're trying to look smart and interested when you use a different font, but to the extent anyone notices, you're just annoying them by being a smartass. (65 upvotes)

There's a reason the law is considered a conservative profession. Fonts as refined and traditional as Garamond are dismissed as "ultra-fancy." The idea that an attorney, whose professional success relies at least half upon his or her ability to write well (the other half upon his or her speaking), might take pride in or give extra attention to the way that writing looks on a page is considered absurd and unserious.

And what about the Seventh Circuit? Home to two of the most respected judicial writers in the entire country, judges Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook, the Seventh Circuit has long prided itself on demanding the very best writing from its practitioners - an attention to proper form and detail lacking elsewhere. What happens when that court offers a more substantial writing guide than a couple of sentences in the Federal Rules? Smug dismissal:

The federal rules say remarkably little about typeface, and the Seventh Circuit was having none of that vagueness. But instead of making a simple, concrete rule to guarantee that lawyers submit something that won’t make the judges — or their clerks — bleed profusely from the eyes, they churned out seven pages of pedantically detailed instructions. They even explain the difference between 12-point and 14-point fonts using many more words than “the second one is bigger.” Apparently the Seventh Circuit cares more about encouraging clean typefaces than efficient writing.

Unlike those smart alecks, I'm among the apparently few attorneys who actually care how their work appears to others. I spend most of my life crafting letters, motions, and briefs to explain complicated concepts and complex rules, and effectively assert my clients' interests. Those letters, motions, and briefs are meant to be read. If they look bad, chances are the intended reader will lose interest and skim through them, missing important details.

There's nothing totally wrong about 12-point Times New Roman with one-inch margins. But there's nothing inherently right about it, either. In fact, the only reason that font is so reflexively defended by so many people is because Times New Roman just happens to be one of the default fonts in MS Word (along with Calibri). Had the programming geniuses behind the most common word processing software in the world chosen some other font, like Goudy Old Style or Bodoni, commenters on snarky blogs would be ridiculing suggestions to use something other than those, instead.

I don't have to regurgitate all the reasons why Times New Roman is a sub-standard font for writing that appears on the printed page. Matthew Butterick has already made that case very well. But I do want to briefly discuss the typographical styles I use in my own practice, with the hope that it may inspire other attorneys to take more interest in how their very important work looks to others.

Until recently, I was using the font Plantin for all pleadings and other court documents. Plantin was created in 1913 by Monotype, one of the most prominent "font foundries" in the world. It was, incidentally, a major influence on the eventual design of Times New Roman.

Plantin looks good in pleadings, but it does look a little dated, so I recently shifted to a newer font called Eldorado. It was developed in 1953 by American type designer W. A. Dwiggins and has a traditional Roman look to it, despite its allusion to Conquistadors wading through South American swamps in search of hidden gold. I really like the way Eldorado appears on the page. It's not flashy, it's not "ultra-fancy," and it's not dissimilar enough to Times New Roman to invite ridicule from clerks and other judicial ghostwriters. If nothing else, it's extremely easy to read.

For letters and other correspondence, I have consistently relied on the eminently readable Sabon. Typographer Jan Tschichold created the font, which was released in 1967, and it remains extremely popular for use in books and magazines. Stanford University uses Sabon for its logo.

As for page layout, I generally use wider margins than the standard one inch on each side. Since shorter lines are easier to read than longer lines, my margins are usually set at 1.3 inches left and right. I have resisted the urge to adopt drastically wide margins, unlike radical, unserious institutions such as the U.S. Supreme Court. Sometimes I go narrower if I have to adhere to page restrictions and am running close to the limit. Instead of word count, many courts still impose length limits based on number of pages, so sometimes readability must take a back seat to rule compliance. 

Obviously I'm among a small minority of attorneys who have any preference at all for typography beyond the default settings of MS Word. And obviously many of my fellow practitioners fail to see why any of this matters at all. My philosophy is simple: what I write matters. I won't restrict my concern to its content when taking a little extra effort on its form may make it even more effective.