Garner’s business writing basics

Bryan Garner just shared this video of five writing tips. It’s a great start to writing better in your job, whatever it is. I, for one, will try to use weouryou, and your more.

As Garner states, good business writing “is a skill you must cultivate to succeed.” William Zinsser made much the same point in On Writing Well:

Managers at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind. Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts. Remember that what you write is often the only chance you’ll get to present yourself to someone whose business or money or good will you need. If what you write is ornate, or pompous, or fuzzy, that’s how you’ll be perceived. The reader has no other choice.

Most lawyer-writing is muddled. Not just in court, but in emails, letters, and legal documents. This is a big part of the legal profession’s negative image; our clients can’t understand us. Is it any wonder they think we’re arrogant and pompous?

For example, wills and trusts (the documents I work with) are chock-full of jargon and vagueries. This should not be. We should all have wills we can read and understand without a $200/hour interpreter. If estate planning documents were drafted in plain language, fewer people would need to hire a lawyer for probate or trust administration when it comes time to actually use those documents. That might be bad for repeat business, but it’s good for clients.

I want to be a lawyer who always writes and speaks in a way my clients can understand. As Zinsser pointed out, that takes hard work and hard thinking. (It will probably be a while before I can muster the time and energy to edit multiple 30-page trusts.)

Thankfully, that’s just the kind of work and thinking I enjoy most.

Bar associations are missing a big opportunity

Bar associations are missing a big opportunity. Their members have a need: to turn the practice of law into a successful business. Doing so is a real challenge for many solo and small firm attorneys.

So far bar associations have tried to address this need by playing it safe. They’ve added practice advisors, who give members free one-on-one advice and answer questions about running a firm. This is thinking too small. It’s nice to have help deciding on practice management software or what to pay a new associate, but those decisions do not a successful business make.

A successful business is exactly what many new private companies offer lawyers. These companies have figured out what it takes to make a law firm make money. They’ve figured out all the systems and details and wrapped it up in a tidy package. All the lawyer has to do is follow the system, and he’ll be successful. Lots of lawyers are willing to pay lots of money for that.

I know because I used to work in my bar’s book division. When deciding whether to accept my current job and return to practicing law in a small firm, I asked for details about the business—I wanted to make sure it was set up to succeed. What my employer showed me was Lawyers With Purpose, an estate planning business-in-a-box group he pays for. I was skeptical at first, but quickly saw that it provided a well-thought-out business model, complete with detailed systems for everything—processes for marketing, processes for referrals, processes for the legal work, etc. Everything was clearly done by someone who knew how to run a firm as a business, and that reassured me greatly. It just required following the system.

Bar associations need a new source of revenue. Revenue from traditional books is falling; pressure to keep dues low is higher than ever. Members won’t pay $200-300 for books and CLE, yet they will pay many times that each month for a successful business model. Seems like a no-brainer.

Of course, developing this kind of product is hard and risky. This business is all or nothing; either you have a complete system figured out or you have nothing to offer. It would take multiple bar employees months or years to put it all together. That’s a big leap to take.

The payoff, though, would be huge—for both the bar association and its members. Bar associations already have a wealth of knowledge about practicing law, and ready access to member-volunteers who are experts in their areas of practice. No one is in a better position to figure out what it takes to be a successful law firm doing x type of legal work. It just requires investigating: find the successful practices and figure out what makes them tick.

Imagine a bar association that could offer its members, as a package deal, a successful and well-thought-out family, criminal, estate planning, consumer, small business, personal injury, or civil litigation practice model. Not only would this be a source of revenue for bar associations and a useful service to members, but it would also raise the quality of representation and service for the public. It would give the bar association a way to directly influence how law is practiced in its state. It’s a win-win for everybody.

It’s a big challenge, too. But the concept has already been proven by private businesses all over the country. It’s not a question of will it work, but of making it work.

I hope bar associations will take the risk and try to make it work.

The real-world Surface Pro

Microsoft just announced the successor to my own Surface Pro 4: the no-number “Surface Pro.” It looks like another good refinement of the line, improving things without messing up what was good in the first place.

I’m still quite happy with my Pro 4, so I won’t be rushing out to buy the new model any time soon. But the announcement has me thinking about what I like about the Surface so much. I’ve been using it in law practice for about a year and a half now, so I’ve had plenty of time to experience both the features and the flaws.

For any legal professionals out there wondering if the Surface might work for them, here are the primary concerns I had before buying my Surface Pro 4 and how it turned out.

Is it good as a laptop?

Yes, it is. Despite the headlining feature of being “a tablet that can replace your laptop,” the Surface is more laptop than tablet. Most people use their Surface as a laptop most of the time. It’s how we’re used to working, and I’ve found the same thing.

A lot of reviewers’ ink was spilled over “lapability” when the Pro 4 came out. To use the Surface like a laptop, you have to use its kickstand—unlike a normal laptop, where the screen has a sturdy keyboard base to support its weight. Many reviewers thought the kickstand made the Surface hard to use on your lap. I think it works fine. Maybe my legs are longer than the average tech journalist’s, but I’ve never had an issue with it.

I also had some concern before I bought the Surface about the keyboard typing experience. The Surface keyboard is a cover, so it is thinner and less sturdy than the usual laptop keyboard.

But the concern was unfounded; I’ve always enjoyed using the type cover, which is surprisingly solid (the word flimsy does not
apply here). The keys are clicky and have a good amount of travel. The trackpad is large and smooth and not frustrating.

Is it good as a tablet?

Yes—but. The Surface works as a tablet, but I haven’t found myself using it like an iPad. I rarely flip back the keyboard to browse the web, and I don’t watch Netflix or YouTube or play around in apps. I use it as a tablet mostly when I want to use the pen (which I do often).

The Surface’s screen has a 4:3 aspect ratio—taller than the usual widescreen, but not as tall or boxy as the iPad’s 3:2 ratio. Microsoft says it’s about the same as a legal pad. At first I thought I’d use it like that all the time, but most of the time it just doesn’t work for me. I think it’s because the Surface is thicker and heavier than a legal pad—holding it vertically is unwieldy. It might be a different story if the screen were smaller.

I still use the Surface to take handwritten notes; I just don’t hold it like a legal pad. I find it most natural to write in a landscape orientation with the kickstand all the way back so the screen is at a shallow angle. You can’t get that effect holding the device vertically. And really, when you think about it, there’s no need to have all that vertical space for writing when you just scroll the screen anyway. Writing in a landscape orientation also gives me nice, big margins for Cornell-method notetaking.

Windows 10 has a “tablet mode” made specifically for devices like the Surface. It can detect when you disconnect the keyboard and make the user interface more tablet-like—apps take up the full screen, buttons and menus get more touch-friendly, and you get a back button on the taskbar.

I’ve experimented with this, but I found I preferred to leave it off. Even without the keyboard, the Windows 10 interface is perfectly usable with touch (especially since you have a stylus handy). The automatic switching always took a couple seconds, annoyingly. Since the features of the tablet mode haven’t seemed necessary or useful to me, I found it a better experience to just leave it off.

Is the pen good enough to replace good old-fashioned ink and paper?

The pen was the biggest question mark for me when I bought the Surface Pro 4. Could it really replace writing on paper? Would it be close enough, or would I just get annoyed by small inaccuracies or lag and never end up using it? Would it fulfill all my paperless dreams?

I spent an embarrassing amount of time in Best Buy fiddling with the Surface display models trying to answer these questions.

Well, the pen is like writing on paper, but not the same. I’ve found that oil from my hands and fingers can make the screen slick, and cleaning it helps maintain that friction that all the reviewers said they liked. The pen does have a little bit of inaccuracy—where you place the tip on the screen is not quite where the ink shows up—but I adjusted to it. I’ve never experienced enough lag or latency to bother me, either—and I’m rather more persnickety about that than the average joe.

So it is good enough—I use the pen all the time. I mostly use it with OneNote, a program that really shines when you have a pen. I love being able to take handwritten notes and organize them alongside other bits of text and information. It’s when people see me writing in OneNote with my Surface Pen that they get intrigued and start asking questions.

Are the cheaper models with 4GB of RAM worthwhile?

Yes. After deciding to buy a Surface Pro 4, the biggest decision was whether to get the Core i5 model with 4GB or 8GB of RAM. The difference was $300. Every tech reviewer said something like, “4GB is okay for ‘office work,’ but you really need 8GB if you want performance to last.”

I am happy to report that most people can save $300. Nearly two years after the Surface Pro 4 launched, my 4GB model is as peppy as ever. I’ve never run into an issue with RAM. The computer doesn’t feel slow and the performance hasn’t suffered. As I said above, I’m much more persnickety about lag and performance on computers than most.

If you have an extra $300 to spend (or if you always have 30 browser tabs open), then by all means, more RAM = better. But don’t let the enthusiasts make you think you’d be unhappy with a less expensive model.

Does it have any annoying issues?

Like any computer, my Surface has had some issues.

Early on it had problems with sleep and draining the battery, but Microsoft has solved those with updates. It still sometimes has difficulty waking from sleep or hibernation, though—every once in a while I have to do a dance with the power button.

I’ve had a few instances of the pen just failing to work. Some were Bluetooth-related, some were battery-related; in every case, it got in the way of taking a note or doing work. These failings have been rare, but frustrating.

OneNote—an app you want to use if you use the Surface Pen—sometimes has weird issues. I’ve had problems with syncing multiple Microsoft accounts. I’ve had problems where a OneNote notebook gets corrupted (there’s always a backup and a way to fix it). Sometimes I’ll write a line on a OneNote page and it will “jump” to the left a bit after it syncs online.

Surface Pro 4 Pen attached to sideSince I use the Surface in a landscape orientation most of the time, the pen being stuck to the side of the device contributes to its unwieldiness. When the pen is on a side, I can’t grip that side securely with one hand. This is, admittedly, a minor annoyance—I could solve it with a pen loop if I had the gumption.

The Surface can log you in just by recognizing your face. Though this easy-login feature has been lauded by tech reviewers, I ended up turning it off. At first there was an issue where the infrared camera wouldn’t turn off and it would drain your battery in your bag. Then, I found that it wasn’t always reliable. It was mildly annoying to position my face every time the computer wakes up. And sometimes I want to see the login screen—if you’re switching to a different user, for instance, you have to hide your face so it won’t log you back in right away.

How is it to use as a professional with clients?

First of all, it’s quiet enough that you can use it in meetings without drawing the ire of coworkers and clients. The Surface Pro 3 had some notorious issues with fan noise, but those were solved with the Pro 4. The lowest model with a Core m3 processor doesn’t even have a fan, and my own i5 model stays almost silent unless I play a video game or movie.

So it is usable in meetings. Whether you want to do that is a judgment call.

For example, when I was practicing on my own fresh out of law school, I almost never used my Surface in court. In my county, even regular laptops don’t appear there much. I didn’t want to play into stereotypes of millennials or fall prey to a failure of technology. It was important to make a good impression on the judges and other lawyers. I played it safe.

During my brief stint working as an employee at my state bar, I used my Surface in meetings freely. That was a larger organization that was comfortable with technology. Many of the directors and supervisors still used Surface Pro 2 devices the bar had purchased years ago. My coworkers often asked about it.

When meeting with clients now, I try to judge how the client will perceive me using a shiny piece of tech. I would never want a piece of technology to get in the way of developing that relationship.

I also always have a plain legal pad and pen along, even if I have my Surface—just in case.

Conclusion

If you’re a legal professional unsure about the Surface Pro line, I can reassure you: it will work for you. Surfaces actually beat iPads for user satisfaction. There are some minor annoyances, as with any computer. But performance is great, the pen is useful, and the device is good to use as both a laptop and a tablet. I haven’t talked much about using it in court (perhaps a future post), but if you feel comfortable in your jurisdiction, its potential for hearings and trials is huge.

The hardest thing when deciding to buy something like a Surface Pro is seeing past all the hype. I’ve tried to get past the glossy-eyed reviews and give a more useful, realistic perspective.

Does the Surface Pro line work in the real world? Yes, it does.

How to make legal writing better, faster, and more fun

Writing is not an easy task. Even though all lawyers write a fair amount (and some do a lot of it), many avoid writing and dislike sitting down to the task. This is, perhaps, why so many briefs are written last-minute, or why motions eek in on the deadline. When I worked as an attorney-editor, our most persistent issue was just getting our attorney-authors to do their writing by the deadline.

How can we make the task of writing easier, faster, and more fun? We must start with seeing that to write is not a single task, though we usually think of it that way. Even a short article or blog post takes first an idea, then exploring that idea, then deciding how to present that idea in a logical structure, then writing the sentences and paragraphs, and finally revising it all into a polished whole.

The Flowers Paradigm is a process for writing.

What we need is a systematic approach to each writing project. Thankfully, we have it: the Flowers Paradigm. Devised by Dr. Betty S. Flowers (and promoted heavily by Bryan Garner himself), the Flowers Paradigm is a simple way to remember that every writing project benefits from engaging your brain in four very different ways:

  1. The Madman
  2. The Architect
  3. The Carpenter
  4. The Judge

The Madman furiously generates ideas.

At the beginning of a writing project, putting on the persona of the Madman is about brainstorming and generating as many ideas as possible. This is not the time for critical thinking, but creativity.

Don’t start writing sentences yet! Use pen and paper; draw a picture; connect single words or phrases with lines and arrows and circles and diagrams.

The Architect connects the ideas and forms a structure.

Once your inner Madman has generated the raw material for you to work with—both the gold and the dross—it’s time to put on your Architect hat. Most of us would call this stage “outlining,” but a list of roman numerals and headings may not be the best approach. The goal is to give your ideas a logical structure. Create a skeleton for your writing, whatever it is, to get your reader logically to your conclusion.

The Carpenter writes sentences to fill in the blanks.

Don’t start typing until your head is clear about what you want to say and how you’re going to say it. It doesn’t have to be perfect—you will make changes later—but you need to have some clarity, or you’ll produce a mishmash.

Once you have that clarity, writing the sentences and paragraphs becomes much easier and more pleasant. You just have to follow the guides. As Bryan Garner puts it, the Carpenter stage should feel like filling in the blanks.

The Judge critiques, edits, and refines.

Finally, after you have a completed draft, you can let your inner critic loose. The hardest part is making your Judge wait until this point. He must not interfere with the creative earlier stages.

Now you can review, proofread, edit, and refine. You’ll cringe a bit as you look at your raw work, but now you can toss the dross and keep that gold.

Conclusion

If you take away one idea from this post, it should be that “writing” is not a single thing—it’s a process. Recognize that good and efficient writing requires a sequence of very different tasks. When you have a process to follow, your writing will get better and take you less time. If you’re familiar with Getting Things Done, you’ll know this concept: 5 minutes spent planning a project will save 20 minutes of working on it.

The next time you have to write something—anything—consciously engage each step of the Flowers Paradigm. Even if it’s only for a few minutes each.

In my next post, I’ll talk about some particular problems lawyers face with writing that the Flowers Paradigm solves, and some of my own strategies to employ at each step.

Finally, a good writing app for Windows 10

Unlike most lawyer-tech enthusiasts, I use Windows and I enjoy it. But the OS has always lacked good writing apps. (I love Microsoft Word, but it’s meant for editing and publishing, not writing.)

Windows lacks writing apps like Ulysses. Apple’s ecosystem has spawned a plethora of apps meant to do one thing: get you to type words. Apps like Ulysses are free of distractions and pleasant to use. They make it easy to just type.

Windows has lacked this kind of app for a long time (probably because Apple users are more willing to pay $20 or $40 for it). The closest contenders are Writemonkey, which shows its age, or Draft, which is browser-only, or Write!, which lacks some features I’d want. These are good programs, but they never quite hit the sweet spot of features plus minimal design.

When it comes to writing, I want as little friction as possible. That means I want a program that does what I need and nothing else. There’s a Goldilocks zone the app must hit.

That zone has been so hard to hit for me that I confess to occasionally checking the website for Ulysses (and other Mac/iOS writing apps) just to see if, by some astronomical alignment, its developers are working on a Windows version. I am always disappointed.

That’s why I’ve been enjoying Appy Text. It has what I want from a minimal writing app:

  • Custom fonts—I’m picky about typefaces (blame Matthew Butterick for that), so the ability to pick any font installed on my computer is almost essential. The lack of this feature is largely what left me unsatisfied with Write!.
  • Good typography—Appy Text lets you control the size of the text and keeps line lengths short for optimal legibility.
  • No distractions—The program displays just a single column of text, a bar for basic functions like undo, and a couple of buttons. Because it only saves plain text and Markdown files, there’s little formatting to fiddle with.
  • A pleasant writing space—Appy Text has several color themes, and all of them look nice.
  • Markdown—Appy Text saves plain text files and supports Markdown, which is an easy way to add HTML formatting (like bold, italics, and bullet points) to a plain text document without needing a complicated formatting interface like Microsoft Word. It also has an easy button for previewing what your Markdown document will look like when published. Markdown is an ideal format for drafting content; it’s easy to convert to any publishing format needed (particularly HTML and PDF).
  • Automatic Save—A lifesaver for any writer.

Appy Text is a simple program, and that’s a good thing. It’s great for pounding out a blog post or an article. I hope more apps like it come to the Windows Store.

If you use Windows and find Microsoft Word distracting, give Appy Text a try.

What’s in a name?

My legal career has started with it’s fair share of zigs and zags. There was job searching and interning, planning and solo lawyering, trying a regular job at my state bar, and finally landing in a fledgling elder law firm. All along the way I’ve maintained an interest in blogging, and my blog has been through many iterations. It feels like I’ve remade my wordpress site a thousand times already. But I have to admit that it’s time for another change of course.

Each remake has come from a change in my career. I’ve always tried to be strategic about my writing and use it to advance my career goals; so every time my career takes a turn, my blog has to as well. It turns out there have been more turns than I thought there would be on this journey.

All this is to say: “The Editing Lawyer” is probably not the best title for this blog anymore; that’s what I used to do. It seems I’m in need of another rebranding. But I’d like this to be the last time, even if my career takes another unexpected turn.

Perhaps I can achieve that by focusing less on my current job and more on who I am as a professional. One of the main goals of having a blog, after all, is to let people see a bit of who you are beyond your resume. The tradeoff is that it won’t be a niche-focused blog, which is the type that can really pay off in the long run.

When your legal niche keeps changing, do you keep throwing away old blogging efforts? Or is it better, as a young lawyer, to just blog about whatever you do professionally, without trying to create a narrowly tailored site?

What is estate planning, exactly?

Estate planning looks different for everyone because everyone’s situation is unique. The general idea, though, is to take legal action now that ensures your family is taken care of and your wishes are honored in the future.

The first step in estate planning is always to collect information and assess your current situation—not just your finances, but your health and family, too. This lets a lawyer anticipate problems and plan for your unique situation.

Depending on your situation, you will probably identify several of these goals for your estate plan:

  • Pass on your possessions to your spouse or children after you die
  • Make sure your stuff doesn’t have to go through probate (a public and sometimes lengthy process)
  • Name who will take care of your children if something happens to you and your spouse
  • Name someone to make health care decisions for you if you can’t
  • Name someone to manage your finances if you can’t
  • Make your wishes for specific health care known (for example, say when you want your family to “pull the plug”)
  • Ensure your minor or disabled children are provided for
  • Ensure your heirs don’t squander their inheritance
  • Protect your savings and retirement from unforeseen threats (such as a lawsuit)
  • Plan ahead to be eligible for Medicaid or Veterans Benefits, in case you ever need them to pay for long-term care in a nursing home
  • Ensure your money stays in your family, even after you’ve given it to your children
  • Plan for funeral expenses

You accomplish these goals by executing legal documents. Most people think of making a will when they think of estate planning, but that’s usually just one part of the picture. An estate plan may include:

  • A will;
  • A health care power of attorney;
  • A power of attorney for finances;
  • A living will;
  • A personal care plan;
  • A revocable trust; and
  • An irrevocable trust.

When you combine the concepts of financial and health care goals and legal documents, you get a good picture of estate planning. It’s a process:

  1. Assess your current finances, health, and family situation.
  2. Identify problems you’d like to avoid, financial and health care decisions you’d like to make in advance, and any other goals.
  3. Draft and execute legal documents to accomplish your goals.

One last thing. There’s a fourth step in the process: revisiting your documents and updating them from time to time, to keep them current as life and the law changes. Many people wait decades before revising their estate plans, and that can result in unintended consequences. A good estate planning lawyer will have a program or system in place to keep in touch that makes it easy to keep things up to date.

An overview of my work

Now that I’ve been at my new job for a couple of months, here’s a little more detail on my day-to-day work.

People hire our firm for a few different reasons:

  1. They need estate planning. Usually they want to avoid probate, so they need trust-based planning.
  2. They want to protect their life savings from the huge cost of long-term care; they don’t want everything they’ve earned wiped out if they have to go to a nursing home.
  3. They are already in a nursing home (or needing another form of long-term care) and they need to apply for Medicaid while saving as much as possible.
  4. They are a veteran or spouse of a veteran, and want help qualifying and applying for VA benefits.

Of course, we end up doing other kinds of incidental legal work as well—real estate contracts and the like. But that’s the majority of what we do. As time goes on, we will probably do more of the work at the other end of estate planning: probate and trust administration after death.

So how do I accomplish what clients have hired me to do? The legal tool we use in nearly all of our work is the trust—particularly irrevocable trusts. A trust is simply the most flexible, most powerful way to control your possessions. Crucially, it lets you determine now what will happen to your things in the future. That’s what estate planning is all about—anticipating problems and using your legal power to prevent them.

So that’s what drives my work, but how do I actually spend my day? Right now my primary activities are:

  1. Learning—I’m still new to estate planning, so this is my most important task. I do a lot of legal research throughout my day.
  2. Meeting/counseling clients—Helping clients understand what we do and why is always part of the job. Getting information about their unique situation and goals is essential to doing my legal work well.
  3. Drafting legal documents—I draft wills, trusts, powers of attorney, personal care plans, etc.
  4. Business things—I’m one of two attorneys, so I have to be a part of developing business, too. This means marketing, networking, and improving our internal processes. (I’m quickly becoming the go-to technology guy.)

That’s an overview of my daily work and what it accomplishes. The only thing I’d add is: I still like it. I get to solve interesting problems in creative ways each day, and I can’t wait to learn more.

New Year, New Job

The new year brought many changes for me: a new baby, a new car, and now a new job. I wasn’t looking to change my work; life happens, as they say, and I found an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Old networking paid off

This new job is the result of networking I did a year ago (networking does take time to pay off). My new employer is an attorney whose practice is starting to take off, and he needed another lawyer to handle the work. He wanted a young lawyer he could mentor and train. He talked to another attorney involved in the county bar association, who remembered me from the bar events and networking I did with her. She introduced us via email, and the connection was made.

(Side note: part of this story is the value of being one of the few young lawyers in areas outside the big cities. I wasn’t competing with many other “young lawyers to mentor” in the mind of my networking contact.)

What makes my new work unique

What is this new job? It’s mostly estate planning—wills, trusts, powers of attorney, and such. These are legal documents everyone needs and no one likes getting. I say “mostly” because we also do elder law, which means we help people deal with Medicare, Medicaid, veterans’ benefits, and long-term healthcare.

What makes my work unique is the combination of estate planning and elder law. Most lawyers will “do estate planning,” even if it’s not their focus. They design a will or trust with one concern: distributing the client’s stuff per his or her wishes (and probably trying to avoid probate and taxes while they’re at it).

We do that too, of course, but we also go further: we make a plan that takes into account Medicaid eligibility, having to pay for a nursing home, veteran’s benefits, future lawsuits, family conflict, and the client’s healthcare wishes.

I still get to work with words

In my old job, I edited legal books; I needed creative thinking, planning, organizational skills, knowledge of a specific set of rules (grammar and style), and lots of attention to detail. I enjoyed that kind of work.

Thankfully, I’ll continue to work with words in my new job. The core of my work will be drafting legal documents—documents that have legal force and need to be correct and clear. I’m going to enjoy giving clients something I know is well-drafted (because so many legal documents aren’t).

The best part: It’s fun

The best part of this new job, however, is telling people that they have more power over their future than they ever knew. It’s telling them that they can provide for their families, even if the worst happens.

I think practicing law this way is fun. It’s fun because I get to help people with my specialized knowledge. It’s fun because I get to tell people they have power over their future that they never knew about. And it’s fun because what I do is kind of like magic; we put the right words on paper and sign it, and reality changes, and now my client’s stuff is controlled by their own rules instead of someone else’s.

I still have a lot to learn, but I’m already happy. I’m happy that I get to continue working with words and editing, and I’m happy that I get to help people.

Why you should heed the typography experts

Like most lawyers, I learned poor typography from an early age. Throughout college and my first year of law school, I typed two spaces after every sentence, double-spaced my papers, and wrote everything in Times New Roman. Then I read Typography for Lawyers, and my eyes were opened. Once an expert carefully explained how to make my documents look professional and why it mattered, I was quick to adopt all the typographical conventions.

Not everyone is so quick to adopt, though—and understandably so. Lawyers are an independent sort, relying on our own judgments. We get used to the way things are done and recognize the value of constancy. Many lawyers need a better reason than “the experts say so” to make a change.

I recently marshalled those reasons to try and persuade some colleagues. I rounded up much of what lawyers other than Matthew Butterick have argued on the subject of typography, and now I offer those links and nuggets below. I’ve quoted selectively to focus on a few particular issues, but the sources discuss more.

These sources generally agree on three points:

  1. Certain typographical conventions are almost universally upheld among typographers, designers, and publishers.
  2. Following those conventions improves legibility for the reader.
  3. Following those conventions improves the credibility of the author.

To give credit where it is due, I found much of what I quote below through Raymond Ward’s blog, the (new) legal writer. You can start with this post and follow the rabbit trail of links.

Everyone agrees on certain typographical conventions.

Pretty much everyone who is an authority or knows something about the design of documents agrees that only one space should be used after a paragraph, that justification with hyphenation or left-aligned text is acceptable (but justification without hyphenation is not), and that first-line indents need not be used along with spaces between paragraphs. These are near-universal conventions of professional typography. “Everyone” includes Bryan Garner, The Chicago Manual of Style, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Matthew Butterick (author of Typography for Lawyers), appellate lawyers, legal bloggers, criminal defense curmudgeons, Above the Law, legal writing professors, a contract drafting lawyer, and a New York City judge (and many of these people cite others, too many to gather).

These conventions are universally accepted because they are useful. They improve legibility for the reader and credibility for the author.

Following typographical conventions improves legibility.

If you read nothing else below, read this article. It cites to interdisciplinary studies and accepted graphic design principles to provide evidence that following typographic conventions improves both legibility and credibility.

There’s really too much to quote directly. Read it all—this is the only article I’ve found that pulls together real interdisciplinary studies on how typography affects legibility.

The Seventh Circuit:

A business consultant seeking to persuade a client prepares a detailed, full-color presentation using the best available tools. An architect presenting a design idea to a client comes with physical models, presentations in software, and other tools of persuasion. Law is no different. Choosing the best type won’t guarantee success, but it is worthwhile to invest some time in improving the quality of the brief’s appearance and legibility. …

When used with proportionally spaced type, extra spaces lead to what typographers call “rivers”—wide, meandering areas of white space up and down a page. Rivers interfere with the eyes’ movement from one word to the next. …

Do not justify your text unless you hyphenate it too. If you fully justify unhyphenated text, rivers result as the word processing or page layout program adds white space between words so that the margins line up.

The Redbook:

Readability. Except in the hands of a skillful typographer, fully justified text can be harder to read than unjustified (“flush-left”) text. This is always true for office documents, especially when they are un-hyphenated as well. … Rivers of white space may appear to flow down the type, requiring some editing of the copy to correct. … Setting the copy flush left has its own advantages, too: the uneven right margin gives visual clues that help the reader find the beginning of the next line. Readers don’t lose their place in the copy as often.

Mark Bennett at Defending People:

Typography is the art of making documents work well. Butterick makes the case for lawyers learning some typography: it is a necessary tool for holding readers’ attention. Filing an important document without considering how it looks is like (in Butterick’s words) showing up for an oral argument dressed in jeans and sneakers, then slouching at the lectern, eyes cast downward, while reading from a script in a monotone.

A New York City Judge:

Because typography affects legibility and readability, lawyers must, when in doubt, prefer legible to beautiful and, then, complying with rules to legibility. …

Legal writers, as opposed to publishers, should stick to left-aligned text; it’s easiest to read. The uneven margin on the right-hand side, also known as a right-ragged effect, helps readers find the beginning of the next line. It helps readers keep on reading.

Adams on Contract Drafting:

Does justified text have anything going for it for purposes of word-processed documents? Well, its defenders will tell you that it looks “professional.” But it’s a phony professionalism, in that it comes at the expense of readability, which should be the first priority of any kind of typesetting, including word processing. …

As the online Chicago Style Q&A states, there’s no evidence that using two spaces makes text easier to read. …

So if you’re still using two spaces, stop it—your credibility is at stake!

Following the typographical conventions improves credibility.

The Seventh Circuit:

A business consultant seeking to persuade a client prepares a detailed, full-color presentation using the best available tools. An architect presenting a design idea to a client comes with physical models, presentations in software, and other tools of persuasion. Law is no different. Choosing the best type won’t guarantee success, but it is worthwhile to invest some time in improving the quality of the brief’s appearance and legibility.

Above the Law:

It matters because as a lawyer, writing is your craft, so you should use your tools correctly and expertly. It matters because some of your readers might just realize that you made a mistake, and might just think a little less of your attention to detail, or about how much you really care about getting things right.

Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice:

That’s largely the point of [Typography for Lawyers], that by adopting the ways of typographers, without having to reinvent the typography wheel with every point made, we can make our work appear more professional, poised and persuasive. …

The book is filled with nuggets, rationales and mechanics to make our papers look better. No, they won’t make a loser appeal into a winner, but like wearing a decent suit to court, or polishing your shoes, it’s one less detriment and one more benefit. Butterick’s point, and mine, is that there’s no good reason not to do it as well as it can be done.

Mark Bennett at Defending People:

Typography is the art of making documents work well. Butterick makes the case for lawyers learning some typography: it is a necessary tool for holding readers’ attention. Filing an important document without considering how it looks is like (in Butterick’s words) showing up for an oral argument dressed in jeans and sneakers, then slouching at the lectern, eyes cast downward, while reading from a script in a monotone.

A New York City Judge:

Without effective, legible typography, the reader won’t appreciate a document’s content. When you have a choice, make the document accessible, comprehensible, persuasive, and professional.

Adams on Contract Drafting:

Does justified text have anything going for it for purposes of word-processed documents? Well, its defenders will tell you that it looks “professional.” But it’s a phony professionalism, in that it comes at the expense of readability, which should be the first priority of any kind of typesetting, including word processing. …

As the online Chicago Style Q&A states, there’s no evidence that using two spaces makes text easier to read. …

So if you’re still using two spaces, stop it—your credibility is at stake!