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!

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