Book Review: Typography for Lawyers

If I were not a lethally generous guy, I would not be writing this. If I thought that what we do was a zero-sum game, in which anything that makes my colleagues better somehow hurts me, I would keep this little gem to myself; I might even quietly put the word out that the book was a waste of time.  But that’s not the sort of guy I am.

A couple of weeks ago I happened upon Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers website. Butterick is a Harvard-educated typographer and a UCLA-educated lawyer. Here’s the premise behind his treatment of typography for lawyers:

Even though the legal pro­fes­sion depends heav­ily on writ­ing, legal typog­ra­phy is often poor. Some blame lies with the strict typo­graphic con­straints that con­trol cer­tain legal doc­u­ments (e.g. court rules regard­ing the for­mat of plead­ings). But the rest of the blame lies with lawyers. To be fair, I assume this is for lack of infor­ma­tion, not lack of will.

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.

Easily persuaded that form matters, I incorporated some of Butterick’s suggestions into my documents. I chose a new font (and bought the real small caps). I starting using smaller point sizes and larger margins. I set up Microsoft Word’s styles to make changing formatting details of one portion of a document easier. It was like word-geek Christmas. Then Jason Wilson emailed: would I like a copy of Butterick’s book, hot off the Jones-McClure presses?

Is a frog waterproof?

I received the book, and devoured it immediately. Broken down into basic rules and advanced rules in each of the areas of type composition, text formatting, and page layout, it lists 28 key rules on the front flyleaf. A passing familiarity with just a few of those 28 rules (put one space between sentences; use curly quotation marks; don’t confuse hyphens with dashes) would make 99% of the motions and briefs I’ve ever seen much more readable. But the book will give much more than a passing familiarity. For each rule (many of which are broad guidelines) Butterick provides a rationale and examples, as well as instructions for accomplishing the desired effect with WordPerfect, Word, and Pages.

I’ve got a Petition for Discretionary Review to the Court of Criminal Appeals due on Wednesday, and I put what I absorbed from the book to work making the words easier to read, within the hampering limits of the court’s rules (13-point type, where smaller fonts are easier to read; double-spaced text, where less-than-1.5× spacing is optimal). I fixed my line spacing (Word’s “double” spacing is actually about 233-percent spacing), applied real small caps judiciously, adjusted spacing before and after paragraphs, converted ersatz ellipses to the character designed for the purpose … and the tweaks go on and on as I learn typography by trying it out, printing it, and refining it, all the while setting up paragraph and character styles that I can easily import into the next appellate pleading.

If I were designing the cover of Typography for Lawyers, it would be Typography for Lawyers. While lawyers are the largest market for a book on typography, and while the examples in Butterick’s book come from the law, the rules, suggestions, and advice in the book would be as beneficial to anyone in the business of publishing on any scale (I look forward especially to seeing some of Butterick’s typographic knowledge incorporated into the Jones-McClure books that I buy yearly). The book is aimed at lawyers, but the typography is not for lawyers; it is just typography.

Speaking of lethal generosity, before Typography for Lawyers became a book Butterick published much of it on his website. Order the book, and read the website while you wait for its arrival: “much” is not all, and the depth and breadth of the book’s content compared to the website’s, as well as the tactile and visual pleasures of a well laid-out book, make it well worthwhile.

I’m ordering copies of Typography for Lawyers for the lawyers I collaborate with. The rest of you will have to buy your own.


  1. Have you ever given Open Office a go?? It’s seems that using Microsoft Word and dot-doc (.doc) formats, which is proprietary, needs to transition to the open-document (.odt) for text format, just so one company doesn’t have a strangle-hold on legal documents in general.

    Just think of how much the government is spending keeping older Word formatted documents updated to the “latest and greatest” versions of word. More than just a small fortune, I bet you. Just thought I’d toss in my two-cents worth. 🙂 Ric

  2. Sounds interesting, Mark. I thought the point behind larger fonts was that they were easier to read for old eyes, like those of judges. We don’t want our briefs to look like the phone book to them. Can you enlighten me? Thanks.

    1. There’s a huge gap between phonebook text and 13-point Times New Roman. Like James says, check out the fonts in the professionally published materials that we (even those with old eyes) read every day, and contrast them with the fonts required by some court rules.

      Butterick argues that, rather than page-number limits combined with margin and font-size limits, courts should have word count limits.

  3. Anna: it’s my understanding that smaller fonts become much harder to read the longer the line of text becomes. Thus, it’s quite easy for the eye to read a column of text in a reporter even though that font is much smaller than 13 pt Times New Roman.

    If my spider sense is correct, Butterick is going to recommend approximately 2′ margins on both sides of a document with a smaller font than is customary. I tried this out a few years ago in school and was amazed at how much easier it was to read. And you actually save paper doing it the new way.

    The easiest way to verify this for yourself is to go pick up any of the books in your home that come from a major publisher and try and judge how large their fonts are.

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