10 Takeaways from Typography for Lawyers – Part One

For the next two weeks, I’m going to deviate from my usual language-and-usage fare and review Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers, a book about legal typography that every person serious about good legal writing should own. This week, I’ll give my first five takeaways from Typography for Lawyers, including how each takeaway might practically apply to your everyday legal writing. Next week, I’ll give five more.

Typography for Lawyers runs only 210 pages, and is an easy read. The book begins with a Foreword by Bryan Garner, who claims “[i]f Matthew Butterick didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Given that Garner agreed to write the Foreword, I thought I’d be reading a book written by a Garner disciple, and, to a certain extent, that turned out to be true. Both Garner and Butterick take their jobs very seriously. Butterick, like Garner, is a fantastic, conversational writer. Like Garner’s language-and-usage advice, Butterick’s typography advice generally allows for little or no wiggle room. There’s right and there’s wrong. And in a world filled with mushy legal-writing conventions, that’s an overall positive for the book.

1. Use only one space after sentence-ending periods.

Butterick says you have no choice when deciding how many spaces to include after a sentence-ending period (indeed, after any punctuation mark): One space. He cites multiple typography authorities, including the Chicago Manual of Style, Garner’s The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style (Section 4.12), and the 7th Circuit’s Requirements and Suggestions for Typography in Briefs and Other Papers (which Sam reviewed in Legal Writing: Make Your Writing Easier to Read). True, other writers have objected to the historical foundation of the one-space rule, but I’ve found no good authority (including the local rules of the states and many federal courts to which I’m admitted) that you should include two spaces after a sentence-ending period in court documents.

But will using one space after a sentence-ending period raise the ire of the judge who notices it in a brief (you can convince those you work for or with by pointing out Butterick’s authorities)? The judge may have always used two spaces after a sentence-ending period and not understand why you’re only using one space. At least in Minnesota, for example, the Minnesota Supreme Court and Court of Appeals use two spaces after sentence-ending periods. And no Minnesota federal judge uses only one space.

I think any fear of receiving a cool reception from a judge if you use only one space is unfounded. There’s little chance that using one space will elicit a question at oral argument, and if it does then you can explain, citing Butterick and his authorities, why you chose to use one space instead of two. Instead of making you look like an uninformed fool, that discussion may end up making you look better versed in the niceties of legal writing and typography.

But more realistically, the judge probably won’t bring it up. Judges have better things to do than quibble about the number of spaces after sentence-ending periods.

2. Never underline.

Butterick also advises never to underline text for emphasis or otherwise. Like two spaces after a sentence-ending period, underlining is a holdover from the typewriter era, where, as many have forgotten (or in my case never knew) didn’t allow for bold or italics. On a typewriter, underlining was the only way to emphasize text. Now that we don’t use typewriters, there’s no need to underline.

In my former litigation practice, I occasionally underlined text to emphasize particular words because the The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation requires case names to be italicized and I wanted to distinguish between the two. My view at that time was that underlining allowed to reader to distinguish easily between italicized case names and the text I wanted to emphasize. But I erred in doing so. Given how ugly and blunt underlining can be, start using italics and bold to emphasize any text that deserves to stand out from the rest.

3. Don’t use monospaced fonts.

Fonts like Courier and Monaco are monospaced fonts, meaning that every character is the same width. Fonts like Times New Roman are proportional fonts, meaning that the characters vary in width. Monospaced fonts are another holdover from the typewriter era. According to Butterick, monospaced fonts were invented so that they could meet the mechanical needs of typewriters, not “to win beauty contests.” (p.81).

Butterick suggests that some courts might require monospaced fonts. But I don’t know of a single court that does so, though occasionally you’ll see opinions written in monospaced fonts. For example, Minnesota Senior District Court Judge David S. Doty still issues his opinions in Courier, but expresses no public preference for any particular font. Unless you’re a federal judge with life tenure, it would behoove you to stop using monospaced fonts for any legal writing.

4. Don’t use Arial font, and try an alternative to Times New Roman.

While we’re on the topic of fonts, Butterick also says not to use Arial, which he describes as among the most awful fonts “on the planet,” and whose use “is permanently associated with the work of people who will never care about typography.” (p.82-83). Instead of Arial, Butterick recommends Helvetica, Franklin Gothic, or Gill Sans.

Butterick’s distaste for Arial seems to be matched by his dislike for Times New Roman, for which he dedicates two pages to A Brief History of Times New Roman. (p.110-11). Butterick thinks the popularity of Times New Roman is the result of its ubiquity, not necessarily its quality. It’s “the font of least resistance,” and isn’t a font choice but rather is “the absent of a font choice, like the blackness of deep space is not a color.” (p. 110). If you like Times New Roman, Butterick recommends trying similar-looking professional fonts like Plantin, Starling, or Bembo Book.

But here’s the rub: You must purchase these professional fonts, and many other fonts that Butterick recommends, including his own font, Equity, under a license. As Sam points out in Normal People (and Lawyers) Shouldn’t Buy Fonts, ordinary people (including lawyers) should stick with ordinary system fonts because of the minefield of licensing issues that can arise from purchasing and using professional fonts.

Professional fonts also cost money, and if a firm wants several people to use the font, it might need to pay even more for a multiple-user license. In this business environment, firms aren’t looking for ways to add to their costs. Professional fonts also might not display properly if you don’t correctly embed them before sharing the document with someone else who hasn’t purchased the font.

In short, professional fonts can be a pain to use. (Sam and Matthew Butterick take this professional-versus-system-font discussion to the next level in the comments to Sam’s article linked above. You should read this discussion in its entirety, if only to confirm that it may be wise to avoid purchasing and using professional fonts).

5. Don’t use superscripted ordinals.

Let’s close Part One with what should be obvious to any good legal writer: Never permit Microsoft Word to automatically change ordinals to superscript. I’ve routinely found superscripted ordinals in case citations in briefs from opposing counsel, and occasionally I’d find them in judicial opinions. I’m convinced that 95% of these superscripted ordinals were the result of Microsoft Word’s default treatment of ordinals. Microsoft Word automatically converts ordinals to superscript whether you want it to or not. As Butterick points out, Bluebook Rule 6.2(b)(i) (2010) prohibits superscripted ordinals. So change Word’s default settings, and make sure you don’t use superscripted ordinals.

These are my first five takeaways from Typography for Lawyers. Next week, I’ll discuss Butterick’s advice about kerning for fonts, the proper style for quotes (straight or curly), page justification, line length, and margins.

  • Jed Roher

    Where does Mr. Butterick come out on punctuation within quotation marks? British or American?

  • http://www.johnfosterlaw.com John Foster

    I bought this book last year and think it’s great. I’ve even bought some professional fonts, e.g., Bembo Book as an alternative to Times New Roman. One caution, though, as mentioned: if you email or collaborate on a document with someone else, stick to system fonts. Unless you are sending it in pdf format, the other person’s word processor, e.g., Word, will pick what it thinks is the closest to the funky font you’ve used. Which will screw up the formatting.
    I don’t recall any discussion about the inside/outside issue on quotation marks, although the example on p. 39 shows the period inside. He is more interested in typography, i.e., how it looks, rather than punctuation rules as such.

  • Tom M

    Great article. As a former managing editor during law school, I enjoy formatting discussions such as this. Looking forward to Part Two.

  • http://www.diaryofadivorcelawyer.com/ uswah khan

    Thanks for the typography lessons! Even though I’m an English major, time changes everything, and so too rules change. I see though that that lawyers who graduated 20 + years prior to me have different rules when it comes to punctuation. It’s a great refresher, looking forward to next weeks lesson.

  • Jim Allen

    Agree, agree, agree!
    I particularly agree that paid-for fonts are to be avoided, and find TNR boring for the reasons you state. Unfortunately, we don’t write the rules, and some jurisdictions, including mine (Florida), actually require TNR, so we’re stuck. If I have a choice, I follow the recommendations of the Seventh Circuit (http://www.ca7.uscourts.gov/Rules/type.pdf).

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I’m amazed that more people don’t follow the Seventh Circuit’s guide. After all, if a court tells you how it wants to see documents, it makes sense to pay attention.

  • Richard Ross

    It took ten minutes of research to figure out what a super scripted ordinal is. I still don’t know why, but I understand they are horrible, and I vow to rid them from my briefs. Just as soon as someone explains the alternative.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Just turn them off and write ordinals like so: 1st, 5th, and so on.

  • http://thusbloggedanderson.wordpress.com/ ThusBloggedAnderson

    Butterick disdains the Georgia typeface, but then as the man said, B. is also trying to sell fonts. I find Georgia the single best font for a document that may be either printed or read onscreen – and because Windows includes it, pretty much everybody has it. People who are used to Times and don’t want a “weird” font should try Georgia.