Last week, I posted my first five takeaways from Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers, which is indispensable reading for lawyers who want to improve their legal-writing and typography skills. In particular, I discussed how his following recommendations can instantly improve your writing: use only one space after sentence-ending periods; don’t underline for emphasis; use proportional fonts; try alternatives to Arial and Times New Roman; and don’t let Microsoft Word automatically change ordinals to superscript.
Here are my final five takeaways:
6. Turn on kerning.
Kerning adjusts specific pairs of letters to improve their spacing and fit on the printed page. Butterick says to turn on kerning. (Query: How many lawyers learned this gem in law school or from a senior partner?) By default, Microsoft Word doesn’t activate kerning, so you have to do it manually. Here’s how, in Word 2007: Select the Font menu and the Character Spacing tab (in Word 2010, it’s the Advanced tab). Check the box “Kerning for fonts __ Points and above,” and select the number 8 in the point-size box. You’re ready to go.
7. Use curly quotes instead of straight quotes.
Though there are exceptions (most notably, foot and inch marks) no legal document should include straight quotes (yet another vestige of the typewriter). Butterick’s website shows how each type of quote appears in text. To use curly quotes, you need to find Word’s smart-quote feature (which can be turned on or off). By default, Word automatically turns on smart quotes.
Over the years, I’ve read many briefs and contracts that contained straight quotes with proportional fonts (and some, interestingly enough, that contained both types of quotes). Given that in Word you need to manually turn on straight quotes, I still have no clue how the straight quotes found their way into those documents. If you are using straight quotes in your documents, you need to get rid of them.
8. Left- or full-text justification is acceptable. But if you like full justification, turn on hyphenation.
Left-justified text has a clean left edge and a ragged right edge. Fully justified text has clean left and right edges. Butterick doesn’t recommend either left or full justification, calling the choice a matter of “personal preference.” His personal preference is left justification, which he believes “relaxes the page.” (pp. 136). In his Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style (Section 4.10), Bryan Garner also says to “avoid full justification,” though The Redbook is fully justified, as is other books he’s written, like Garner on Language and Writing.
I’ve never liked left-justified text. As a law clerk on the Minnesota Court of Appeals, I wrote memoranda with fully justified text, and my judge used fully justified text in his opinions. The ragged right edge in left-justified text is distracting to my eye. Full justification, in my view, looks cleaner.
The courts aren’t uniform on the use of left-versus-right justification. And I cannot find any recent trend in judicial preference between the two. I’ve also never read any local rule of procedure or form that requires a particular text justification. The Minnesota Supreme Court uses full justification, but the Minnesota Court of Appeals and federal district courts are mixed. Like including only one space after sentence-ending periods, I doubt using full justification in a brief submitted to a judge who prefers left justification will make any difference, but it cannot hurt to follow the judge’s justification preference.
If you prefer full justification, however, Butterick says that it’s “mandatory” to turn on Word’s hyphenation feature. Hyphenation breaks words between lines to create a consistent text block. Word doesn’t automatically turn on hyphenation, so (like kerning) you have to do it yourself. In Word 2007 and 2010, you can turn on hyphenation by selecting the Page Layout menu, the Page Setup panel, and the Hyphenation box.
Since I started practicing law, though, I’ve never read a fully justified brief or judicial opinion that contained hyphenation (other than United States Supreme Court opinions). And if you’ve never used it, hyphenation looks strange at first. But Butterick is right that hyphenation reduces the awkward white space and breaks that can appear in fully justified text without hyphenation. If you still are unsure about using fully justified text with hyphenation, you can find comfort in the fact that both the United States Supreme Court and the Solicitor General use this type of justification in their opinions and briefs, respectively.
9. Use line lengths of 45-90 characters.
Butterick also recommends policing line length: “Shorter lines are more comfortable to read than longer lines,” and will “make a big difference in the legibility and professionalism of your layout.” (pp. 141) He says that lines of text should be no longer than 45-90 characters, which you can monitor by using Word’s Word Count feature. But getting 45-90 characters in your lines of text shouldn’t be a problem, if you follow my last takeaway below.
10. Use left- and right-page margins of no less than 1.5″.
Butterick says that 1″ margins are too small for proportional fonts, which you should usually use in legal documents. He recommends 1.5″ to 2″ left and right margins. In many local rules, courts permit briefs with either a specified number of pages or a specified number of words. So increasing your margins generally won’t matter.
But I would hesitate to increase left and right margins beyond 1.5″. Larger margins result in longer briefs (obviously), and longer briefs may be problematic if you’re filing a relatively long brief. When a judge gets a brief that’s 50-pages long, he may sigh, wishing you would have heeded Cicero’s advice that “When you wish to instruct, be brief.”
50 pages is a lot to read. If the judge has the choice to read a 50-page brief with 2″ margins (which would otherwise be a 43-page brief with 1.5″ margins) the judge might decide to read the other side’s brief first, or simply skim yours. So heed Butterick’s advice about margins, but always keep in mind your intended reader.