Hey Hey, Ho Ho, 19th Century Fonts Have Got to Go

When we think of well-designed and attractive written documents, we don’t often think of the things lawyers write. But Matthew Butterick and a few other lawyers are trying to change that. “Typography is the visual component of the written word,”1 and lawyers who ignore how their documents look diminish their ability to be truly effective on behalf of their clients.

Our legal training, the ingrained prejudices of the law, and the perverse economic incentives of law practice got us in this mess. Using better fonts is one way to get out of it.

First, let’s distinguish between typography and font. Typography is not just another word for font. Typography includes everything connected with the visual appearance of type, including font.2

For lawyers, typography is a means to an end: persuading the reader to do what we want. And choosing a good font is an easy way for lawyers to improve the persuasive power of their writing.

The Judge Has it RADD, and That Ain’t Good

Typography matters because it helps con­serve the most valu­able resource you have as a writer—reader atten­tion.3

In a world where Apple spends billions to make its iPhones look beautiful and Niantic spends years developing 151 different types of Pokémon, lawyers are content to file something that looks like this:

Wall of ugly text

Bad legal design like the “paragraph” above is one of the leading causes of Revoked Attention Donation Disorder  (RADD) in judges. Judges develop RADD when lawyers squander the gift of the judge’s attention by “scatter[ing] some words across some pages” instead of presenting those words in the most effective and persuasive way possible. ((Id))

Remember: a distracted judge is not a friendly judge.

Origin Story

Many non-lawyers (and some lawyers) assume that odd typographical quirks serve a purpose, but that we don’t know what it is. In fact, most are carryovers from another era, and whatever function they once served no longer exists. Let’s take a few that often turn up in legal writing:

  • Two spaces between sentences;
  • Multiple hyphens instead of dashes;
  • Underlining anything;
  • Monospaced fonts rather than proportional fonts;
  • Abusing all caps; and
  • Thinking the best point size for body text is 12.

These all have one thing in common: they are bad typography habits left over from the typewriter era.4 We don’t need them any longer.

No, Activist Judges Didn’t Take Away Your Good Fonts

If Matthew Butterick didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
—Bryan A. Garner5

You’ve heard it before. Maybe you’ve said it. “I’d love to use Matthew Butterick’s super-awesome fonts, but Judge McGillicutty is a curmudgeon and won’t let me get away with it.” As though an archaic system of judge-made rules is trapping lawyers in the 19th century. But most federal and state courts don’t tell you what fonts you must use. There are some exceptions, and the table below provides most of them:

CourtFont
7th Circuit's Typography RequirementsCentury recommended
Alabama appellate courtsCourier
Connecticut appellate courtsArial or Univers
Florida appellate courtCourier or Times New Roman
Massachusetts appellate courtsCourier
New Jersey appellate courtsCourier
New Jersey federal courtsCourier or Times New Roman
Supreme Court A font in the Century family
Georgia federal courtsTimes New Roman, Courier New, Century Schoolbook, or Book Antigua
Virginia Supreme CourtCourier, Arial, or Verdona

“Read your court rules carefully—you’ll probably be surprised at how much is left to your discretion.”6 Usually, rules covering fonts are more like Local Rule 11-3.1.1 from the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California: “A proportionally spaced face must be 14-point or larger, or as the Court may otherwise order.” There is no mention of Times New Roman or any other font. In most courts, in front of most judges, most of the time, lawyers can escape the prison of bad design and mediocre fonts without breaking the rules.

But we have to want to.

Poll Results Are In: the Enemy Is Us

Butterick gives four reasons why lawyers are so typographically backward:7

  1. Bandwagon effect: “Lawyers usually assume that all the other lawyers are following the rules, so if everyone uses 12-point Times New Roman or puts two vertical lines in the left margin, it must be that the court demands it.”
  2. Fear of sanctions.
  3. Force of habit: “To create today’s filing, lawyers will often just start with last week’s filing, which was based on the filing from the week before that, and so on back to 1979.”
  4. Lack of typographic skill.

Butterick left out another reason—a reason I wouldn’t believe except that I’m staring at the poll results right now: lawyers like terrible fonts. Sad!

Before you reach your own conclusion, you should look at the choices included in the poll by comparing them in the excellent Periodic Table of Typefaces.

I strong-armed every lawyer that I could to vote in this Twitter poll, and Times New Roman decisively carried the day.

That isn’t to say that no one voted the right way. The legal Twitterati came out in force against Times New Roman:

But the silent majority of lawyers on Twitter voted for the status quo. And if you think I’m overstating things, you should know that some lawyers unironically voted for Courier as their favorite font. They’ll remain anonymous because I’m against shaming my fellow lawyers. But you know who you are.

Bad Fonts Drive Out Good Fonts

Knowing that lawyers choose bad fonts over good ones is one thing and explaining it is another. Legal designer Alex Devendra points to the specialized nature of lawyering to explain why market forces haven’t encouraged lawyers to do a better job practicing law:

One of the features of a credence good is that the buyer is unable to judge the quality of the good for herself. So, what is a person to do when she needs to find a good lawyer? If she can’t judge the quality of the lawyer’s work directly, she instead relies on “spurious indicia” of quality such as the lawyer’s office décor, academic credentials, tough talk, or punctuality.

According to Devendra, the buyer’s inability to judge the quality of legal work also helps account for bad design:

For the same reasons, bad design has become a spurious indication that a legal document is high quality. Take a contract, for example. If the reader can’t judge the quality of the legal provisions for herself, at least she can compare the contract to other contracts she has encountered in the past. If the new contract looks too “different,” she might doubt its quality—even if it’s actually better written.

If this is true, market forces will not punish bad design until clients feel that they can accurately judge the quality of legal work without being lawyers themselves. Until then, lawyers are on their own.

Beauty Isn’t in the Eye of the Lawyer?

“Beauty will save the world,” said Prince Myshkin in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot.

Maybe it’s time for lawyers to think less like lawyers and more like living, breathing, human beings who can recognize beauty. You decide which version of this judicial opinion a living, breathing, human being would want to read:

Sample Doc Court Opinion Before by lisaneedham on Scribd

Sample Court Doc After

Now tell me that fonts and typography don’t matter.

The Decline and Fall of the Times New Roman Empire

Times New Roman is named after the Times of London, which commissioned it in 1932. The Times itself stopped using it in 1972 when The Gipper was governor of California,  an average new house cost $27,550, gas cost 35 cents a gallon, and you could get a new Ford Pinto for $2,078.8 And since 2008, Times New Roman appears to be dropping out of public consciousness:

Times New Roman

And among non-lawyers, caring about fonts is actually cool.9

Anyone down for an Extreme Font Makeover reality show?

CHUCK NORRIS WHISPERS IN ALL CAPS

If lawyers want to capture the hearts and minds of our audience, we should learn how to tell a story. If we want to get our audience to remember the most important evidence, we should use visuals. If we want to be better writers, we should use plain language. And if we want judges to do what we want, we shouldn’t force them to read a document that looks like it was written by a scrivener in a Charles Dickens novel.

Featured image: “Pay Heed to My Moderate Displeasure” by Unknown is unlicensed. The image has been modified by replacing the signs in the original picture with signs that I created.


  1. Matthew Butterick,  Typography for Lawyers 235 (2d ed. 2015 

  2. Typography for Lawyers, http://typographyforlawyers.com/what-is-typography.html 

  3. Typography for Lawyers, http://typographyforlawyers.com/why-does-typography-matter.html 

  4. Typography for Lawyers, http://typographyforlawyers.com/typewriter-habits.html. 

  5. Matthew Butterick, Typography for Lawyers 9 (2d ed. 2015 

  6. Matthew Butterick, Typography for Lawyers 218 (2d ed. 2015)  

  7. Id. at 218–19 

  8. http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/1972.html. 

  9. Helvetica has its own documentary

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  • Paul Spitz

    So if we don’t want to spend a couple hundred dollars to purchase fonts, what are some recommended fonts in Word?

    • autumn shaar

      Butterick considers Garamond, Palatino, and some other system fonts “relatively tolerable” (http://practicaltypography.com/system-fonts.html). In “Typography for Lawyers,” he also goes into more detail by comparing relative strengths and weaknesses of font families.

      For a better free option, Butterick recommends a font called Charter: http://practicaltypography.com/charter.html.

      • Paul Spitz

        Thanks – I downloaded charter, and compared it to the Palatino. I think I prefer Charter; Palatino seems a little “squished” in comparison.

        • Brendan Kenny

          I have to admit, I still use Garamond. But I’ve started experimenting with others.

  • Cat Teague

    In all my years as a paralegal, I’ve reached the opinion that attorneys apply the doctrine of res judicata to pretty much everything, including document formatting and fonts. They don’t like change, period. They’re also terrified of offending the Court. Our state court rules say nothing whatsoever about how a pleading is to be formatted, other than size of the paper, the width of the margins and that nothing is to be in color. I’ve considered it progress to work with an attorney who allows me to use Times New Roman rather than Courier.

  • Andi111

    The Periodic Table of Typefaces mentioned in the article is a clever novelty item but may not be the most helpful way of comparing typefaces, because the families of typefaces aren’t very clearly demarcated in it, and only one or two letters of each font are provided. The best way to understand and compare typefaces (especially if your output format is the printed page) is to look at a good book or two on typography that classifies typefaces and provides samples. Two that I have at hand that fit these requirements are Robert Bringhurst’s classic book The Elements of Typographic Style and Christopher Perfect’s The Complete Typographer (the latter has a graphic that is somewhat similar to the periodic table mentioned above, although not in “periodic table” style). I imagine there are many other books that would be equally serviceable. Betty Binns’ book Better Type is full of text samples showing the effects of subtle differences in letter design, line spacing, word spacing, character spacing, and other aspects of typography that affect legibility or readability.

    • Brendan Kenny

      This is all very helpful. Thanks so much for these references. I’ll check them out!

  • FYI New Jersey courts don’t require Courier font (contrary to what 90% of NJ lawyers seem to think). Read the rules—you can use any font equal to or larger than 10-pitch or 12-point, so long as there are no more than 65 characters per inch. Most monospaced fonts will satisfy those requirements, including, but certainly not limited to Courier. I used Matthew Butterick’s Alix FB font for both of the briefs in the cases I won in he Appellate Division earlier this year. Recently I started using Butterick’s Triplicate in NJ’s Appellate Division, because the old-style figures work much better for me than they did in Alix.

    In the District of New Jersey, the rules are fairly similar, except that you can use a proportional font, provided you make it 14-point (instead of 12). Interestingly,that rule only applies to briefs filed in the federal court, and not to other papers.

    • Brendan Kenny

      Thanks for the clarification! Great work on using Butterick’s fonts in New Jersey courts. You should let New Jersey lawyers know this is a real option.

  • Robert Arthur

    I wouldn’t want to use a font that is not included with Word, because I share .docx files with opposing counsel all the time. If I sent them something that uses a font they have to download or install, they probably aren’t going to do that.

    Also, in Wisconsin we have to submit proposed orders to the court as .doc files. They haven’t mandated a font yet, but you’d be wise to use something that is standard in Word 2003.

    • Andi111

      If Wisconsin requires the Microsoft Word file format, Wisconsin should also mandate a standard typeface (specified not only by name, but by foundry and version, since different fonts with the same name can vary significantly between foundries and versions). A mandated typeface would be best when using Word files because fonts are not always embedded in a Word file, and even when fonts are embedded they are not supported on all platforms, and there is no way to know exactly which fonts the recipient of your Word file has installed on his or her computer without explicitly asking the recipient. So when exchanging Word files it would be best to agree on a standard font in advance. This problem is avoided when using PDF files because fonts used in a PDF file are usually embedded in the PDF file and appear exactly the same on all platforms.