Using Microsoft Word Styles

Let’s face it: legal writing is already hard work. So who has time to tinker with stuff like fonts in the name of enhancing legal document readability? With the Microsoft Word Styles feature, consistent formatting becomes a whole lot easier and faster (and can help enforce standards in your firm’s outgoing documents).

Unless otherwise noted below, all instructions and screenshots are for Microsoft Office 2010 for Windows.

What are Styles?

Using Microsoft Word Styles is a way to apply pre-set formatting definitions to blocks of text. For example, you can designate a style called Heading 1 which formats all of your first-level headings in a particular font, boldfaced, single-spaced, and centered. That Heading 1 style, applied to all of your first-level headings in a brief or other document, gives you a one-step way to apply multiple format settings (font, font weight, justification, line spacing, etc.) for consistent formatting in your document.

The beauty of using Styles rather than manual text formatting is being able to change the formatting throughout the document in a couple of steps. Otherwise, you’re stuck going through the entire document looking for each instance of a particular text type. For instance, if you decide to change your first-level heading font from Times New Roman to Book Antiqua, you only need to modify the Style, and all the headings in your document will change automatically.

A bonus: using Microsoft Word Styles can also aid in creating automated outlines and tables of contents, helpful when you’re working with appellate briefs and long contracts.

While there are several types of styles (paragraph, character, linked, table and list) the most commonly used styles are paragraph styles, which is what we’ll concentrate on here.

Using built-in Microsoft Word Styles

Microsoft Word has had the Styles feature for several versions, and versions 2007 and 2010 kick it up a notch by offering multiple sets of standard Styles. Styles are grouped into Style Sets that are available in the Quick Styles Gallery.

On the Home tab you’ll see the Quick Styles Gallery:

Doesn’t look like you get many choices, does it? Oh, but you do. Click on the down arrow just to the left of “Change Styles” (the arrow that has a small line above it) to see the full Style Set:

How to apply a Style to text

To apply an existing Style (such as one of the above) to your text, simply select the text with your mouse by holding down the left mouse button and dragging it across the desired text (or, if you prefer using your keyboard, start by placing your cursor at the beginning of your selection, then holding down the Shift key and, using the up-down-left-right arrow keys, moving the cursor to the end of the desired text).

Once your text is selected, click on the Style name. Your text will be re-formatted in the new Style.

To see a preview of how a particular Style will reformat your text, simply hover your mouse pointer over it and pause a moment—your text will briefly change to the new settings. Don’t worry—it will revert back to its previous formatting as soon as you move your mouse pointer away!

Modifying an existing Style

What if you want to apply Header 1 to your text, but you want the font to be Book Antiqua rather than Calibri? Simply right-click on top of that Quick Style and select Modify:

You’ll be taken to the Modify Style dialog box, where you can adjust the formatting in a variety of ways. To change the font as in our example, just click the font drop-down and scroll down until you find the font you want.

The easiest way to change an existing Style? Find some text in your document that’s already formatted the way you like (to continue our example, a heading you’ve already done), select the text with mouse or keyboard, then right-click the Style as previous. As you can see above, the first choice in the right-click menu is “Update [Style] to match selection.” Click that, and the selected Style will be updated with all of that text’s settings—font, justification, line spacing, etc.

Creating a new Style

What if you want to add a Style to the set you’re using? You can use a similar trick to the one above—format some text the way you want it, then use that text as the basis for a new Style.

For example, I often create a new Style called “Block Quote” for, well, block quotes—those paragraphs that are single-spaced and indented 0.5″ on left and right. So I’ll go ahead and format the block quote the way I want it, select it with my mouse, right-click on it, and get the contextual menu:

Once I click Save Selection as a New Quick Style, I get a dialog box that allows me to name my new Quick Style (and modify it some more if it I like) and save it.

Switching Style Sets

Don’t like the current Style Set? Then change it by clicking on the Change Styles button, then select Style Set:

If you find one you particularly like, you can set it as the default by selecting it, then using Set as Default to lock it in.

Building on these skills

Learning how to work with Microsoft Word’s built-in Styles is a necessary step toward developing your own firm’s standard Styles. After all, once you’re worked so hard to craft a brief or client letter, you don’t want your work undermined by inconsistent formatting or poor typography choices.

In a future post, I’ll show you how you can develop your own firm’s customized Style Sets using the skills demonstrated above plus how those can be standardized across all your firm’s computers.


  • CC

    Hi, thanks for the great tips! Did you ever follow up with how to standardized across all multiple computers? I use styles a lot, but others at my office need the set I use on their computers and I’m having a hard time achieving this. Any help would be appreciated!

  • Jackie Powell

    You could avoid all the hassles and the gazillion steps it takes to do Style formatting in Word by just getting WordPerfect, where you can do all the style formatting you want with just a few, easy to remember key strokes. Word requires too much dependence on a mouse and having to read through too much junk to find what you want.

    • Sam Glover

      I don’t find this to be the case at all. It’s pretty easy to format styles in Word.

      Also, nobody uses WordPerfect anymore.

      • Diane

        yes they do Sam. Many lawfirms have kept WordPerfect on their system because of the glitches that can result with Word and if you check a lot of job sites, many firms ask for/require you have some knowledge and experience with WordPerfect. It is still in use.

        • Sam Glover

          I’m curious. What are the “glitches that can result with Word?”

        • texastwist

          I’m with Sam. I’m a contract trainer and I’ve been in legal since Wang was the tool. I don’t know much about small one office firms, but no firm I train in has toched WP in years. WP may have been a better tool once, but they lost the war long ago. An AA who wants to be competitive needs Word skills and any lawyer who aspires to work in any AM Law 200 or better, must have Word skills as well.

    • texastwist

      When people grasp the concept of styles they sail right through the class. It is very easy. Also, I do everything with keystrokes, so I don’t know where you get the idea that you have to use a mouse in Word.
      The better quality the firm, the higher the pay, the tool is Word.