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.1

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 another 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 the Ribbon-based versions (2007 and up) kick it up a notch by offering multiple sets of standard Styles. Styles are grouped into Style Sets, and many of the Styles within the current set are available in the Quick Styles Gallery on the Home tab:

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 list of Quick Styles:

Don’t like that particular Style set? You’re not alone. The default Style set often features blue headings and fonts not particularly appropriate for legal documents. You’ve got more choices over on the Design tab:

word-2016-design-tab

Either choose another Style set from the gallery, or click on the Colors and/or Fonts drop-downs to the right to make the appropriate adjustments to the current Style set. Save your settings for your future documents by clicking the Set as Default button.

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 in the Quick Styles Gallery on the Home tab. 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 that Style 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!

Here’s another way you can choose Styles to apply to your text: click Apply Styles in the full Style set view shown above and get a more complete list of Styles to apply (not all Styles are listed in the Quick Styles gallery):

word-2017-apply-styles

Clicking on that button circled in red above will pop up a Styles pane to the right that you can also use to manipulate Styles:

word-2016-styles-pane

Modifying an Existing Style

What if you want to apply Header 1 to your text, but you want the type to be a bit larger or smaller? 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.

word-2016-style-modify

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 the Create New Style from Formatting dialog box that allows me to name my new Quick Style (and modify it some more if it I like) and save it.

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.

Originally published 2011-08-16. Updated 2016-12-15.


  1. Unless otherwise noted below, all instructions and screenshots are for Microsoft Office 2016 for Windows.