For years, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has published a guide for brief writers targeted at enhancing readability in legal writing. Here is why, according to that court:

This . . . handbook also includes some suggestions to help you make your submissions more legible—and thus more likely to be grasped and retained. In days gone past lawyers would send their work to printers, who knew the tricks of that trade. Now composition is in-house, done by people with no education in printing.

If you print your own briefs—as perhaps 99.99% of lawyers do—or just write a blog in your spare time, it makes sense to learn a bit about proper formatting, typography, and punctuation, all of which make your legal writing easier to read, and therefore more persuasive.

In general, try to build your briefs like a high-quality hardback book, not like a newspaper. Here are a few specific tips most lawyers seem to be unaware of.

Stop using Times New Roman (or Arial, for that matter)

Times New Roman is a newspaper font, designed to squeeze text into two-inch columns. It was never designed for full-width text, which is what lawyers produce. Thanks to Microsoft, it is also the default font on just about everything.

Typography for Lawyers has this to say about using Times New Roman:

Please, stop. What possible excuse do you have to keep using Times? There are hundreds of text fonts out there that are fresher, easier to read, and better looking than Times.

What should you use? Many people think serif fonts (like Times New Roman) are easier to read than sans-serif fonts (like Arial or Helvetica) on paper. The general wisdom is reversed when it comes to computer screens. But because some of your audience (federal clerks) may be reading your briefs onscreen, and some (judges) will probably be reading on paper, I think it makes sense to try fonts like Georgia and Constantia, both free Microsoft fonts, made to look good on paper and screens.

One space after a period, not two

As the 7th Circuit points out, two spaces are an archaic holdover from the days of typewriters. While they were helpful for indicating the end of a sentence with monospaced typewriter fonts, they are unnecessary with modern, proportional fonts.

Using two spaces with proportional-width fonts (like what you are reading right now) results in distracting “rivers” of white space up and down the page, because that font was not designed to be used with two spaces. Also, the web was designed with one space in mind, and it requires messy code to get two spaces.

While there is nothing hugely wrong with using two spaces after a period, there is no reason to do it, and some good reasons not to. It makes sense to drop the habit.

USE ALL CAPITALS ONLY IF YOU WANT TO BE IGNORED

Putting large chunks of text in all-capitals (or boldface, for that matter) is a great way to make sure nobody reads it. The only parts of my briefs that I put in all-caps are section titles like “introduction.” Otherwise, I try to choose only one emphasis: boldface or italics.

Along these lines, keep your section headings short and to the point. I try to keep them to two lines, and only go to three lines if I cannot figure out a way to make my point more concisely. Chunks of text like headings are also easily ignored, especially when set in boldface.

Do not underline, and avoid boldface

Underlining cuts off the bottom of your words, and makes them difficult to read. It was necessary on typewriters, where changing to italics would have meant changing out the innards. Italics has always been preferred by printers, and should be preferred by anyone with access to Ctrl+I.

Use italics in citations and if you want to emphasize something. But when it comes to emphasis, be sparing. Too much emphasis in a brief is little better than adding emoticons. If you write clearly, you will need far less.

Indent to .25 inch or less

The tab key is not for indentation. The tab key is for tabbing, which is not the same thing. Set your “text body” or “paragraph” style to a first-line indent of .25 inch or less. Anything bigger makes your reader chase the text all over the page.

Which brings me to the most important tip:

Learn styles

Manual formatting is clumsy, requires more effort, and yields inconsistent results. Learn to use styles, so that all your headings are formatted consistently, and so that you can change them all, if necessary, by changing only the style definition.

If you use Office, Microsoft has a helpful tutorial on Word styles. If you prefer OpenOffice.org, the OOo Wiki has a helpful introduction to styles in OpenOffice.org.

I have a template document with all the styles I need built in. That way, I can focus on legal writing, not formatting. It also ensures that law clerks, co-counsel, and staff can quickly and easily create consistent and good-looking documents.

Guidelines for Briefs & Other Papers (PDF) | 7th Circuit

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/threedots/115805043)