10 Takeaways from Typography for Lawyers

Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers is a book about legal typography that every person serious about good legal writing should own. These are my 10 takeaways.

Typography for Lawyers is an easy read that runs only 210 pages. The book begins with a foreword by Bryan Garner, who claims “[i]f Matthew Butterick didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Given that Garner agreed to write the foreword, I thought I’d be reading a book written by a Garner disciple, and, to a certain extent, that turned out to be true. Both Garner and Butterick take their jobs very seriously. Butterick, like Garner, is a fantastic, conversational writer. Like Garner’s language-and-usage advice, Butterick’s typography advice generally allows for little or no wiggle room. There’s right and there’s wrong. And in a world filled with mushy legal-writing conventions, that’s an overall positive for the book.

1. Use Only One Space Between Sentences

Butterick says you have no choice when deciding how many spaces to include after a sentence-ending period (indeed, after any punctuation mark): one space. He cites multiple typography authorities, including the Chicago Manual of Style, Garner’s The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style (Section 4.12), and the 7th Circuit’s “Requirements and Suggestions for Typography in Briefs and Other Papers” (which Sam reviewed in “Legal Writing: Make Your Writing Easier to Read“). True, other writers have objected to the historical foundation of the one-space rule, but I’ve found no good authority (including the local rules of the states and many federal courts to which I’m admitted) that you should include two spaces after a sentence-ending period in court documents.

But will using one space after a sentence-ending period raise the ire of the judge who notices it in a brief (you can convince those you work for or with by pointing out Butterick’s authorities)? The judge may have always used two spaces after a period and not understand why you’re only using one space. At least in Minnesota, for example, the Minnesota Supreme Court and Court of Appeals use two spaces after sentence-ending periods. And no Minnesota federal judge uses only one space.

I think any fear of receiving a cool reception from a judge if you use only one space is unfounded. There’s little chance using one space will elicit a question at oral argument. If it does, you can explain, citing Butterick and his authorities, why you chose to use one space instead of two. Instead of making you look like an uninformed fool, that discussion may end up making you look better versed in the niceties of legal writing and typography.

But more realistically, the judge probably won’t bring it up. Judges have better things to do than quibble about the number of spaces after sentence-ending periods.

2. Never Underline

Butterick also advises never to underline text for emphasis or otherwise. Like two spaces after a sentence-ending period, underlining is a holdover from the typewriter era, which, as many have forgotten (or in my case never knew) didn’t allow for bold or italics. On a typewriter, underlining was the only way to emphasize text. Now that we don’t use typewriters, there’s no need to underline.

In my former litigation practice, I occasionally underlined text to emphasize particular words because The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation requires case names to be italicized and I wanted to distinguish between the two. My view at that time was that underlining allowed to reader to distinguish easily between italicized case names and the text I wanted to emphasize. But I erred in doing so. Given how ugly and blunt underlining can be, start using italics and bold to emphasize any text that deserves to stand out from the rest.

3. Don’t Use Monospaced Fonts

Fonts like Courier and Monaco are monospaced fonts, meaning that every character is the same width. Fonts like Times New Roman are proportional fonts, meaning that the characters vary in width. Monospaced fonts are another holdover from the typewriter era. According to Butterick, monospaced fonts were invented so that they could meet the mechanical needs of typewriters, not “to win beauty contests” (p.81).

Butterick suggests some courts might require monospaced fonts. But I don’t know of a single court that does so, though occasionally you’ll see opinions written in monospaced fonts. For example, Minnesota Senior District Court Judge David S. Doty still issues his opinions in Courier, but expresses no public preference for any particular font. Unless you’re a federal judge with life tenure, it would behoove you to stop using monospaced fonts for any legal writing.

4. Don’t Use Arial Font, and Try An Alternative to Times New Roman

While we are on the topic of fonts, Butterick also says not to use Arial, which he describes as among the most awful fonts “on the planet,” and whose use “is permanently associated with the work of people who will never care about typography” (p. 82-83). Instead of Arial, Butterick recommends Helvetica, Franklin Gothic, or Gill Sans.

Butterick’s distaste for Arial seems to be matched by his dislike for Times New Roman, for which he dedicates two pages to A Brief History of Times New Roman (p.110-11). Butterick thinks the popularity of Times New Roman is the result of its ubiquity, not necessarily its quality. It’s “the font of least resistance,” and isn’t a font choice but rather is “the absence of a font choice, like the blackness of deep space is not a color” (p. 110). If you like Times New Roman, Butterick recommends trying similar-looking professional fonts like Plantin, Starling, or Bembo Book.

But here’s the rub: you must purchase these professional fonts, and many other fonts that Butterick recommends, including his own font, Equity. If a firm wants several people to use the font, it might need to pay even more for a multiple-user license. Professional fonts also might not display properly if you don’t correctly embed them before sharing the document with someone else who hasn’t purchased the font.

In short, professional fonts can be a pain to use. (Sam and Matthew Butterick take this professional-versus-system-font discussion to the next level in the comments this article. You should read this discussion in its entirety, if only to confirm that it may be wise to avoid purchasing and using professional fonts).

5. Don’t Use Superscripted Ordinals

This should be obvious to any good legal writer: never permit Microsoft Word to automatically change ordinals to superscript. I’ve routinely found superscripted ordinals in case citations in briefs from opposing counsel, and occasionally I’d find them in judicial opinions. I’m convinced that 95% of these superscripted ordinals were the result of Microsoft Word’s default treatment of ordinals. Microsoft Word automatically converts ordinals to superscript whether you want it to or not. As Butterick points out, Bluebook Rule 6.2(b)(i) (2010) prohibits superscripted ordinals. So change Word’s default settings, and make sure you don’t use superscripted ordinals.

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 to activate kerning in Word 2007: go to the Format > Font menu and select 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. Both Left or Full Justification are Acceptable, but Turn on Hyphenation if You Use Full Justification

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.

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, “When you wish to instruct, be brief.”

Fifty 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.

Originally published 2012-07-11. Last updated 2015-10-26.

Featured image: “Close-up Of Male Judge Reading Paper In Courtroom ” from Shutterstock.


  1. Avatar wdiadamo says:

    Welcome to progressive Massachusetts, home of monospaced fonts and page limits: http://www.mass.gov/courts/case-legal-res/rules-of-court/appellate-procedure/mrap20.html

  2. Avatar Mark Fiddler says:

    I took the “turn-on-hyphenation-if-you-full-justify” advice, and quickly turned it off. It produces way too many hyphens. Talk about distracting!

  3. Avatar CatoUWS says:

    It’s quite remarkable that “Butterick thinks the popularity of Times New Roman is the result of its
    ubiquity, not necessarily its quality. It’s “the font of least
    resistance,” and isn’t a font choice but rather is “the absence of a
    font choice, like the blackness of deep space is not a color””.

    This is a perfect description of the universality of Microsoft Word, which is used by everyone solely for the simple reason that it is used by everyone else. Of course, those who have never known anything else will doubtlessly swear to its — what? versatility? — but note the other comments made in this self-same piece about how Word makes decisions for you, and what you need to do in order to trick it into allowing you command over your own writing.

    Word is a counter-intuitive tool that has nevertheless, and despite its lack of flexibility, become the default standard. Why, then, the derision for Times New Roman, which is universally available and at no cost? Why is commonality a reason to dismiss a typeface which everyone is accustomed to seeing? Unlike using Word, which hampers your good writing, using Times New Roman allows you to produce a product which will be seen for its content, not for its flash.

    And isn’t that what good typography should be about?

    • Avatar Sam Glover says:

      [U]sing Times New Roman allows you to produce a product which will be seen for its content, not for its flash.

      But that’s just the problem. TNR makes it harder to read the content because it sucks for the kind of writing lawyers do. TNR was meant to allow newspapers to squish as many words as possible into narrow newspaper columns while remaining just readable enough. It was never meant for the kind of full-width publishing that lawyers do, and it wasn’t even very good for newspapers; very few still use it.

      It is also, as Butterick points out, a lazy choice.

      • Avatar Venus65 says:

        Considering many courts actually require or strongly suggest use of TNR in their rules and general orders, its not lazy. Its very smart to do what the Judge says or risk having your motion denied for failure to follow procedure. Most lawyers who practice in the US Tax Court use Courier 12-point because not only is it suggested by the rules (the point size is required), its how most of the judges type their opinions. I think it looks atrocious, but I sure as hell used it when I was in the Tax Court.

        • Avatar Sam Glover says:

          Some courts require a specific font. Most don’t. Instead, they give a widely available font like TNR as an example of a proportional font because everyone will understand what they mean, not because it is the best font to use.

  4. Avatar Jim Cowden says:

    Thank you for sharing that very interesting article, if a little dry due to the subject matter. I agree with most of what is written with my personal exceptions relating to some of the
    comments on fonts.

    I was particularly intrigued by the quotation,“[i]f Matthew Butterick didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

    That is one I have used myself in relation to Magdalena Korol, an eminent International
    Lawyer based her in Warsaw in Poland.
    Sharp, extremely capable and witty, Magdalena is a credit to the profession. However she does exist so my current plan is trying to see if I can have her cloned!

    I wish you all a successful “ALPIA – Love Your Lawyer Day” on this November 6th!
    Jim Cowden

  5. Avatar Jessica says:

    The straight and curly quotes appear together when you copy and paste from another document into Word. Super easy to fix. Just Ctrl+F for a single quote and Replace All with the same character (the single quote). Then do the same for double quotes. Word automatically makes them all curly.

  6. Avatar Venus65 says:

    One should actually bother to read the court rules, general orders, and judge’s supplements. Most of the time they specify exactly what they want, including font and spacing. For example, the U.S. Tax Court requires, “12-point type produced by a nonproportional print font (e.g., Courier), or 14-point type produced by a proportional print font (e.g., Times New Roman), with double spacing between each line of text and single spacing between each line of indented quotations and footnotes.” It pretty ridiculous to argue when each court has its own set of rules that are starkly different. I also like to see the format the judge uses for her/his orders and opinions. It doesn’t matter if you think its looks bad; it only matters what the court wants.

    • Avatar Sam Glover says:

      “e.g., Times New Roman” is not the same thing as “you must use Times New Roman.” It means you can use any proportional font, and you are better off using just about anything other than TNR.

      • Avatar Venus65 says:

        I posted the exact quote from the US Tax Court rules. I didn’t say the Tax Court required TNR, but it strongly suggests using it or Courier. Can you not read? Further, I have seen Judges’ Supplements to General Orders require, not suggest, but flat out require TNR. Ignoring what the Rules suggest is a bad idea and quite arrogant. I’ve had the pleasure of having many chief, senior, and associate judges as professors and mentors. Some are sticklers and will refuse to consider motions if you fail to follow their “suggestions.” I’ve seen a judge rip into opposing counsel for not using a binder clip on a large motion. It was a “suggestion” in her Supplemental Order, but it was clearly there for a reason and was, in fact, not a mere suggestion. As I said before, follow the court rules, orders, and judge’s supplements. If the judge wants the font Gothic, you use Gothic. The Tax Court judges often write their opinions in Courier. If its good enough for them, then its good enough for the lawyers.

        • Avatar Sam Glover says:

          If it’s required, it’s required. Obviously. Nobody is suggesting lawyers should violate the rules or whatever orders might be in effect.

          But “e.g., Times New Roman” is not a requirement or even a strong suggestion. It’s an example—one of many possible font choices.

          I don’t aim for “good enough” lawyering, and that goes for brief formatting as well as substance. If the rules leave room for me to construct a better brief, I will absolutely do it.

          • Avatar Venus65 says:

            You are taking one example and running with it. Here is the strong suggestion from the D.C. Court of Appeals. “The font
            size, including footnotes, must be 12-point or larger, preferably in Times New Roman or Courier New typeface.” I would use Courier New for Tax Court because that is what the Chief judges typically use. I use TNR else where because that is typically well accepted by the other courts I practice in. I spend extra time on attempting to keep a very tight format.

            A US Tax Judge actually lauded me on my pre-trial motion. He reprimanded opposing counsel in open court for their sloppy brief and told them to write more like me. I by far am not the best, but TNR and Courier New have always worked for me, and they don’t piss judges off. And yes, I have had my head ripped off by a judge, too, just not for writing style. IMO its just not worth risking pissing a judge off.

            Do what works for you. I just think its unwise from my experience. I’ve had some really cool judges, and I have had some really mean judges. Sometimes even the nice ones have bad days. So don’t give them a reason to take it out on you is all I’m saying. They spend all day reading briefs.

            • Avatar Sam Glover says:

              I was just using the example you gave. “Preferably in Times New Roman” presents a different issue, but it’s the same question: what room do you have to choose a different font?

              It’s hard to know how strong a preference that actually is without having practiced in that court and talking to some judges and staff. Maybe it’s better to follow the preference, but maybe it’s just there as an afterthought or as a safeguard against lawyers who would otherwise use Arial or Comic Sans and the judges wouldn’t mind at all if you use a more legible, proportional, serif book font.

              • Avatar Venus65 says:

                And back to my original point, that is why I suggested looking at the court rules, Judges’ Supplements, and General Orders. Judges read legal briefs a large chunk of the day. I’m sure my cranky butt would get upset about people using ugly, unreadable or irregular fonts, too, if I were a judge. You can hate on TNR all you want, but it is a safe default. Most courts accept it, unless otherwise stated. And again, if you don’t know the court, why risk it? I mean, you can, but it may end up biting you in the butt.

  7. Avatar Karen Cole says:

    I have a different view on the one-space/two-spaces controversy, that has nothing to do with the historical basis for the two-space rule. When we talk, we leave a little space between sentences to let a sentence sink in. We don’t just talk in a monotone at the same rate sentence after sentence. Two spaces between written sentences, for me, allows the meaning of the sentence to sink in. So — I’m sticking with two spaces.

    • Avatar Sam Glover says:

      I’ve definitely heard that from others, but nobody has managed to explain why a single space is insufficient to signal a pause. Do you plow right through children’s books? When reading a novel are you left breathless by the speed of the prose?

      I’m guessing you have no trouble adding a mental pause to all the things you read every day that have just one space to signify it. Pick any book in the library at random and unless it was self-published or ancient, it will have one space between sentences. Even most self-published authors know to use just one space. The holdouts are mostly lawyers who think they know better than typography experts adn the publishing industry.

      • Avatar Karen Cole says:

        Simple answer: There is one space between every word in a sentence. Two spaces after a sentence signals that there should be more of a pause between sentences than between words.

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