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”. 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.

Matthew Salzwedel
Matthew R. Salzwedel is a former lead managing editor of the Minnesota Law Review. After law school, he clerked for the Minnesota Court of Appeals and practiced commercial and antitrust litigation in Minneapolis and Philadelphia. He now is corporate counsel at a Minneapolis-based company.