Microsoft Word is a powerful piece of software that conceals many of its most useful features. Unfortunately, using Word over time doesn’t improve your skill because you won’t stumble across what you really need to know. You can take classes, read a 1,000-page manual, or read these tips, which will help you learn to control the most powerful (and maddening) program you may ever use. Here are five rules to help you with your next Word document.

Rule 1: There Is A Feature For That

This is a very important rule and should be a big red flag when you are working on a document. Essentially, if you have to keep doing something over and over to get the document to look the way you want, you must be missing a feature that would make it easier. For example, if you don’t like the way your footnotes look so you are “fixing” them by selecting each one and manually changing its formatting, that would constitute an annoying, repetitive and laborious process for which there must be better approach. In that particular case, you would simply find the style called Footnote Text and change it which would instantly update all of your footnotes to the formatting you want without selecting any of them.

Rule 2: Never Create Spacing Between Paragraphs By Using Extra Hard Returns

Many legal documents have single spaced paragraphs with an extra blank line between each paragraph. Using additional hard returns to accomplish this is repetitive, annoying, and requires more (rather than fewer) keystrokes. Further, it makes it easy to end up with too many lines between paragraphs or not enough.

In fact, this is one of the things that Word users routinely look for and fix before printing a document. Word has a feature for creating vertical space between paragraphs automatically. It’s fast, requires fewer keystrokes, and will never allow you to end up with too much or not enough space between paragraphs. You can get to this setting by right clicking on your paragraph, selecting Paragraph, and going to the Indents and Spacing tab. From here, you have four options to create automatic spacing between your paragraphs.

1. Define Spacing Measurements: Generally, 6 points of space is a half line; 12 points is a full line; eighteen points is one and a half lines and twenty-four points is two lines.

2. Define Spacing Before: If you would like Word to automatically insert an extra space above each paragraph, use Spacing Before. Make the Spacing Before 12 pt. This will add a double space above each single spaced paragraph.

3. Define Spacing After: You can do the same thing as above, but the space will occur after each paragraph. Just follow the steps listed for Spacing Before only add the points to Spacing After.

4. Using Lines Rather Than Points: If you find the point system confusing, you can always erase the “pt” measure and type “1 line.” If you switch from points to lines, the up and down arrows will make adjustments in those terms.


Rule 3: Never Use Spaces To Line Up Text

Not every character occupies the same amount of horizontal space (even the same character like a space). For example, in the screen shot below, exactly five spaces were entered before and after each paragraph number. I inserted a red line into the screen shot, so you can see how misaligned the paragraphs look with the same number of spaces.

Instead of spaces, you want to use tables, tabs, and indents to line up your sentences. These methods will work perfectly and add to the professionalism of your document.

Rule 4: Strip The Formatting of Pasted Text

If you copy text from one document (or another program), you will often bring along formatting attributes foreign to the document. To avoid document issues, it is best to remove all of the formatting when you paste the text. This will allow the text to absorb the formatting of the document you’re pasting into.

The Paste Options button addresses this by giving the user the option to keep the source formatting, match the destination formatting, or strip the formatting (Keep Text Only).


Rule 5: Don’t Violate Outline Rules

Yes, there are specific rules to outline paragraph numbering and formatting which lawyers routinely violate. Here are the big two:

1. Do Not Number Only One Sub-Paragraph: If you do not have a B. paragraph, you cannot have an A. In that case, the paragraph should be un-numbered. If you have an article with a single paragraph below it before the next article, that paragraph should not be numbered. In other words, the following is incorrect. The paragraph numbered 4.01 should be un-numbered because it is the sole paragraph under that article.


2. Don’t Change Numbering Schemes In the Middle of a Document: In other words, if your document employs numbering or lettering, be consistent about its use. If you properly use Word’s multi-level list numbering, it won’t let you switch numbering schemes in the middle of a document.

Ultimately, how a document looks and its readability impacts how readers feel about you. Following these rules will create the favorable impression you need to make.

Originally published 2014-11-13.

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  1. Malby says:

    Great time to mention the Mac Word issue that we have encountered on several occasions: the disappearing footnotes. They are there but half of them seem to disappear on the screen and cause much distress. Solved by making lines=12 pt or something similar.

    My question is:

    How do you start each new document with your preferences? Fix up the Word format then paste in the text you start with using the Paste w/out formatting option? We always work from earlier documents, and sometimes from other firms’ documents–which is where the trouble with inherited hidden craziness seems to arise.

    • Lisa Solomon says:

      Create a template:

      To create a template in Word 2013,

      Adjust your styles, margins, etc. in a BLANK document.

      In the File Ribbon, select Save As, then click on the Browse button. A dialogue box will come up. The Save as Type dropdown defaults to .docx. In order to save the file as a template, you can use either the .dotx or .dotm format.

    • Larry Crossan says:

      You can also change your default new/blank document by making the changes directly in normal.dotm. Then, every time you open a new/blank document, it will have all the formatting you want.

  2. Does “use the number feature” fall under Rule 1? I’m amazed how many people do not know how to properly use Word’s numbering function. Sometimes I will get documents with a lot of numbered items (contracts, discovery questions, whatever) and lo and behold, when I go in and add an item in the middle somwhere, it’s not actually an automatically numbered list and I have to manually re-number everything. Among my top 5 “I’d rather stab my eyeballs” lawyering tasks.

    • Kirsten Weinzierl says:

      I love the “I’d rather stab my eyeballs” lawyering task! It’s amazing how so many lawyers don’t know how to format a document properly. Fortunately I love doing this kind of stuff and I love fixing these kinds of mistakes in documents. I think one of the best tools an attorney can and should use is a document processing professional. They do all those things you’d rather not do (so you don’t have to stab your eyeballs), so you can do what you do best “lawyering”. :)

    • Brian D. Day says:

      The problem that I have with the automatic numbering is that it can turn redlining into a complete mess. It’s not much of a problem if the numbering scheme is simple. But I’ve had documents with multiple levels of numbering that required more effort to format things in tracked changes than it did making the substantive edits. Depending on the size and complexity of the document, the auto-formatting can be more of a hassle than its worth.

  3. moedogs says:

    Thank you for this!

  4. Christine Retherford says:

    At my organization, after taking Barron’s two Word CLEs, I helped create our Normal.dotm template for Word 2010. It has all the proper defaults for a litigation practice, including preset styles formatted to court rule specs for briefs. We installed on every attorney’s computer & taught them to use the styles. If a style needs modified, the paralegals know how & do it. This has increased efficiency with brief writing, editing, and finalizing documents. An added bonus: using styles improves a document’s accessibility for screenreaders & we don’t have problems converting to PDF.

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