Formatting an Appellate Brief in Microsoft Word

The appellate brief is undoubtedly one of the most complex pleadings, formatting-wise. Formatting requirements vary from court to court, and some go so far as to dictate the size and font of your type, your margins, and your line spacing. Even before you consider the text of your argument, you have to wrap your head around which pages have which style of page numbers, whether you must furnish a table of authorities, and how you have to deal with any appendices or references to the record.

First, take a deep breath. Unless this is the first time anyone in your firm has ever submitted a brief in that particular court, someone probably has a sample for you to look at. Armed with that and a copy of the court’s rules, you can start putting together the skeleton of your brief:

Sample Format Summary - 11th Circuit Court of Appeals

Sample Format Summary – 11th Circuit Court of Appeals

Obviously, one tutorial can’t cover all of the possible permutations of briefing requirements. With a knowledge of how some common elements work, though, you can successfully tackle virtually any court’s requirements.1

Step One: Build the Skeleton with Sections

One of the most common requirements of appellate briefs is that they are divided into multiple parts requiring distinct page numbers. In Microsoft Word, this means you need to divide the document using section breaks to enable a specific page setup for each section. Using the 11th Circuit requirements as an example, Section 1 (which would have no page number) would be the cover page. Section 2 (the first page of which would be numbered with a lowercase roman numeral “i”) would contain preliminary information such as the Certificate of Interested Persons, Statement Regarding Oral Argument, Table of Contents, and Table of Authorities. Section 3 (the first page of which would be numbered with an Arabic numeral “1”) would be the body of the brief. Depending on the case, a subsequent section may be needed for references to the record or other appendices.

Even if you plan on doing wholesale copy-and-paste maneuvers from the previous brief, it’s helpful to start with a blank Microsoft Word document and insert the several sections.

Section breaks are very much like regular page breaks, except they allow you to have page formatting for each section.

In dividing your document into sections, you need to be able to see what you are doing. That means turning on all of the visual indicators that show you where paragraph breaks, tabs, and section breaks have been inserted. To do that, go to the Home tab and click on the button that looks like a paragraph symbol (¶). This is called the Show/Hide button and can be toggled on and off as needed.

Now you are ready to start sectioning your document. To insert a section break, go to the Page Layout tab and click Breaks, then click Next Page under the Section Breaks section:

Once you have done that twice, you have the three basic sections needed for your appellate brief: the cover page, the section containing the various preliminary information, and the main fact and argument section.

Here’s how you insert the page numbers in the footer of each section so that they number and format independently:

(If you’re using an older version of Word, you can find a video with instructions for Word 2010 here.)

Step Two: Format Headings

Office for Lawyers author Ben Schorr has observed that Styles is by far the most important feature to learn in Microsoft Word. Not only does Styles help ensure uniformity of formatting throughout a complex document, Styles also drives other features like Tables of Contents. You will need to have at least some facility with Styles in an appellate brief.

Specifically, you want to decide how you want your first-, second-, and third-level headings to appear in your brief (bold versus regular type, underlining, indentation and hanging indents, numbering, etc.).

The simplest way to get a jump on your headings styles is to alter the existing ones in your document. You can right-click on a style listed on the Home tab and then choose Modify to change settings like font, type size, bold, underline, indentation, and more.

Perhaps the easiest way to get a heading style to look exactly the way you want is to apply formatting to some text in your brief (just type a sample heading for this purpose and delete it later), select the re-formatted text with your mouse, then right-click the heading you want to restyle and choose Update to Match Selection (the first choice shown in the first illustration above). This will save you from having to go through a maze of menus you may not be familiar with.

You might be wondering why you might need all these styles. Here are three reasons:

  1. Defining your heading styles up front will enable you to apply them throughout your appellate brief with a single click. Because these are technically paragraph styles, you can place your cursor inside your heading text and single-click on the heading Style in the Styles section of the Home tab to format the heading instantly.
  2. If you use Styles to format all your headings, and you later decide to change the formatting of, for instance, your first-level heading, you can change the style and all the headings within the brief will reformat themselves.
  3. The styles for headings 1-9 are automatically pulled into the Automatic Table of Contents, thus saving you the trouble of having to mark heading entries. You’re going to have your hands full marking the Table of Authorities entries as it is.

Two other styles you will definitely want to change while you’re here:

  • Normal, particularly if the court requires a font you don’t normally use like Courier New. Changing the font on the Normal Style will cascade that change down to other Styles like footnote text automatically.
  • Speaking of Footnote Text, most Word templates as delivered will format footnote text (as opposed to the footnote number) as 2 points smaller than regular text. If the court specifies a particular type size but doesn’t specifically allow footnote text to be smaller, double-check with the court and change that Style globally now to avoid an oversight later. Briefs get kicked back by clerks for that reason alone.

The Normal Style is in the Styles area of the Home tab. The Footnote Text Style, however, is deliberately hidden from view. To dig that out, drill down into the Manage Styles dialog box. Click the launcher arrow (circled in red below) to bring up the Styles Pane, then click the Manage Styles button as shown below.


You’ll get this dialog box. Switch the view to Alphabetical (the red box) and make sure Show recommended styles only is unchecked (the green box). Those two actions will make it possible to see every available Style and find Footnote Text (circled in blue) easily.


Click the Modify button, and you’ll see this dialog box:


Checking Add to the Styles gallery is optional.

Step Three: Write Your Appellate Brief

While that’s a deceptively simple sounding step, there’s an important reason for writing now rather than doing more formatting work. Steps like inserting a Table of Contents or Table of Authorities or even marking citations are best left for when the text of your brief is close to its final form. Because of the way Microsoft Word uses fields in these features, it’s better to not be moving large chunks of text around or doing major editing with these fields embedded in the brief. Otherwise, you risk mangling a Table of Authorities beyond repair.

Step Three Caveat: Drop in Text from Another Brief (Carefully!)

The problem with dropping in text in wholesale fashion is that it carries with it various codes that can mess up your current brief. That may include Table of Contents and Table of Authorities codes that don’t match up to your current brief. It’s better to strip out that formatting.

After you open up the “copy-from” brief, open a brand-new blank Word document (CTRL-N or File > New). Paste the text you want to copy into that staging document rather than your brief-in-progress. This will give you a safe environment in which to do your cleanup work. To ensure you’re pasting everything as-is, use the Paste button on the Home tab to choose Keep Source Formatting.


Now, strip out all those unwanted codes without altering the rest of the formatting (italics, etc.).

Press CTRL-H to bring up the Find and Replace dialog box, or find the Replace button on the extreme right-hand side of the Home tab:


To strip out all of the Table of Authorities (TA) and Table of Contents (TC) codes embedded in your pasted text, type ^d TA or ^d TC (yes, there’s a space between the “d” and the “T”).


Each time, you should get a confirmation that those codes have been removed.


It’s now safe to copy the text from your staging document to your brief-in-progress.

Step Four: Insert Your Table of Contents

Once the editing of your brief’s main text is nearly finished, you can move toward putting in the Table of Contents. Since you’ve used Styles for your headings, the Table of Contents will be relatively simple. Just go to the References tab and, over on the left, click Table of Contents and choose one of the automatic tables in the list:

If the default formatting of the Table of Contents isn’t to your liking, you can reformat whichever element you like so that your new formatting stays intact even if you re-generate the table. The trick is figuring out which Style controls each element since these are typically not listed in the Styles on the Home tab. Here’s a video that should clarify the process:

Since you haven’t actually marked any citations, you can’t insert a Table of Authorities yet. That’s okay, because marking citations is the next step.

Step Five: Mark Your Citations

As long as you know your Bluebook, marking citations for a Table of Authorities is fairly straightforward. Find your first citation and select it with your mouse or keyboard. Then either use the keyboard shortcut ALT-SHIFT-I (which works in all versions of Microsoft Word from 2002 on up) or click on the Mark Citation button on the References tab:

Either way, you will get a dialog box that looks like this:

Choose the Table of Authorities category (case, statute, etc.) you want that citation to appear in, then make the necessary changes to the short citation beneath. If you’re certain that you have been consistent in using the same short citation for that case throughout your brief, you can use the Mark All button to mark all of the subsequent citations of that case. However, you may be wise to go through the brief manually to make sure you pick up everything.

Here’s where clicking Show/Hide (¶) on the Home tab comes in handy, because now you’ll see the field codes that signify a marked citation:

Here’s a quick video demonstration:

(If you’re using an older version of Word, you can find a video with instructions for Word 2010 here.)

Once you have marked all your citations, you can insert your Table of Authorities from the References tab. That button is on the far right end of the References tab.

You will get a dialog box that looks like this:

Click on each category and make sure the formatting is correct (most of the time, it should be fine).

If you want to modify the Style for any entries once you’ve generated your Table of Authorities, use the same trick demonstrated in the Table of Contents headings above. The easiest way to find out what Style is being used by any element in your document is to click your cursor inside that element, then press SHIFT-F1 to bring up the Reveal Formatting pane on the right. You can then click the hyperlink above the Style name to change the formatting.


Step Six: Turn Off Show/Hide and Update All Fields

Once you have marked all your citations and inserted all your Tables, you will want to make sure hidden text is hidden and everything has been updated before printing or saving to PDF. First, go to the Home tab and make sure the Show/Hide button (¶) is toggled off. Then, select the entire text of the document using the shortcut key CTRL-A and press F9 to update all fields.

Post-Filing: Make a Template to Shorten the Process for Your Next Appellate Brief

You may be wondering why it isn’t easier just to make a template to begin with. After all, typically you start with a template and end up with a finished brief.

That is totally logical, but here’s the thing: to make a really good template that you can use for all your future briefs, you really need to understand the process of formatting a brief. And the only way to really understand it is to have struggled through it at least once from scratch. If you have been through this whole exercise, you probably changed your mind a few times about certain formatting choices like your headings. Once you have filed a finished brief, that is the perfect time to strip out the case-specific stuff and save the bare-bones file as a Microsoft Word template.

To resave your document as a template file, go to the File tab and, instead of saving it as a regular Word document (.docx), click the drop-down list and choose Word Template (*.dotx):

Depending on which operating system and Office version you’re using, Microsoft Word often designates a specific default location on your hard drive. Word 2016 allows users to designate their own default location, which makes them accessible via the File > New command:

That Personal link isn’t available in Word 2016 by default; you have to add it.2 To add a default location for personal templates, click on the File tab, choose Options, and then go to Save. You’ll get a dialog box that looks like this:


Once you have created your new template and saved it in the right place, you’re ready to use it for your next brief. Just go to File > New and click on Personal, then find your appellate brief template in the list. When you double-click on it, Microsoft Word will create a new document using your template. If at any point, you want to revise your template, you will need to navigate to it using Windows Explorer and double-click on the .dotx file itself. After you’ve made any necessary adjustments, save the file and close it.

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

  2. In earlier Word versions, Windows assigns a personal template folder. To find it, type this into Windows Explorer’s top address box: %appdata%/Microsoft/Templates.