Years ago, when the manuscript for my first novel was ready for print, we had to decide what the book would look like and that included the cover, but more importantly, the typography of the main text. I spent weeks looking through books in my library to decide which had the most appealing text fonts. Quite frankly, some fonts will put you off a document before you even read the first word. Most people use 12-point Times New Roman font for their documents because this is usually the default font type on many word processors. Before writing my novel, I never cared to explore what other fonts looked like on screen or in print. I was stuck on Times New Roman and had a running battle with my late cousin, Efere Ozako, who preferred to read Comic Sans. When he would send me a document for my input, I would change the text to Times New Roman before I could read it. I don’t know if that shows my dislike for Comic Sans or my comfort with Times New Roman.
Lawyers have to follow writing conventions defined by the profession and some defined by the firm that they work for. Either way, there are rules to follow, but there is a global shift towards making the law and legal writing more accessible. Legal writing is complex and impenetrable enough as it is which is why in addition to paying close attention to writing style, lawyers and legal writers must also learn the basics in typography – the visual component of the words in a document (font type, size and style, margin size, line spacing, paragraph justification, capitalisations, etc). Some of the recommendations are to use 1.25 inch page margins, single space after a period, avoid underlining, and do not put large chunks of text in all-capitals.
The Times New Roman font, which makes an appearance in most documents, was designed for newspapers, and is therefore unsuitable for writing that must be retained and digested long after the reader puts the document down. The font transforms under the ink of a conventional printing press machine in a way that our desk printers cannot achieve. For this reason, Times New Roman is the least desired font for legal writing, say the experts. Lawyers are encouraged to use fonts that were designed for books because they look better in print for documents such as motions and briefs. Fonts like Goudy, Bookman Old Style, and Book Antiqua, are good fonts to use. You may be thinking that this is all hogwash, but years of scientific research prove that there is a correlation between typography, reading comprehension and content retention.
Matthew Butterick, an American lawyer, typographer and author, has dedicated a lot of time to teaching lawyers about dressing their writing for every occasion (from the look of a business card to hierarchical headings in a brief). Butterick holds a first degree in Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard University, and also studied mathematics and letterpress printing. Before becoming a lawyer, he worked as a designer of digital fonts. Butterick’s website (typographyforlawyers.com) is worth checking out and his book with the same title has great reviews. He has designed fonts suitable for lawyers and won the Legal Writing Institute’s 2012 Golden Pen Award for Excellence in Legal Writing. With his qualifications and achievements, he must know what he is talking about.
As if this is not worry enough, new technology brings up new concerns. A recent article in the Columbia Business Law Review titled, “Writing a Brief for the iPad Judge”, reports that, “… a quiet revolution is occurring: more and more judges are reading briefs primarily on iPads or other tablets”. The article highlights some of the issues that lawyers must be aware of when writing a document that will be read on an iPad or tablet screen. The article advices that a brief written to be read on an iPad should differ from one written for text in three main ways: it should use fewer footnotes to avoid the difficulty of continually scrolling up and down, should use a different font suited for reading on a screens (Georgia and Constantia look good on paper and screen), and should avoid confusing hierarchical organization. Matthew Butterick, in his website, suggests a shift from the traditional hierarchical headings starting with Roman numerals, followed by capital letters then Arabic numbers and so on, to a simple tiered numbers format, e.g., 1 then 1.2, 1.2.1, and so on.
We are probably not at a point where writing for the iPad judge is of primary concern, but this is something that lawyers here should keep in mind as they communicate with their peers, clients and other target readers. Besides, revolutions are highly infectious these days. It may not be long before the tech-winds blow this revolution through our courts.
The point here is that within the rules and writing conventions in the profession, lawyers must pay attention to typography. Even though the substance of the writing is unchanged, the presentation of the writing will determine whether the reader stays long enough to appreciate the substance or not.
Kaine Agary is a writer and law enthusiast living in Lagos, Nigeria