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Lawyers – you should be ashamed of your court captions!

By January 4, 2011law practice

Yesterday I wrote about my enthusiasm for Typography for Lawyers. I've read the book at least three times since I bought it, and I can't stop reveling in this delightful compendium of useful instruction.

The judge I worked for out of law school used to say “if something is worth doing, it's worth doing right.” By that he meant “attention to detail matters,” if it's done to create a truly better work (and not just to mindlessly follow some rule whose purpose is no longer understood). Judge Duplantier was not someone who cared about typography, but he would have loved Matthew Butterick's book because it's not about mindless application of pedantic rules. Butterick's book is about “doing things right.”

Once I saw his example of a proper court caption I realized that I was not doing my captions right.

When you see something that is “done right” you just know it in your bones. But since it's rare to see things “done right” it's easy to deceive yourself about your work product. The typical court caption page example is a wonderful example of lawyers robotically doing things in a mediocre way, even when they work in large firms that charge premium rates.

I used to work in a large firm. We did things well, but not always. Size isn't a guarantee of quality; it depends more on individual lawyers.

I combed through my case archives  to see how many respected New Orleans law firms “did the caption right.” And by “right” I mean with a single line to divide the middle section between the parties' names and the docket information (to see a proper caption click here and scroll down). I did not find one well done caption in my archives. All of these firms presumably had someone in their midst who realized that using asterisks or section symbols as the dividing lines is goofy. 

Why do they keep producing the same goofy captions?

Many law firms hire top notch graduates who have law review experience. Law review folk obsess about spaces between the So. and 2d in a case cite, but care not a whit about typography rules that enhance readability, and impart unspoken polish. Very few people can tell if a cite is supposed to have a space between two elements. But many people (even non-lawyers) can sense that one court caption is more elegant and orderly than another.

Here, for your examination is a PDF compilation of bad captions by large New Orleans law firms. They have vastly greater resources than I do, or than any small firm does, and yet they uniformly produce bad captions.

Obviously, it's more important to create a good argument than to have a nice caption. But if you are striving for excellence then it all matters. And if something is worth doing, as the Judge used to say, then it's worth doing right. Even the caption.

So how to do you do the caption properly? Well, I'm not going to lay it all out for you (buy Butterick's book), but it involves using tables and setting a line on only the bottom and side of the left hand cell. If you care about this kind of thing you'll figure it out; if you don't then you'll keep producing the bad captions and say “well, look at all the big firms that Svenson pointed to.” If they are doing it that way then it must be okay. 


They say misery loves company. Apparently, so does mediocrity.

P.S. If you're a practicing lawyer, check out this Law Practice Assessment . After answering a few questions, you'll get detailed recommendations for improving five key areas of your practice.


  • Bill Wilson says:

    Shannon, your association will benefit from the TfL book even outside court filings. Just understanding how to make documents (whether on paper in PDF) more pleasing to the eye is reason enough. I became fascinated by typography back in law school when I picked up Robin Williams’s The Mac is Not a Typewriter (written by the other Robin Williams, not the crazy comedian). Butterick’s web site was required reading for me last year, and I have changed a lot of my documents as a result.

    I also second Ernie’s recommendation for Bryan Garner’s books. Garner has a gift for making a potentially tedious topic into interesting reading.

  • I haven’t litigated in over 12 years, but this book sounds fantastic. I ordered it. As in-house counsel for an association, we do occasionally file amicus briefs in Texas and federal appellate courts. I think the $25 is well spent and my association will likely get its monies worth on the next brief we file. Thanks for recommending it. Do you have a book you recommend on writing a good brief?

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