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Typography matters, especially for lawyers

By January 3, 2011law practice

I've been reading Matthew Butterick's excellent book: Typography for Lawyers, which explains how to use typography to create polished, persuasive documents. Butterick has a website by the same name that includes most of the information in his book. To say that I'm enjoying the book is a vast understatement.

Butterick's premise is that typography in legal documents should be held to the same standards as any professionally published material, because legal documents are professionally published material. There's a wealth of information that I wish I had had access to long before now. Many times in the past I would pull a typography book off the bookstore shelves, but invariably those books were not geared to the legal profession. Learning principles was nice, but I wanted practical information.

That's why Typography for Lawyers is such a godsend.

Butterick's book explains how set up firm letterhead, legal memos, and briefs. He goes so far as to explain what font size and color to use in bates-numbering. He even explains how to set up bates-numbering in Adobe Acrobat.

Butterick graduated magna cum laude from Harvard where he studied typography. More recently, he went to UCLA law school and became a lawyer.

He's an excellent writer, and makes his case for the importance of typography with crisp precision. Any lawyer who reads this book and continues to ignore the Butterick's good advice is foolish, or lazy. Or both.

After reading the section on the problems that most trial court briefs present, I got to work and retooled my template for federal court pleadings. Like many people, I had fallen prey to pretty much every hackneyed method of creating caption pages, including the use of asterisks to create divisions between table elements. Below is a screenshot of 'Before' and ‘After’:

Brief Caption Page - Before & After

Bryan Garner wrote the Foreword to the book, and declared that Typography for Lawyers “is fully devleoped” and “reads like a fifth edition.” I couldn't agree more.

I wish this book had been around when I started practicing as a solo lawyer. Trying to figure out how to create a nice modern looking letterhead was frustrating, and so I wound up with something kind of lame. Butterick gave me so excellent tips on fonts, layout, and paper that works well with a small laser printer.

Inspired by Butterick, I started delving into the settings of my word processing program (Apple Pages) and tweaked things more to my liking. It took awhile to get everything set, but it was worth it. Now, my letterhead looks like this:

Screen shot 2011-01-03 at 8.49.04 AM

I would show you the letterhead I was using before, but I'd be embarrassed. At least I didn't pick Stencil font like the example that Butterick shows us.

Typography for Lawyers costs $25 over on Amazon, which is a bargain. Assuming you care about how your legal documents look, that is.


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:

    Ernie, I’d be interested in knowing what settings in Pages you’ve tweaked. I’m working on redesigning the letterhead I use when I send a letter by fax or PDF. Care to share your thought process with us?

  • Julie K says:

    Thanks I’ll look into the fonts.I have his book in my Amazon cart.

    Do you think they will OCR as well as say Century with Acrobat? I know to print to PDF as much as possible, but court filings with attachments get scanned and OCRed as 1 document.

    I like your new letterhead! I just got ours and still cannot believe I didn’t consider the banner at the bottom for all it’s toner use when we make copies. This will mostly apply to few forms and for that I am going to create a 2nd simplified footer, until I re-order. At least my initial quantity was smaller than usual in case I need to change the design.

  • Steffenslaw says:

    Getting lawyers to put one space after punctuation will, by itself, greatly improve matters.

  • Julie K says:

    Ernie, What fonts does your letterhead use? I just re-designed ours letterhead with a graphics artist to look more like our re-designed website. I just realize the colored 1 inch bar at the bottom with our address in white text, when photocopied and printed, will use much too much toner. While paperless we still print some forms. I am going to need to change it at least for anything we will make copies of and print.I am even wondering how much larger than scan could be vs. normal text at the bottom. I will test and see.

  • I’m greatly enjoying the book too, and until I learn everything, I keep it on my desk as a reference guide. I think the hardest thing is to retrain my brain to only place one space after a period. It’s so engrained after years of typing, that I can’t change. I still have to find and replace “. ” to “. ” after each document.

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