Russell Brunelle (russellb) wrote,
Russell Brunelle

Making legal documents look good

I believe a good-looking and well-written legal document should stir a lawyer’s soul, just as the sight of the Pantheon should stir a civil engineer’s soul, and just as the story of the voyage of the James Caird should stir a sailor’s soul.

But unfortunately, just as lawyers still say “give, bequeath, and devise” when they could simply say “give,” so lawyers still print documents in monospaced fonts, with tiny margins, double spacing, and two spaces after every period, merely because some of those choices made sense in the era of mechanical typewriters.

But finally, one brave soul has thrown down the gauntlet. Matthew Butterick's new book Typography for Lawyers is only five months old, but already many influential legal professionals are predicting it will become a standard reference alongside Black’s Law Dictionary (for definitions), The Bluebook (for citations), and The Redbook (for style).

Here’s how you can easily implement some of Mr. Butterick’s key ideas for making your legal documents look better:

Make the Margins Bigger. There’s a reason magazines don’t use one big column for the text of each page; text with that many characters per line tires the eye, and looks awful. So, until such time as two columns per page becomes acceptable in general legal writing (as it already may be for contracts), at least start by making the margins bigger: left and right at 2 inches, and top and bottom at 1.5 inches, would be a great start. For one column of text on letter-sized pages, there’s no quicker way to make your documents look better, and seem more sophisticated.

Don’t Doublespace. Doublespacing wastes paper, looks awful, and doesn’t improve readability. The Word 2010 default of “Multiple line spacing at 1.15” looks fine.

Select Your Font, and Font Size, Intelligently. There’s no reason to select a monospaced font for your body text, or a font which is so overused that people have formed negative associations with it. Century Schoolbook in 10pt, or Palatino Linotype in 11pt, are perfectly acceptable alternatives.

Turn on Kerning. In Word 2010, this is in the Advanced tab in the Font menu, and it should apply to anything 8 points or above.

If You Justify Text, then Turn on Hyphenation. For the most part, it's best to skip justification and stay with left alignment. But if you have to use justification, then in Word 2010 change hyphenation from “None” to “Automatic” in Page Layout->Hyphenation.

Make Sure “Smart Quotes” are On. There may be things you would benefit from turning off in Word 2010’s File->Options->Proofing->AutoCorrect Options menu, but “Straight quotes with smart quotes” isn’t one of them: that option should always stay on.

Put Only One Space After Periods. Using two spaces after periods only has a chance of making your document look better if you’re using a monospaced font like Courier, which you have absolutely no reason to do. For normal fonts, using two spaces after periods makes your document look much worse.

Never Use Underlining (or All-Caps) When You Could Use Italics (or Bold) Instead. Both underlining and all-caps are an unattractive holdover from typewriters.

Learn to Use Ellipsis, Em Dashes, and and En Dashes Properly. In Word 2010 on Windows, the respective shortcuts are Alt+Ctrl+., Alt+Ctrl+Num -, and Ctrl+Num -.

Make Smart Printing Choices. If you’re inserting high-resolution bitmap images into your document, then if you're using Word 2010 consider turning on File->Options->Advanced->Image Size and Quality->Do Not Compress Images in File. Also, assuming you’re using a laser printer, “Hammermill Ultra Laser Premium” is a good paper choice for your final printout.
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