Typography for Lawyers

Typography for Lawyers1.jpeg I’m not a lawyer. Typography for Lawyers isn’t just for lawyers. It’s for anyone who cares about how text looks in print or on the Web. The author, Matthew Butterick, is a lawyer, and also a professional typographer who has created several original commercial fonts. Butterick’s main point is that appearance matters for anyone making or reading a written argument. Most any written communication is an argument of some sort. Most legal communication is unnecessarily ugly. So, I would add, is most everyday business communication. In a clear, coherent, and personable way, Butterick guides the reader through seemingly mundane matters like font, font size, paragraph format, line spacing, em dashes, en dashes, and the rest. He makes a case for what looks good, what doesn’t, and why it matters. He supplies plenty of visual examples. While some material will interest only attorneys, those parts don’t break the flow for the general reader. Anyone who uses a computer is also a user of typography, even if few people take that fact seriously.
Other top-notch typography books are available. One is the previously reviewed classic Elements of Typographic Style. But like most, Elements is aimed mainly at serious students of typography and typography pros. Butterick's book assumes no knowledge of the subject and focuses on the what to do, and how to do it. -- Russ Mitchell Typography for Lawyers Matthew Butterick 2010, 220 p. $25 http://www.typographyforlawyers.com/ Sample Excerpt: typography-lawyers2.jpg Comment on this at Cool Tools. Or, submit a tool!


  1. I was alerted to Butterick’s website a few years ago and found it enormously helpful. I’ve relied on a few of his suggestions with positive results. I’d be interested to review the book.

  2. If laying out a web page was as easy as, say, using Quark was in the ’90s, more people might take it seriously. As it is, if you want to begin your paragraphs with bigger letters, use a non-traditional font that looks good on the web, have your text wrap around images, or even justify your text, you will need some coding experience.

    Granted, CSS isn’t rocket science, but it’s not as easy as Microsoft Word, and for some people that’s all the incentive they need to go with a WordPress or Blogger template. It’s simple enough to lay out a design in Photoshop, and sure, getting it to display on your web page is simple enough, but try adding links and you’re back to using tables. Or worse. Lots of people know how to design for the web, but plenty of writers don’t.

    What tamplates lack in refinement, they more than makes up for in ease of use. And you’re right… few people take it very seriously. Writers and readers alike.

      1. Quark wasn’t so bad once they got rid of those stupid parent/child boxes. Man, THOSE damn things were counter-intuitive. After that change, Quark always had superior text-handling capabilities, too – it made PageMaker look like a cranky old stuck-in-the-past joke in comparison.

      2. Ah, Quark in the 90’s– once you learned to use it, it was a thing of beauty. I made good money doing page layout in those days. I remember the first time I had to do my resume when I changed careers. I didn’t have Quark and was forced to use WordPerfect. That was painful.

    1. The tricky bit of web design isn’t the coding, it’s the immense amount of behavioural psychology and design know-how that’s required.

      Anyone can create a page with a few pretty boxes on it and stick it on the net.

      Ultimately code and design go hand in hand. But simply put – templates are for personal sites or hobbyists.

  3. He says he doesn’t like Arial.

    The main reason I use it is because it is near the top of the pulldown menu.

  4. I’d think a guy who’s so clever about typography would pick a cover font that didn’t make his name look like MATTHEW BUTTFUCK when reduced.

    Seriously. Every time I see it.

  5. I dunno. People should maybe forget grandiose visions of creative typography and just learn LaTeX.

    Ok ok I can’t resist!

    I’m with you. Most people don’t have aesthetic sense and even some who do choose miss-apply their skills. LaTeX is a great ‘good enough’ solution that it is hard to mess up, and though the new versions of Word have gotten much better about the way styles, auto-numbered items, captions, etc. are handled, I’ve found LaTeX to be much more reliable.

    But that ship has sailed. I don’t think anyone uses it outside of academia. I know I stopped using it when I graduated and moved to industry. Even if I wanted to use it, and could force my coworkers to get trained, It wouldn’t work. Our esteemed customer specifies very explicitly that all communications be in MS Word documents (.doc only, no .docx) formatted with 12 point Arial and one inch margins. It’s right there in the requests for quote and the statements of work. Comply or be rejected.

  6. In the sample excerpt you show he makes several poor typographic choices.

    Like using ALL CAPS and even BOLD ALL CAPS for emphasis when italic would be a far better choice. He’s not even consistent about it, why set “Ariel” that way, and not “Helvetica” two words later? Then he sets the font names (excluding Helvetica) in a sans-serf font, where his body text is serifed, but he uses the same sans face for all the font names. Either set them in actual Ariel, Franklin, etc, or use the same serif face as in the body.

    Even recommending sans-serif for body text is sketchy advice, and simply taking a cheap shot at Ariel doesn’t make it OK.

    Makes one wonder what other sage advice he offers?

    1. Because you’re already being picky: Ariel is a name, a Disney mermaid, a washing powder, and a British car company – but it is not a common typeface, unlike Arial.

  7. I recently participated in a project to create a website that could take in a .doc file and return a PDF in a predetermined style complete with tables, figures, photos, sidebar quotes, the list goes on and on. The center of that process was LaTeX. We were able to get within 1/100th of an inch of specs.

    LaTeX is not over

    You cant compare Word to HTML. The comparison should be to a WYSIWIG program such as Dreamweaver. You never see Word at code level, do you?

  8. “Our esteemed customer specifies very explicitly that all communications be in MS Word documents (.doc only, no .docx) formatted with 12 point Arial and one inch margins. It’s right there in the requests for quote and the statements of work. Comply or be rejected.”

    There is room in these specs for everything from ugly to beautiful documents. Take some time. It can make a big difference in outcome.

  9. I refuse to accept a single space between sentences. Two spaces follow a period ending a sentence. This is the rule. It has always been the rule, and it shall always be the rule. It was good enough for your father, and it shall be good enough for you.


  10. “The Mac is Not a Typewriter” or “The PC is Not a Typewriter” by Robin Williams are books I’ve recommended in the past on this topic.

  11. As mentioned before the sample excerpt has several flaws. I would also like to point out that Helvetica wasn’t designed for extended reading but for bills and signs.

    As a typographer I thought Quark Xpress was intuitive then. They lost me with their dongle.

  12. There aren’t any errors. This is an excerpt. It could be that the first time Helvetica is mentioned it is set as Helvetica. Notice that the second time Arial appears it is in the default serif font also. The others, Franklin, Univers, and Syntax are set in those fonts, such a small sample is not going to make the differences obvious.

    Studies have shown that the eye has no preference for or against serifs in body text. Paragraphs set san-serif have become very common, reflecting that fact.

    You know, when you say “often” and prounce the “T” it sounds wrong to me. That is my problem. Things change.

    1. Please notice that the name Helvetica in the excerpt is set in the same serif font and not in Helvetica which is a grotesk.

      The names Arial, Franklin, Univers and Syntax are all set in the same font. If they were set in different fonts then you could see a difference in the types at any type size as the fonts have different wides, cuts etc.

      Show me just one serious study that finds that readability doesn’t differ in different fonts. Font choices don’t matter for the eyes but they do for the brain.

      1. If there is a serious study that proves that seriffed fonts are more readable, I would be pleased if you have a link or two to share.

      2. “Please notice that the name Helvetica in the excerpt is set in the same serif font and not in Helvetica which is a grotesk.”

        What I meant and failed to say was that there was an instance of Helvetica above the excerpt we are looking at that was set in Helvetica. This is a guess, but explains why the first instance we see is not. Then we see the first instance of Arial set in Arial and the second instance set in the default. A pattern.

  13. I teach high school college-bound Seniors. Even at that age, despite the efforts of all of their former teachers to beat it out of them, they’re all about the fonts — the more, the better, and the bigger, the better, too. I instruct them that, when they get to college, if their professor does not specify presentation criteria, an acceptable default for academic papers is Times New Roman, 12 pt, double-spaced, 1-inch margins all around. No “extra” lines between paragraphs; that’s why God made indentation. Also, for Her sake if for no one else’s, please please please NO CLIP ART! Or colored paper. Or colored text. Or big, shadowed titles. Or borders.

    How’s my default criteria? Does it need to be updated? It doesn’t have to cure world hunger; it just needs to be an acceptable presentation default for a college freshman.

  14. If you write an SBIR proposal for the government, they specify 12-point Times Roman. These guys have to read dozens of long proposals, and they know that Arial, favorite font of engineers, is painful to read.

    If you submit a proposal in another type, they will reject it without reading it. No long body text should be written in a sans-serif font if you want people to read it (especially ad copy, which people pay you to get right).

  15. How about instead I let Mr. Butterick pay me $25, and I’ll let him learn my tricks and practices as learned over the last 30 years of practicing law — a time that has almost completely coincided with the adoption of “word processing” and then “desktop publishing” in the personal computer realm.

  16. FWIW in your evaluation of Mr. Butterick, he’s systematically deleted — without explanation or tracks — roughly a half-dozen polite, non-profane but disagreeing comments I’ve left on his website.

    That’s his right, of course. But it reflects a degree of insecurity that’s typical among lawyers who’ve only been in practice for three or four years.

    Look, this is the kind of stuff law review editors have been dealing with day in and day out for many, many decades longer than Mr. Butterick has been alive. He’s got some good suggestions, and he’s got some that are just silly. Why anyone would spend $25 for his collected wisdom is beyond me, but to each his own and caveat emptor.

  17. I’m a little confused. First, if he’s some sort of authority, why is he persisting in furthering the modern myth that the word ‘font’ is interchangeable with ‘typeface’? Also, this bothers me: “mundane matters like … em dashes, en dashes, and the rest” – is Butterick telling readers how to use these? That’s not typography, that’s simply punctuation. Or is he weighing the pros and cons of typefaces based on their rendering of em-rules? Isn’t that…a tiny bit, um, anal?

    Cynthia: My former university brought in a new requirement for essays in my last year (2009-10) which specified that all assignments had to be in 12 point Arial “in order to be more readable for dyslexic markers”. This is moderately insane, but not quite as bad as the requirement for two printed copies AND an electronic copy. Where they get the idea that dyslexic readers prefer sans serif typefaces is beyond me.

    Redrain: Whole comics/GNs in Comic Sans are OK, you know. It’s not a lovely typeface, but it’s hardly the scourge that people make it out to be. Courier, though…I just bought a book via amazon used books that is set in Courier. I opened it and instantly regretted buying it.

  18. “The late, great doyen of the New York advertising world, David Ogilvy, hailed Colin Wheildon’s research and asked him to investigate some specific questions on his behalf. Clearly focused on what his advertisements were supposed to do, sell to the max, Ogilvy made changes to his style in accordance with what the research told him.

    Until Wheildon did his research, ideas about what type and layout choices made for easy reading and what did not, were all opinion. Wheildon’s research showed that a lot of those opinions were good–but some, both positive and negative, were just not right. Yet they are still presented as though they are fact in many design schools.”

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