Short Book Review: Typography for Lawyers

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Case Western Reserve University Law School’s library.

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Matthew Butterick’s 2010 Typography for Lawyers: Essential Tools for Polished & Persuasive Documents, with a forward by legal (and non-legal) style and usage expert Bryan Garner, is a must-read for law students interested in mastering the presentational aspects of legal documents. A Los Angeles litigator with previous visual-arts experience, including as a font designer, Butterick seems to have taken maximum advantage of his unusual set of credentials in two distinct fields to have produced this book. A companion website is also full of valuable information.

While the book is relentlessly practical — laden with advice on coping with the limitations of word processors, on producing attractive copy that abides by court rules, and on structuring and formatting documents — the writing is always crisp and enjoyable. The book rewards both easy, one-sitting, reading, and repeated reference-shelf consultation. I refer back to it (or to the companion website) with some frequency. The central unifying insight of the book is that lawyers are professional writers, but that they are also professional producers of the finished documents seen by their readers; that is to say, they are publishers. Legal writing matters, and good legal writing shines through best when typographical issues like appropriate fonts, spacing, and page layout are considered with attention to the basic insights of professional typographers.

Butterick attacks the persistent habit (decades after the dawn of “desktop publishing”) of treating the physical layout and appearance of legal work-product as if we still lived in the days of typewritten manuscripts (with all of the various shortcuts and work-around conventions that emerged from the limitations of the typewriter); insisting instead that legal writers take full advantage of the ability of current tools and technologies to produce documents closer to the standards of professional publication. More specifically, Butterick argues that typography standards can be radically improved even for filings that must adhere to the most restrictive of court rules (such as those few that are still effectively mandating monospaced fonts), while at least implicitly making a case that local court rules should themselves move beyond the lingering grip of dead typewriters.

If I had to fault the book (and, on this point, especially the website) it would be for a relative lack of attention to web typography. While the word-processed document (and there is a lot in here about word processors!) obviously remains the primary stock-in-trade for Butterick’s audience, there is an increasing amount of legal writing on the web, that would ideally be delivered as web-standard HTML. Certain typographical conventions that are particularly useful for legal writing and citation, such as small caps (Like These), are difficult to accomplish using HTML and CSS. Butterick addresses the ways in which word processors also poorly handle small caps, and offers some advice (even for those unwilling to purchase fonts that include “real” small caps) to cope with those limitations. His insight into the parallel set of obstacles and work-arounds for web typography would have been very interesting to see.

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