Book Review: Typography for Lawyers

When Jason Wilson offered me a copy of  Matthew Buttricks  Typography for Lawyers, he mumbled something about having already sent a copy to Mark Bennett.  I suspect he thought I would be upset that he sent it to Bennett first, but I understood completely.  I’ve seen Bennett’s blawg, and if there was ever a typography ER room, he would be there stat.

Despite my far younger pal’s typographical fixations, my own experienced derived from my trusty Royal, later replaced by my IBM Selectric III.  Old habits are hard to break, and these were habit causing devices.  But Butterick made his point, as Bryan Garner’s intro says, irrefutable.  We do things because that’s how we do things.  We could do things better.

There are some aspects of the book that one simply has to accept on faith, such as the unmentioned worst font in the history of lawyering, which Butterick won’t name but notes it rhymes with Bariel.  Also unmentioned are any fonts beginning with the word “Funky” and ending with “Chicken,” his point being that we’re lawyers and our work doesn’t come off nearly as persuasive when presented in a gimmicky fashion.

Typography for LawyersThat’s largely the point of this book, that by adopting the ways of typographers, without having to reinvent the typography wheel with every point made, we can make our work appear more professional, poised and persuasive.  To the extent we suffer the ways of old, they were the product of typewriter limitations, not good choices.  Somebody knew it back then, and tried to do the best they could.  Today, we no longer suffer the same limitations, which means that we have no excuse.

Perhaps the most contentious point in the book is the elimination of double spaces after a punctuation mark.  I’ve always done that.  I’m still doing that here.  Hah, try and stop me, Butterick!  That, by the way, was the one exclamation mark I’m alotted in this post.  On the other hand, I don’t believe I have ever used an exclamation mark in a document I’ve submitted to any court. 

Many of Butterick’s Rules comport with what I’ve been doing for years.  I hate underling, and loved the fact that I could put case names in italics.  I have done so since it became feasible, and hope to never underline again.  I’m generally not inclined toward the use of bold or italics for emphasis, as I hope to achieve sufficient emphasis through my word choice.   Sometimes I do it for fun here, but almost never in a brief.

Some of the Rules struck me as too much work for the benefit.  It makes me wonder why, if these rules are so standard within the typography industry, computer makers have chosen defaults that require an awful lot of attention for very little punch.  I mean, whether the “x” used in a mathematical equation is the letter “X” or the math symbol, doesn’t strike me as a game changer.  But then, math symbols generally cause me to break out in hives, so you can’t go by me.  And let’s not start with curley quotation marks, an inviolate rule.

The book is filled with nuggets, rationale’s and mechanics to make our papers look better.  No, they won’t make a loser appeal into a winner, but like wearing a decent suit to court, or polishing your shoes, it’s one less detriment and one more benefit.  Butterick’s point, and mine, is that there’s no good reason not to do it as well as it can be done.  The book is a quick read, and one to keep on hand for reference, kinda like the Blue Book, the Essential Chester Barnard and Strunk & White.

I know, I’m still double-spacing after my periods, but some habits are hard to break. 

22 thoughts on “Book Review: Typography for Lawyers

  1. Paul B. Kennedy

    Scott, Ariel is so much cleaner than Times New Roman. Serifs are too clunky. Ariel has a much more modern feel to it. It’s also easier on the eyes.

    I will, however, agree that one should double space after a period.

  2. SHG

    Uh oh.  The typographical police are on their way to your office.  Quick, Paul, buy the book and tell them nothing.

  3. Jason Wilson

    I’m fine with the double spacing for now. Soon modern word processors will default to ignoring them, just like HTML. That’ll teach you nonconformists.

  4. Kathleen Casey

    I won’t quit double spacing after periods either but for line spacing have learned to use one-and-a-half rather than double space. It’s as easy on the eyes, just about anyway, presents less of a monstrosity in thickness when that’s a factor, and saves paper by 25%.

    What’s the thing about curley versus straight quotation marks? Who cares?

  5. Lurker

    As a scientist, I’d like to note that the word processors have not been designed for math use. It is possible to write acceptable math with MS Word but it does not look really professional. For a professional look, you need real dedicated software or, better still, Latex.

    However, if you use usual x as a symbol for multiplication, that’s a real error. It is akin to spelling “they’re” instead of “their”. Nonetheless, with real numbers, I prefer using middledot (\cdot) instead of cross.

  6. SHG

    If you’re having trouble with the curley thingies, just wait until you get to the ligatures.  It will make your head explode.

  7. Mark Bennett

    Here’s Butterick’s response to your resolve to keep putting two spaces after periods: “I’m telling you the rule. If you want to put personal taste ahead of the rule, I can’t stop you. But personal taste does not neutralize the rule. It’s like saying “I don’t like how the subjunctive tense sounds, so I’m never going to use it.”

    Microsoft Word’s “one-and-a-half” spacing is about 175% line spacing (line height = 1.75× point size). Butterick recommends line spacing of 120-145% of the point size.

    Seriously: buy the book. If you publish anything that matters, you’ll find at least one gem in it that pays for itself.

  8. Brian Gurwitz

    When I started my practice last year, I found Matthew Buttrick’s blog. After doing serious soul searching, I decided to make Sabon my word processing font of choice.

    Since making that decision, my practice has gone swimmingly. And I’ve even lost a few pounds.

    Everything I have, I owe to him. And to Sabon.

  9. Dave W.

    As a guy who writes patent applications (often with equations) for a living, I would like to say that it is a shame that the convention is to put equations in the text, rather than in the Figures. If the equations were understood to go in the Figures, it would be much easier to use “Latex” (or even handwritten equations) rather than MS word math editor or other similar word processing solutions. Sometimes the problem is convention, rather than software.

  10. John Burgess

    Already done. Both MS Word and Word Perfect have optional setting to convert double spaces to single spaces. With proportional fonts now the norm, a double space can make a line or paragraph look really funky. They were fine, even necessary, in the days of monospaced type fonts. Today, they’re counterproductive, if productive is defined (at least in part) as ‘looking good’.

  11. Lee

    Ok, so no more Comic Sans? That’s a game changer.

    Seriously though, here is my question for the folks who have used this, am I going to have to spend lots of time applying what I’ve learned to each document I create or is much of it stuff I can essentially set up a template for and be off and running? I’m willing to spend a day or two setting up a really nice template that will serve me and others for years to come, I’m not willing to spend an extra half hour on every brief making it pretty.

  12. Jason Wilson


    You’ll read, spend some time setting up templates, and be done. Obviously, you’ll have to decide on font choices, but Matt gives you plenty of options, and the codes to see the live samples off his website are very useful. For $25, it’s good advice.

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