Book Review: Typography for Lawyers

Full disclosure: I’m a design nerd. I love good design. Good design — whether it’s in the shape of my Macbook Pro or in the syntax of the Ruby programming language — makes me happy. I notice it, and I’m willing to pay for.

In the opening pages of his exceptional book, Typography for Lawyers, Matthew Butterick reminds us that every producer — especially lawyers — should pay attention to his product’s design. But what do lawyers produce? Documents. Lots and lots of documents. But many lawyers don’t even know they should be thinking about document layout and design. Typography for Lawyers is where those lawyers should start.

For a long time, legal documents were produced on typewriters. Typewriters have a lot of limitations: one monospaced typeface, no italics, no small caps, etc. And over the years, the workarounds for those limitations became enshrined as custom in legal documents.

Think back: how many pleadings have you seen with a heading divided into two columns by asterisks, colons, or other symbols marching down the center of the page? Take this trainwreck, for example. And two spaces between sentences? Another vestigial rule from when typewriters ruled the earth. (Although some still wail and gnash their teeth when confronted with this assertion.)

Butterick wrote Typography for Lawyers for busy professionals, so no one has an excuse not to read it. His writing style is concise, pleasant to read, and makes an often dry technical subject accessible and memorable. Moreover, the book provides dozens of illustrative examples and is very well organized.

The meat of the book is organized under three major headings: type composition, text formatting, and page layout. And each heading is further divided into basic and advanced rules, with each rule getting its own entry in the table of contents for easy reference.

The type composition section covers the mechanics of using the most common (and commonly misused) characters, including both visible and whitespace characters. For example, Butterick explains the differences between curly quotation marks and straight quotation marks and shows his readers how turn smart quotation mark handling on and off in several popular word processing programs. The section also addresses less common marks like semicolons, colons, and the oft-abused hyphen. Then it transitions into the next section — all about formatting — with a description of ligatures and invisible characters like tabs, line breaks, and hard page breaks.

The next section lays out basic and advanced rules for text formatting. Underlining is out, as are goofy fonts, monospaced fonts and — if possible — system fonts. The advanced rules discuss more esoteric subjects like kerning, letterspacing, and hierarchical headings. Tucked in between this section and the next is an excellent visual comparison of fonts organized along the lines of “if you like this common font, try these similar but better ones” that I found very helpful.

The last big section gives readers the rules of print layout design. Of all the topics in the book, these are probably the least familiar to most readers. Butterick shows readers how to get the most out of their word processors. Setting automatic first-line indents, tweaking line spacing for readability, using advanced paragraph settings to control widow and orphan lines or to keep related lines together — all those topics and more are covered with specific instructions for several word processing programs. At first glance, it probably looks like voodoo to many lawyers (especially the older ones), but Butterick explains the different topics and methods clearly. (One day, I hope he’ll explain the black magic of spreadsheets to older lawyers. But that’s a topic for another book.)

And, finally, Butterick pulls it all together with a half-dozen or so before-and-after document examples. He shows transforms caption headings, motions, memos, and a few other types of documents from atrocious to pleasing and gives a step-by-step account of the changes. The finished documents are very good and are a great place to start when you inevitably get the urge to revise your form library.

Will Typography for Lawyers make you a professional typesetter? No. But will it make your documents look more professional? Absolutely. And if you find yourself wanting more, the book is an excellent jumping-off point for learning about design and typography in general. (I strongly recommend Thinking With Type, which is also listed in Butterick’s bibliography, as a primer on the subject.)

You should buy Typography for Lawyers, read it, and love it. It’s simply fantastic.

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