By Kelly Laycock
With the recent push for modernization in terms of plain language and access to justice for the public, why hasn’t anyone pushed to bring not only the content but also the style of our documents into the modern era? As it turns out, there are a few pushers out there.
A few months ago I came across an online book of typography (the style, arrangement or appearance of printed letters on a page) called Butterick’s Practical Typography by Matthew Butterick (typographer turned lawyer). I found the simple structure and easily accessible online content a perfect reference for formatting issues that come up in my daily working life. Here is the premise of his book (as found in his introduction):
This book is based on three principles.
- Good typography is part of good writing.
- As a professional writer, you should hold your documents to the same standards as professionally published material. Why? Because your documents are professionally published material.
Moreover, much of what writers consider proper typography is an accumulation of bad habits and urban legends. These will be set aside in favor of professional typographic habits.
- Any writer can master the essentials of good typography.
Yes, yes and yes. I agree! So when I later came across a mention of this wonderfully practical and comprehensive intro to typography in a SLAW article, I was over the moon! It turns out I’m not alone in thinking about the issue of bringing our legal documents into the twenty-first century!
And what’s more, I learned about another book by Butterick: Typography for Lawyers. In the Foreword of this book, Bryan A. Garner, the editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary, sums up both the usefulness of this title and my frustrations exactly:
Here’s how to use this book if you’re a supervising lawyer (Sarah) dealing with an associate (Ralph):
“Ralph, thanks for the memo. I’m looking forward to reading it. But…”
“Is there a problem?”
“Well, yes. Frankly, I don’t want to read it. You’re underlining case names, you’re putting two spaces after periods, and the font is just ghastly. I could spend 30 minutes making it presentable, but I want the associates who work with me to do that in the first place. Do you own Butterick?”
“Butterick. Typography for Lawyers. Here, take my copy home tonight. I’ll need it back tomorrow. Learn this stuff, please. I want all your writing for me to comply with Butterick. Got that?”
“Sure, Sarah. Thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Tomorrow will be a very new day.
I want tomorrow to be a very new day!
Of course some might buck this idea. After all, there is a historical context to consider; from the robes lawyers and judges wear to the Legalese legal professionals speak, the profession chooses to remain more “traditional”. And the traditions in legal writing and formatting go back to the era of the typewriter (and beyond). While there is nothing wrong with traditional, per se, even traditional needs an overhaul once in a while to avoid becoming antiquated.
And that is the great thing about typography: people are creating modern fonts that maintain the “traditional” style but that look and function like modern fonts. And sometimes the difference between a bracketed serif and a hairline serif is so subtle, that the untrained eye may not see the difference. But to those who deal with these issues daily, that subtle difference can have a huge impact on whether we perceive a document as outdated or modern. (Just try to read a document written on a typewriter now, and you will know what I mean!)
Of course, I’m certainly no expert, but people like Butterick are, and they are doing what they can to help the rest of us see the light.
…a beautiful document is a readable document, one that pleases if only subliminally and then gets out of the way with grace. And a readable document is, well, one that actually gets read. Enter the typographer.
—Simon Fodden, from the SLAW article “Lawyer Type”
SLAW has published many articles on typography, and Mr. Butterick has joined in some of the discussions. Here are a few interesting articles that talk about this matter more:
“What’s your font of choice for legal documents” by Dan Michaluk
“A Typeface Designed for Lawyers” by Simon Fodden
“Lawyer Type” by Simon Fodden
“Rethinking the Way a Court Formats and Publishes Its Judgments” by Melanie Bueckert