Category Archives: Design

Lawyer, justify yourself

Some lawyers feel strongly about text justification. Here’s some background and recommendations.

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It

For legal documents, some lawyers prefer left-justified text, also called “left-aligned” text. Left-justified text creates what’s called a ragged right margin. It looks like this:

Left-justified, ragged right.

Some legal writers prefer fully justified text. Fully justified text creates clean vertical margins on the left and right, and it’s standard in most books, magazines, and professional publications. It looks like this:

Fully justified.

Which is better? The question sparks passionate debates.

In favor of left-justified text

Left-justified text looks less formal and “relaxes the page,” according to the legal-typography expert Matthew Butterick. In addition, many legal documents are left-justified, including most contracts, briefs, letters, and nearly all email messages. So left-justification has tradition and history on its side.

In addition, there’s some data suggesting that you can read left-justified text faster than fully justified text. Fully justified text sometimes exhibits “gappiness” because it adds white space that can slow down reading. Look at the highlighted sentences in the next example. See the slightly bigger spaces between words?

Fully justified, highlighting gappiness.

Granted, the difference in reading speed is tiny—fractions of a second—but there you go.

In favor of fully justified text

Fully justified text tends to feel more formal and serious, and that’s one reason professionally printed documents are often fully justified. For example, most books use fully justified text. Formality and seriousness are right for many legal documents, and the clean vertical margins appeal to some legal writers.

And fully justified text is modern: left-justified text is, after all, a vestige of the typewriter, so why not take advantage of the full justification available in word processing?

My recommendations

  1. Left-justified text with a ragged right margin is appropriate for legal documents—subject, of course, to the preferences of your readers and supervisors.
  2. Fully justified text is also appropriate for legal documents—subject, of course, to the preferences of your readers and supervisors.
  3. To reduce gappiness and speed-up reading for fully justified text, turn on hyphenation. The word processor will hyphenate a few multi-syllable words at the right margin.

With hyphenation turned on, the gaps and white spaces disappear. It looks like this:

Hyphenation is appropriate for legal documents. In fact, I’d bet most nonlegal text you read in print is fully justified with hyphenation.

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It



Using Styles in MS Word

The learning curve is worth it.

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It.

Styles in Microsoft Word are pre-set formats you can apply to parts of your document. There are existing Styles for body text (Normal) and headings (Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.), and you can create other types for block quotations, bullet lists, and more. Styles allow you to set font, line spacing, paragraph spacing, automatic tabbing, and other features and then apply those pre-set formats to any document. On a PC, you can find Styles in a large section at the Home tab. (It’ll be different on a Mac.)

If you spend a lot of time creating Word documents, I encourage you to learn more about Styles. Yes, there’s a learning curve, but you’ll save time and reduce frustration if you master Styles. One good source to consult is this book:

  • Ben M. Schorr, The Lawyer’s Guide to Microsoft Word (2015)

Getting started

You’ll need to change Word’s default Styles. For example, the default Normal Style (for body text) uses Calibri, a sans serif font that’s probably not right for most legal documents. Some of the default Heading Styles use colored fonts—also not right for legal writing.

So right click on the Style you want to change, choose “Modify,” and set it up the way you want: choose a font, click Format then Paragraph and set the line spacing (double, single), and then set the paragraph spacing (probably zero). Tell it to automatically indent one tab for each new paragraph. Or don’t; you can still do it manually. For the Heading Styles, do the same but apply boldface or italics. To keep these new Styles, click the button for “New documents based on this template.”

Once you’ve made your Style choices, create your document by typing and, as you go or during revision, apply your Styles. To apply a Style to any piece of text, select the text, or place your cursor in the text, and choose the appropriate Style.

Three reasons to use Styles

First, you’ll get consistent formatting. All your headings at the same level will look the same, all your lists will look the same, all your block quotations will look the same, and so on. Naturally, you’re aiming for consistency already, but Styles make consistency easier. For a block quotation, instead of indenting left and right and converting to single spacing, just type (or paste in) the text and click the Style for Block Quotation. Done. Universal changes are easy, too. To change all your first-level headings from bold italics to bold, you don’t find and re-format each one. Instead, modify the Heading 1 Style from bold italics to bold, and the format changes occur automatically.

Second, with Styles for headings, you can use the Navigation Pane. To see it, go to the View tab. In the Show section, check the box for Navigation Pane. It appears on the left and displays an outline, pulling the entries from your Styles Headings. The entries in the outline are click-able, allowing you to move around easily in a large document—like a 40-page brief or a 60-page contract.

Third, using Styles enables you to create a Table of Contents in seconds. Go to the References tab, click on Table of Contents, and choose Custom Table of Contents (near the bottom). Word will generate a table of contents from the Styles headings in your document—correct page numbers and all. You can adjust the settings: How many heading levels do you want displayed? Do you want the entries to be hyperlinked? And so on. If you make any changes later, right click on the table of contents and Update Field to update the headings and the page numbers.

I’ll admit that it took me a while to master the Styles function and to see the benefits, but ultimately it was worth it. I now save time when I create and modify documents, and producing a table of contents in 10 seconds is wonderful. So it might take a while to master the Styles function, but the effort will pay off in time and headaches saved.

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It.

Formatting suggestions for court opinions

Practitioners must follow court rules for their pleadings and briefs, but courts can do what they want. Here are my suggestions for formatting court orders and opinions. For more and better guidance, see Matthew Butterick, Typography for Lawyers (2d ed. 2015) or his website.

Don’t use Courier. I recommend a serifed typeface for the body text (my example uses Cambria), and I follow the recommendations of many layout experts to avoid Times New Roman. I believe it’s appropriate to format short, topic headings in a contrasting sans serif font (my example uses Calibri Bold).

Although double line spacing is ubiquitous in legal documents, it’s problematic for on-screen skimming and readability and because it uses lots of paper if printed. Some say double-spacing makes documents readable. Yet no one reads double-spaced books, magazines, or newspapers, let alone web pages. Instead, apply reasonable line spacing (my example uses 1.2) and push in the left-right margins to reduce the line length (my example uses 1.5 inches).

Use only one tab to indent paragraphs, and consider shortening the tab (my example uses .25 inches).

If you want full justification, you should turn on hyphenation to reduce gaps and spaces (my example does). If you dislike hyphens, check out most newspapers and magazines and nearly all books: they’re hyphenated. If you still dislike hyphens, left justified text with a ragged right margin is fine for legal documents, I say.

Use italics instead of underlining. Avoid ALL-CAPS.

Add text to the outline numbers. You can use topical headings: Introduction. You can also use explanatory headings (point headings): The structure and punctuation of Maine’s wage-and-hour law creates an ambiguity.

And if you can bring yourself to do it, abandon Roman numerals and, possibly, use a numbering system that allows readers to know where they are at any point in the document. It might look like this:


Here is my reformatted example (click to view):


Old, dysfunctional layout of judicial opinions

You’ve probably heard about that “serial comma case,” O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy. The decision, Judge Barron of the First Circuit tells us, was based on the absence of a serial comma, which is the second comma here: red, white, and blue. For punctuation nerds, it’s an interesting case, and I hope to write more about it.

For now, I encourage you to read the opinion in its original format. Why? Because it’s outdated, dysfunctional, and annoying. At least that’s what I think. Here are my reasons.

The opinion—

  1. uses Courier 12 point, a monospaced, typewriter font that’s ugly and old
  2. uses double line spacing, so on-screen readers scroll twice as much, paper readers turn twice as many pages (not to mention using more paper to print it), and all readers lose a degree of visual understanding because paragraph breaks and large-scale formatting cues are farther apart
  3. uses 2 tabs to indent the first line of each paragraph; older lawyers might remember when this was a common practice—I worked for lawyers who did it (in 1989)—but it’s typographically dysfunctional and just looks odd
  4. uses full justification without hyphenation at the right margin; full justification can look good if done well—it’s how most books and other professional publications are laid out—but if it’s done poorly and without hyphenation in a monospaced font like Courier, it looks terrible: gappy and unprofessional, with white space splattered randomly on the page
  5. uses underlining instead of italics, so if it was meant to look like it was typed on a typewriter, it succeeds
  6. uses 1.2-inch left-right margins, which is better than standard 1-inch but a bit small; the line length (number of characters from left margin to right) is still too long
  7. uses numbered sections without text—no descriptive headings and no explanatory headings; you know how the table of contents in a brief gives the reader a preview of the writer’s argument outline? Well this is what the court’s table of contents would look like:


That isn’t helpful.

Readers can probably infer from my critique what the preferred formatting practices would be, but I’ll go over them next week.

Word limits: better than page limits?

Last week, federal district judge Steven Merryday admonished defense counsel for manipulating the standard letter spacing in their document so they could squeeze in more words but stay within the page limit. Highland Holdings, Inc. v. Mid-Continent Cas. Co., No. 8:14-cv-1334-t-23TBM (M.D. Fla. June 23, 2016). An excerpt is pasted below, along with a link to the full document.

I think the court should switch to a word limit. It might not solve all problems, but it removes the incentive for authors to use these tricks:

  • manipulate line-spacing (use 1.9 line-spacing instead of true double-spacing, for example)
  • manipulate font size (use 11.5-point font instead of 12, for example)
  • manipulate margins (use 0.9-inch margins instead of 1-inch margins, for example)
  • pick smaller fonts (use Garamond instead of Times New Roman, for example)

and a trick I’d never seen until now

  • manipulate the letter spacing

I switched to a word count on student papers many years ago and am glad I did.


Mid-Continent’s response (Doc. 50) to Highland Holdings’ motion for summary judgment is disguised as a paper that conforms both to Local Rule 1.05(a), which requires each “paper[] tendered by counsel for filing [to] be typewritten, double-spaced, [and] in at least twelve-point type,” and to Local Rule 3.01(b), which limits the length of a response to “not more than twenty (20) pages.” Although neither rule explicitly proscribes manipulative letterspacing,[1] the Local Rules assume that counsel engages in no manipulation to evade the effect of the rules and assume counsel’s use of the standard space between consecutive letters. Quite transparently, Mid-Continent’s response manipulates the space between consecutive characters in the response and adds approximately two words to each line. Tactics such as Mid-Continent’s letterspacing contribute to a burgeoning set of Local Rules, a phenomenon caused not by persnickety judges but by parties’ relentless efforts to gain an advantage by subverting a set of rules designed to ensure parity. Counsel is admonished; an attempt to subvert the Local Rules exposes the offending counsel to sanction.

[1] “Letterspacing (also known as character spacing or tracking) is the adjustment of the horizontal white space between the letters in a block of text.” Matthew Butterick, Typography for Lawyers 92 (2d ed. 2015).

Full text of the order is here.