To Serif or Not to Serif

Advice for fonts in legal writing

What are the best fonts for legal writing? Legal text appears most often in traditional, serious documents—statutes, contracts, pleadings, and briefs—so let’s narrow our definition of “best” to professional and readable. This post defines a few terms, reports on some research, and offers some recommendations.

Serif or sans serif?

Fonts come in two broad categories: serif and sans serif. Serif fonts have small extensions at the end of each stroke, called serifs. (Below left.) Examples are Times New Roman, Garamond, and Cambria. Sans serif fonts have no serifs. (Below right.) Examples are Arial, Tahoma, and Calibri.

Most legal writers have, at some point, had to decide whether to use a serif or sans serif font. Yes, some courts and other organizations require a certain font, and you might work for someone who insists on a particular font. (A Social Security Administration lawyer told me that the U.S. Attorney for his district required that all documents filed by federal attorneys be in Arial.)

But what if it’s up to you? Generally, serif typefaces are more common in legal writing than sans serif, and they tend to look more professional to most lawyers. So my recommendation (not a rule) is to use a serif font for most legal documents.


Which is more readable, a serif font or a sans serif font? For years I heard from lawyers and writing experts that “studies show” that serif fonts are more readable than sans serif fonts.

But when I went looking for the studies, I came across an exhaustive report by a consultant named Alex Poole.[1] He reviewed more than 50 empirical studies on typography and drew three useful conclusions:

  1. There is no consensus about which is more readable, serif or sans serif, and there are many studies finding no difference at all.
  2. Any alleged differences in readability are slight. In fact, the differences are “so peripheral to the reading process that this effect is not even worth measuring.”[2]
  3. Readability and legibility are more strongly affected by the particular font and the reader’s familiarity with that font than they are by whether the font is serif or san serif.

As Poole put it, “we should accept that most reasonably designed typefaces in mainstream use will be equally legible.…”[3]

Beyond serifs

For recommendations on specific fonts, the best source is Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers, also available at It’s the most thorough, comprehensive, and informed book on the topic.

Beware: Butterick dislikes some common, widely used fonts. He strongly recommends against Times New Roman, and he hates Arial, saying that he refuses to name it, but it “rhymes with Barial.”[4]

He believes that lawyers should avoid “system fonts”—those that come with Microsoft Word, for example. Lawyers should use professionally designed fonts, and he’ll sell you his, called Equity.

Still, he knows that most lawyers won’t be buying fonts, so he offers recommendations for system fonts that go from “Generally tolerable” to “OK in limited doses” to “Questionable” to “Fatal to your credibility.”[5]

On his “generally tolerable” list are several serif fonts that most legal writers will know and that I recommend for any legal document: Book Antiqua, Century Schoolbook, Garamond, and Palatino.

For email, sans serif fonts are more typical, and Calibri, on Butterick’s “OK in limited doses” list, is common.


[1] Alex Poole, Which Are More Legible: Serif or Sans Serif Typefaces? (Feb. 17, 2008)

[2] Id. citing Ole Lund, Knowledge Construction in Typography: The Case of Legibility Research and the Legibility of Sans Serif Typefaces (1999) (thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University of Reading, Department of Typography & Graphic Communication).

[3] Id.

[4] Matthew Butterick, Typograph for Lawyers 78 (2d ed. 2015).

[5] Id. at 79.