Book review: Typography for Lawyers – Matthew Butterick

by scotslawstudent

What is the ugly truth about why typography is so important for lawyers? :

I believe that most readers are looking for reasons to stop reading… [o]nce the reader’s attention expires, you have no chance to persuade

– Matthew Butterick, Typography for Lawyers: Essential Tools for Polished and Persuasive Documents, Jones McClure Publishing

I was very kindly sent a review copy of the new legal typography book this week and I’ve really been enjoying it. I’ve written about the website which spawned this book before because it gives a useful introduction to the principles of typography, how it relates to legal writing and why it matters at all (hint – it’s important to make your writing inviting and easily readable because of that quote at the top). The book continues that mission with examples, tips and rules written by a professional typographer turned professional lawyer. Just about every section comes with point by point instructions for implementing it in Word 2003; Word 2007 and 2010; WordPerfect and Pages — a broad range of the most common word processors that you might reasonably expect someone to use. Even then, the advice is universal and you don’t even need those programs to benefit from it. Inside the front cover is a useful list of special characters along with a list of 28 key rules for quick reference. It is a very useful working handbook which is worth keeping close to your desk.

There’s always a worry in my mind that when a popular website publishes a book based on the website they will just stick two covers around what the original website said and not a word more. That’s not the case here and the author has unquestionably given value for money with his new book. There’s a lot of extra material written just for the book and it also avoids some of the limitations of a website format. There’s an inherent catch 22 in presenting typography tips on a website as, for example it’s hard to demonstrate the benefits of high-resolution print-optimised fonts on a website — after all, on page 82 you find out that a monitor has less than 3% of the resolution that a laser printer does. In a book you can immediately point out the little details (and make no mistake – each individual element is a fine detail) that are brushed out to make it easier for screen display. Suddenly “this font is better than this font” discussions make much more sense. The issues of subtlety and fine detail come up a lot – you are encouraged to adjust the size of text by 144ths of an inch at a time to see what works best. The changes are subtle, you can instantly see they’re right after you’ve done it and the worst thing is that you would never even know to do to it without being told first (use invisible “optional hyphens” to tell the computer the best place to split words between lines?). This book tells you how.

The best advice Butterick gives about typography is that it is not an exercise in artistic skill or taste but intent. The purpose of someone studying typography for legal writing is not to turn their case or essay into solid gold by changing the font but to polish it to more clearly show the merits. Studies testing marking styles show that an essay written in bad handwriting will score less than the same essay copied out in good handwriting. People like things to look good and people like things that look good. This is particularly true when people are dealing with piles of broadly similar documents. A judge or marker or supervisor or any professional reader probably does not want to read your document all that much but they have to because it’s their job. The best thing you can do for someone in that unenviable situation is to make it a) easy and b) pleasant for them. Content is king but the medium should not be forgotten.

Typography for Lawyers is on sale now for $25 which, thanks to our global village and affordable shipping, is just £16.07 in real money. Consider it recommended to anyone who writes about law because it’s a crucial element of the process explained very well.

But…

For the next edition it would be good to get some more international information. Your reader isn’t going to want to see different things from American ones so the advice travels well but the book is written from an American point of view – The Bluebook is referred to extensively along with The Chicago Manual of Style, the 7th Circuit’s style guide, the Californian Style Manual and others. In an ideal world I’d like to see about the Court of Session too.

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