The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: typography

Book review: Typography for Lawyers – Matthew Butterick

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.


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.

4dd6465fc78a86d0987870f88dffcb9c customisation

In a recent comment Michael (of Law Actually) asked if I had thought about tweaking the previous theme. In all honesty I hadn’t considered tweaking the theme at all. I’d sort of sublimated the idea that (the web application) is very customisable but (the hosting service) is very locked down. You can do things like advertise on a self hosted blog that you aren’t allowed to and the files are much more readily available if they are on your server instead of Automattic’s. However I discovered it’s not as locked down as I thought when I went to the Dashboard to have a look around.

I’ve been fiddling with the blog layout recently and I’ve also given it a change of fonts thanks to Typekit. Typekit is an interesting technology which lets you include any font (that Typekit supports) in your web page, regardless of whether or not you, your blog host or your readers have the fonts installed. I would actually sincerely doubt that anyone reading this would have these particular fonts installed – I’m using Calluna for headings and Droid Sans Pro for the body text. These are commercial fonts that you would need to have spent $174 to have (fonts are hard work to make and cost a lot of money). I think it’s a little excessive to have to spend $174 just to read my blog properly. However they are good looking typefaces. The alternative is to use something like Typekit which lets you see the glyphs without needing to install the fonts.

Typography is an interest of mine and it’s a fairly important thing to consider if you are looking at effectively writing for a living, which is basically how I see practising law. According to research humans find it easier to read serif fonts (like Times New Roman etc) on paper and sans serif fonts (like Arial) on screens. Therefore I’ve used a serif font for the headings (which are shorter and larger) and a sans serif for the body text. I generally use the reverse for printed documents. There is method in ‘t.

I’ve mentioned typography on the blog before and have recommended Typography for Lawyers to anyone looking for a detailed and useful introduction (and a bit more) to the subject without actually having to enrol in an art school.


Website recommendation:

Of all the websites I could recommend here this will not be the immediately most useful one but I think it’s definitely worth having a look at. is both an example of just how big a country the US is and also a very useful resource on how to set out readable text. I am not a lawyer, but my official day job still involves putting words on and therefore is useful for me. It’s not designed to teach you how to draft a contract or how to write a letter but it is designed to teach you to set it out attractively and to optimise for readability. It is written by a man who changed careers from typographer to lawyer (and, to demonstrate the number of people in America he is not the only person to have done this) who presents both sides of the argument neatly. He also provides guidance based on the practice guidance of American courts. It would be interesting to know the guidance from our own courts compares.

Given the amount of work that the average student would naturally pour into their words it makes sense to then learn a little about how to present it in an attractive and professional way. You don’t particularly need a huge investment of time – you can certainly put more time in if you feel inclined – but the site itself is a quick read which is logically arranged into a sensible introduction and beginning, intermediate and advanced sections.

The main lesson that I took from the site was that you need to treat printed text differently to onscreen text – I think because of the markedly higher resolution involved. That means that some fonts, for example the ones included with an operating system, are optimised for screen use as opposed to print use and this is not ideal. A more important lesson to take from it is that typography is an effective way to make a document more persuasive and more intelligible. It is not able to make a document’s content better than it is but it can make it clearer and give it a touch of style at the same time.