Attorneys spend a lot of time choosing the right words to use in briefs and motions. But they often neglect thinking about how their words actually look on the page. Layout and typography can impact how legal work product is perceived and read. This week, Todd Smith and Jody Sanders interview an expert on how lawyers can combine solid arguments with visual appeal—writer, typographer, programmer, and lawyer, Matthew Butterick. Through books like Typography for Lawyers and Practical Typography, Matthew has encouraged many lawyers to consider how fundamental typography principles can elevate their work product. Learn how applying these ideas can turn a good brief into a great one!
Listen to the podcast here:
Why Lawyers Should Care About Typography | Matthew Butterick
We’re going to geek out because with us is someone who is widely seen as an influencer in our profession. He is Matthew Butterick, the author of Typography For Lawyers among other things. Matthew, thank you for being with us.
It’s my pleasure.
A lot of our readers will know your name because we see it in print quite a lot. Your book and website are referenced frequently in terms of how to go about making positive changes in terms of the readability of briefs, as justification arguably for some of the rules that we argue about on appellate Twitter all the time. We’ll talk about that for sure too, but so that the audience gets a chance to get to know you a little better, tell us a little bit about yourself, where you come from, and how you came up into the legal profession.
Typography was my first love before I got into the law. From just a lad, a teenager, I started getting interested in typography mostly through the influence of ‘80s new wave album covers and also Spy Magazine. I don’t know if anybody remembers that. The typography was graphically a crazy thing that was like communication from some advanced alien system. I thought, “It’s so great what you can do with the typography and the fonts.” At the time, making fonts was much harder. I went to college and got a design degree. I didn’t do typography or font making as part of my official degree but in my residential dormitory, there was a letterpress shop in the basement.
For those of you who don’t know that term, this is the oldest form of printing where you take movable type, which is cast in metal. You put it in the bed of a press, ink it and roll the paper over it. That’s where I started to learn about typography. I had a great teacher there who spent time with me and showed me the ropes. At the same time, learning not just the old-fashioned but the oldest fashion style of typography and working with type. I also got an early Mac computer where the font-making tools were becoming a little more usable. My education, typographically, preceded along this highly analog line and highly digital line.
I worked as a digital type designer for a number of years and transitioned into doing web design in the ‘90s. That all wrapped up and I thought, “It’s fun but if I ever want to go back to grad school or something, this is probably the right moment. Should I go do computer science? Should I be a CPA?” I bypassed all those and went to law school. There you have it. The law came later. In fact, I wasn’t planning to do typography again anytime soon. I’d always been interested in law. It’s just that when I graduated from college, I’d had these opportunities to do typography which were unusual. I thought that I should do that for a while. I was coming back to something that was interesting.
I got my law degree and I did practice for a couple of years. It was my first semester of law school in the legal writing class and we had our first assignment. I thought, “I know what I’ll do. I won’t file it in 12-point Courier. I’ll put it in a decent font with decent margins and the whole thing.” I got slammed by the teacher and said, “Why did you do this in typography?” I said, “I made it look nice.” He was like, “You don’t do that in this class. It’s 12-point Courier every day.” I was angry in a good-natured way. The kind of anger that’s like, “I’m going to strike back against this.”
In 2008, while I was practicing, I put up the first Typography For Lawyers website. It was a collection of tips that I brought forward from my experience as a typographer and designer, threaded through what you can do in the law. I thought that it was going to be something that a few like-minded nerdy lawyers were into. I was probably the most surprised of anyone that it blew up at that point. Since you had Jason Wilson on not too long ago, I’m sure he recounted the story. He approached me a couple of years after that and said, “Why don’t we turn this into a paperback?” I said, “I never thought anybody would care that much.”
For years, I’ve been chasing along behind this thing that keeps snowballing. It’s been fun. For me, the best part has been finding out how many lawyers are interested in this. Honestly, sometimes people misunderstand my approach to the material. If they haven’t read the book, they think I’m some dude standing up on the top of mount typography shaking his fist at the ignorant masses below. It’s not that at all.
The premise of the book is lawyers are publishers. Like other publishers, we should take seriously how our work is presented. I never try to convince lawyers that font choice or line spacing is more important than their argument. At the same time, in pretty much every other area of legal practice, we do take pains to make sure our argument is presented well.
If we do an oral argument in front of a judge or a panel, we’ve probably taken time to rehearse it and think about what points we are going to emphasize and what our tone of voice is. We don’t want to be boring at the lectern. We’ve probably even gone through the trouble of putting on clean clothes because we don’t want to show up to court with a pizza stain on our shirt. That was my early pitch. If I don’t have a problem convincing you of the value of laundry, why should I have a problem convincing you about typography?
With that said, there are some people who are sticks in the mud. I think about the stories at the end of the book. I used to do more CLEs and I’ve moved through the ranks. I’m doing lunch talks in some little firm. Eventually, I’m up here at Century City on the 24th floor with this big catered lunch. At the end of my presentation, one of these partners says, “Matthew, that’s all well and good but what is any of this have to do with the practice of law?” I thought, “That’s the craziest thing you’ve ever said to me because everything else I’ve seen up to this point in the day has nothing to do with the practice of law. Your office building, computers, fancy cars, security guards, and the bomb-sniffing dogs in the elevator have nothing to do with the practice of law.”
I don’t know why for some people this is comedy material but either way, I’m fine with it because, for me, typography is a great secret weapon. I’ve been enjoying its benefits for many years. To me, I’m good either way. I’m going to bring in more people to the typography army who uniformly tell me how much value they get out of this material. Nobody has ever written to me and said, “I read your book, used your tips and nothing happened.” I never have gotten that email.
Even if they’re tentative or skeptical, they start trying to put these principles to work and they immediately start getting positive feedback from whatever it is. The supervising partner, the colleague, the client, the judge or the opposing counsel, everybody notices. It never fails. I sit back and let that goodness wash over the people who are open to these ideas because they deserve it.
One of my next questions was how the material has been responded to. That’s been our experience. Generally, lawyers and appellate lawyers in particular are not the quickest to change. People started hearing your message early on and it caught some attention and started being talked about. There are some things people resist that we’ll get into, but the response from what I see has been positive. Not only that but it’s long-lasting. This has been going on. You started with the website in 2008. As Jason Wilson takes credit for, you wrote a book at his urging. You turned it into a book. I’m joking around about Jason. I have to give him a little bit of credit.
He can take credit. The book would not exist if Jason hadn’t suggested it.
It’s pervaded our legal culture. We’re still talking about it and people still are referencing the book. Yet, we still see many examples of bad typography in legal writing. What I’m saying, Matthew, is there still work to do? Despite having written the book and talked about it for over a decade, there’s still room for people to hear the message. One of the great things about our medium is we’re hoping to help spread the word.
It’s like Brian Garner. He has to keep updating his books on usage because people keep getting things wrong. It’s a long-term campaign to bring these messages in. That’s fine. In the end, even in the best case, only a tiny fraction of lawyers are going to care but that’s okay with me too. It’s interesting that you mentioned appellate lawyers.
I agree with you. This has been particularly resonant with appellate lawyers. Why is that? You two could maybe tell me. I have always surmised that the appellate lawyer is two prongs. One is that the appellate lawyer naturally tends to be a slightly nerdier form of a lawyer. They’re getting in there with those messages of law.
When somebody steps up with typography, it’s like, “What’s this? For my quiver of notaries, please tell me more.” The other part of it which is very important is that the appellate lawyer often has more time in their schedule to reflect on these things in a way that maybe people engaged at the trial level don’t necessarily. You tell me though.
Both of those observations are correct. Also, as appellate lawyers, our written product is mostly our only chance to speak to the court. We don’t have the hearings that trial lawyers have. Oral arguments are severely limited that so much of our speaking to the court comes through the written product we present to them. I don’t want to say we take greater pride in it but we take more pains to make sure that we present the best thing we can because we have more time, but also because we know it’s our only shot.
We want our written product to look professional, legible and attractive to the reader. Those are all good reasons to pay attention to typography. To some degree, we’re also looking for ways to distinguish our work from other people’s. Anybody can put together a brief that has the basic elements. Not anybody without putting some time into it can put together a brief that someone like you or even a court can look at and say, “That is an attractive document. It’s easy to read. The font is not Courier for goodness’ sake.” We’re looking for ways to set ourselves apart. That was one reason why you found an audience among appellate lawyers pretty easily.
It’s a great audience. My wife was an appellate lawyer in private practice and then transitioned to working at the California Court of Appeals for a Justice in addition to being Mrs. Typography. It’s funny because when she started that job a number of years ago, she said, “I’m so excited to start my job at the State of California. I’m going to go in and get them to change all their typography.” I said, “Please don’t do that.” This is my advice to everyone, to the associates, to the law students who find my book in law school who are going, “I’m taking this to my summer job.” Don’t. That’s the wrong thing. Nobody cares about your opinion on typography.
I said this to my wife too. I was like, “Don’t. They want to see you do your job first and foremost so please, I don’t want anyone to say that I know Matthew Butterick and he told me to go in with typography with guns blazing.” No. Just like I play it casually and quietly, so does everybody else. You can improve your own written product and people will notice. Your comment about the document is more attractive. It’s a fear that a lot of lawyers have about this material, that somehow they’re stepping into a world where they’re competing on, “I made it too attractive. Nobody sees my precious words.” That’s not how it works. It’s much more subliminal than that.
Imagine if you stepped up in front of the US Supreme Court wearing a clown suit. People would notice and it would stand out. That’s not how it works when you use a nice font, nice margins, and all the other details. People say, “I’m happy to be with this document. I can tell that somebody spent some time on this and I’m in a better frame of mind.”
Look at what are the things that people like to read. Is it the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New York Magazine, the New Yorker, Bloomberg, Businessweek? These are all publications that spend a lot of money on writing, editing, and also on design and typography because their idea is, “The material is great, wonderful and beautiful. Let’s make sure that the outer beauty matches the inner beauty and it’s all of a piece.” I don’t expect people to simply be convinced because I tell them and I’ve never wanted that to be true. That’s part of why I’ve always had a lot of the material up on the web. It’s like, “Please, don’t take my word for it. Here’s the advice. Try it. See what you think.” When people start to use it, they see the benefits.
Have you been surprised at the breadth of reach that the book has had over the last few years?
Yeah. When I started out, I didn’t think there was any constituency for this material. When people think of me as shaking my fist at the people below, it’s not that at all. I simply figured there are six of us who care about this material so I’ll put it up and the other five will have a little email pen pal group. Over time, it finds its way into the echelons of power. As you gentlemen know in 2020, the Fifth Circuit redesigned its opinion and they used my font Equity. They could have done anything. The point is, however, the court sat there and had this moment of reflection. A whole bunch of Federal Justices got together and said, “Let’s do better than we’re doing. We are publishing these opinions to the public and let’s improve it.” It’s great that this attention is being put in.
On the other hand, there are plenty of courts that have been putting attention to this forever, the US Supreme Court is one of the best examples. I love when lawyers say, “Half of this stuff doesn’t matter.” Why do you suppose the US Supreme Court spends all this time and money on typography? They always have great typography. That’s how they do things. You could certainly do worse than follow their example in this case. I find this more and more. I get these stories from out in the world. Sometimes it’s judges and lawyers nudging for changes in their local rules. I like to hear that the tide is rising in a certain way.
I should be clear if anybody’s thinking of asking my help with these. I don’t do any lobbying for rules. It’s like, “Would you comment on our proposal to do this?” I said, “I’ve put my material into the world. Please, you’re free to cite it and say, ‘Butterick said such and such,’ if that helps your case but these are your rules in your state or your county. You need to take the lead in advocating for them.’” It’s having me come in and be like, “And so saith Butterick.” Going back to something I’ve already said, that’s just not my style. That’s not how this stuff goes over.
In the US Supreme Court, are they using Century Schoolbook? What is the font that they use?
It is some form of Century. They use one that’s called Century Expanded, the narrower version of the Century family. That’s an interesting example. If you go into the Supreme Court’s rules, Rule 33 controls the form of documents. There’s a reference that you can use any typesetting process, including hot metal. How many lawyers read that and are like, “What the heck is hot metal typesetting?”
For those of you who were born after 1930, I talked about letterpress printing. It was the original form of typesetting where you would cast each individual letter in metal and set them into rows to make your page. In order to streamline the setting, you had what was called a hot metal typesetting machine in the early part of the 20th century, the Monotype machine and the Linotype machine. Maybe you’ve heard those names of those companies but that’s what they made.
Essentially, instead of casting each letter individually, they would have these little molds and you would key in the characters. Hot molten metal would be shot into these molds. Essentially your type would be made on-demand. You’d print with it, put it back in, melt it down and start all over again. If you want to use those technologies at the Supreme Court, they are happy to let you do so because the US Supreme Court probably went from hot metal typesetting and then just jumped to digital. They didn’t have the awkward typewriter phase that everybody went through.
I talk about this in the book. I’m not the first person to observe this about typesetting in the computer era. It’s been so much constrained by what people did with typewriters because that was what people had before. It’s what a lot of people learn to type on and get their keyboard skills. They turn around at the computer and they do what they would have done on the typewriter. That’s silly. That requires a conscious moment of let’s set aside all these typewriter habits. They still infiltrate.
One of my favorite groups of tinfoil hat-wearing hate mail people that fill my inbox are the ones who get mad at me on my websites that I don’t underline hyperlinks. They think that this is the gravest UI sin of the era. They’re like, “Remember in 1993 when they invented the web and all the links had underlines?” I said, “The reason they had underlines was that was the only form of emphasis that was available on these earlier computers.” Why was it the only form of emphasis? It’s because it was the only thing on typewriters. When they made the jump to computers, they emulated the typewriter. We have to stop making all of our typography be a simulation of typewriters. We have to move beyond. I’m ready. Some will join me and some will keep writing hate mail.
I’m happy to tell you that the Texas Supreme Court has joined you. They are using Century Schoolbook as their brand new official court font. They’re issuing court opinions and orders in that format so your influence is not only with the Fifth Circuit, which that’s a great thing to have them using your proprietary Equity font. The state Supreme Court here has also felt that influence and is making their orders and opinions much more legible. That’s great to hear. We should mention in a little more detail Butterick’s Practical Typography which I see described as a web-based book. How does that site/book relate to typography for lawyers? Is it an expansion of it or is it more a generalized version of it?
I remember after I finished with Jason Wilson, we got the first edition of Typography For Lawyers out the door. He was like, “This came out well. The thing is you should do a version of this for the general public.” I thought, “He’s right. It’s a good idea. Nothing that I’m talking about here is specific to lawyers.” After that, I thought, “Why don’t I take this material and try to adapt it to a general audience?” They’re whatever sibling sites if you will.
Lawyers, if you want to visit PracticalTypography.com, you’ve seen most of it before. There are a few others. I do more discussion about web page issues. Lawyers care less about that but the general public likes it. That’s the answer. They’re both derived from a common core of materials and slightly tuned to their respective audiences.
It is quite handy to be able to go to PracticalTypography.com and see a lot of this stuff right there. We’ll do this for you, Matthew, so you don’t feel the need to but people should note that this is a book that’s available for purchase online. Matthew’s providing this material out there for you without requiring you to pay for it. You went through Amazon or something like that before you see it but it’s well worth your time and some value to you. We’d certainly encourage anybody who’s reading to follow through on that, go ahead and pay for it as well.
There’s PracticalTypography.com but then Typography For Lawyers also has its dedicated domain, which is TypographyForLawyers.com. On that website is every single word that’s in the book in the same order. The entire contents of the book are on the website. This is something that I didn’t do for the first few years that I had the book out, but it has not hurt anything. It has not hurt sales or the acceptance of the material. It has made it possible for the material to reach more people. There are students and people in other countries. There are all sorts of people who get value out of this, people who can’t use printed books for some reason. It’s fine with me. I’m happy to have it all online for people to use. For those who want to have a printed book, there’s that too.
Particularly in the law but elsewhere, we consume so much of our information electronically and especially in courts that have gone to only electronic filing. Has that changed your views on the way that you do typography and layout?
Can you be more specific?
In laying out documents and using certain types, sizes and all of that for the way that a paper brief would look for instance that you filed with the court. Now that a lot of courts have mandated electronic filing and aren’t reading them in paper anymore, has that changed your views on how you do spacing, font, sizes and that kind of thing?
In fact, you see more convergence over time. Many years ago, for those who remember what computers were like then, screens were much coarser in terms of their pixel resolution. The first computer I ever had was an Apple Macintosh which had a black and white screen. Every pixel has no grayscale. It’s either black or white so it’s coarse. There are no smooth edges. If you had to read text on that kind of screen, it was different. You would have wanted to make different choices then for a printed page.
What we’ve seen and this has accelerated over the last few years is the adoption of the high DPI screens. It started on phones and it moved to tablets. I don’t know about you two, but my desktop monitors are now 4K monitors, which to me is huge for typography. It’s four times the number of dots on the screen. It’s beautiful. It’s almost a paper-like resolution.
As we’ve gotten better and better screen technology, the need to make accommodations in the typography has decreased if you follow me. I assume that when we talk about electronic filing, what we’re doing is we’re filing PDFs. Judges and their clerks are reading these. My wife reads PDF transcripts on her iPad and annotates them, for instance, and she loves it. That’s much more efficient. To her, it’s an alternative paper surface. Use whatever font that you would like in print and use that in your electronic filing too. There’s no reason not to.
I want to get into some of the key rules from the book. I don’t know that the three of us will have much real debate as far as the merits of the rules or not. I have a feeling we’ll mostly agree.
There are those people who you have to serve and they’re probably eager for you to take some of the controversies. I don’t shy from it. They’re probably like, “You’ve got to ask Butterick about that. He’s completely wrong about such and such.” I accept it.
I’m going to go a little bit out of order then from the list that I created. Let’s go ahead. You’ve mentioned one space between sentences versus two. That’s still a hot button issue believe it or not.
Why is it a hot button issue? Help me out because I’m not on appellate Twitter. Who’s arguing about this? What’s the other side of the argument here?
I don’t know that I can articulate everyone’s position but the short answer is, there are people that like more white space between the end of sentences and are for two spaces. Also, some have always done it that way so they want to keep doing it that way.
That’s just what they like.
I can tell you as a former two spacer, it wasn’t difficult for me to make the transition once I saw the difference in how my documents looked. Once I read the book and understood the explanation as to why we had two spaces at the beginning, which goes back to the typewriter, as you’ve already mentioned. Once I decided that it was a wasted space and it didn’t add anything in my view to readability, it wasn’t a difficult choice to make. When I see writing that has two spaces between sentences, it bugs me. Jody, are you a one-spacer or two-spacer?
It depends. I’ve done it both ways.
I heard someone on a podcast. It was Duane Daiker from Florida who has an appellate law podcast who has a unique rule about one space in some situations but two spaces with citations. That one I couldn’t get on board with because I don’t want to have to remember that many rules. I want to hit my spacebar and move on to the next sentence.
On the basis of evidence, I won this argument ages ago. I don’t know what people are pursuing at this point. There’s a reason I put this material early on in the book, however, and it’s this. Part of my thesis to lawyers is you are professional publishers. Therefore, your documents are professional printed output and therefore, you should be interested in the typography rules that are used in professional typography. That goes in the introduction of the book.
I can tell you, people nod their heads. They go, “Okay. Yeah.” I say, “Thing one, this two spaces thing. This is not what is done. There is not a single book, newspaper magazine you will ever pick up that has two spaces.” It is an early litmus test to see, “I told you what my principle is. My principle is we are going to adopt the rules of professional typography, wherever we can, and here’s one of them.”
When people say, “I want to use two spaces,” I’m like, “I don’t care what you do. Take the book, the material or whatever you like and leave the rest. I don’t care. It has to reflect on what you want to do.” When people are talking about their special judgment about what’s better, they’re trying to reject the entire project of the book. It’s silly to compare but we have all these other spheres.
Lawyers are all about arguing from authority. It’s the funny thing, especially for appellate lawyers. If you don’t have authority, you have nothing. You can’t go into court with a brief that’s like, “As we saw in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” that doesn’t exist. People say, “I’m not a typographer and I don’t know anything about typography, but I have this gut feeling that two spaces look better.” It’s like, “What the heck are you talking about?”
That style of argument is rejected in every courtroom, and pretty much every sphere of public life though with the whole vaccine thing is getting more popular. I don’t want to engage people because all the evidence is on my side. Here’s the other part. If you want to reject that rule and adopt every other recommendation I make, I’ll take that. I’ll call that a win because I also predict that once you do that, you will come around to the one space. It’ll take a year or two but you will come around.
Going back to your earlier point, it’s a long-term process. People have to come on at their own pace. One of my favorite nonsense objections is the one where people say, “I learned to type on a typewriter. It’s my muscle memory.” Have you ever heard that one? At a typewriter, remember you had to hit a carriage return at the end of every line but when you use a word processor, we only hit the character return at the end of every paragraph. Somehow you overcame that muscle memory.
Every single objection, you can puncture it with the tiniest, dumbest little pin to let out the air. I don’t want to get dragged into that. It’s much more interesting and important for me to let the material flow. To me, whether it’s the Central District of California, Eastern District of Texas or the Fifth Circuit, when these big court organizations adopt better typography and fonts, that sends a powerful message.
It’s not a message with my name on it, which is the best part for me. I don’t want to be the only person. To me, it’s much better when there are more and more voices normalizing this, “I make these documents look good. Why would we make them look ugly?” To me, that would be the ultimate success for the material is that people forget I exist. It becomes the norm of good lawyering.
On the subject of attorneys not wanting to change things, I see many briefs that use the default system fonts probably both in WordPerfect and Word. For those who don’t want to buy a new font, what are some non-default fonts in those programs that you think present better than your typical ?
What you’re referring to are the system fonts, which is to say the fonts that are installed on your computer when you buy or when you get a word processor. Sometimes it comes with the Microsoft Office Suite that has its own fonts. The truth is I have a chart of these and I’ve tried to prioritize them in terms of horrible versus not. Every year, they change the number added. Mac users have a whole different set. It’s not possible for me to keep up with it in that way.
One that I like a lot though is called Charter. It’s a Mac system font. It’s not a Windows system font yet but it’s a free font. It’s on the Practical Typography website. It’s totally free and I give it away. I didn’t design it. It’s designed by an esteemed type designer named Matthew Carter. It was made available under a free license many years ago. It’s a beautiful font. It doesn’t take much to experiment with this stuff.
My argument is not to change the font for the sake of changing the font. It’s changing the font for the sake of having that moment of reflection. As a writer, you have chosen to set your work in a certain face as opposed to just allowing the defaults.
, it has always been my joke that it’s not a font choice. It’s the absence of a font choice. It’s the font that was there when you hit new or it’s the font that you see everybody’s been using for the last 60 years so you’re going to use that. It’s not a choice. It’s momentum. I don’t think that qualifies as typography. That’s going along with the wave.
I want legal writers to think of typography as this small slice of the written product, but in the same way that you think about how you’re going to phrase certain points, what your headings might be, how you’re going to order things in the argument. Typography deserves to be seen in that sphere. It’s not just some purely cosmetic add-on. It’s part of the presentation of your argument. In many other spheres, as lawyers, we take the presentation of our argument very seriously. If you go onto most law firm websites, what do you usually see on the homepage of a law firm website?
Pictures and headlines of all the stuff that the firm is doing.
Scales of Justice or lawyer in front of law library books.
In LA, at least a lot of them show a picture of their office building. It’s like, “You should hire us because we spent so much on our office building.” It’s so funny to me because what is that if not an argument about the presentation? It’s like, “Here is the physical structure that encloses our lawyers and you should choose us based on that. It’s so cool and it’s so shiny.” Yet there are lawyers in that building that are going to be telling me, “This typography, why would anybody want to be interested in the presentation of things? Nobody chooses based on presentation.” To me, that’s the silliest argument. There’s so much in our life where people are weighing the presentation of things.
I give an example in the book. I’m not talking about, “We pay attention to the label on the wine.” In California, part of our jury instructions is that the jury members are told that when they’re listening to a witness, they listen to the words coming out of the witness’s mouth but they are allowed and encouraged to consider the way that the witness speaks, how they present their argument and their demeanor. Essentially, juries are encouraged to bring all of this presentation of the testimony into their assessment of the truthfulness of it. It’s essentially this direct line that is being drawn between how the testimony is being presented and what its truth value is.
This is an old idea and it’s wrong-headed, which is that somehow the presentation of things and the substance of things exist on these totally separate planets. They don’t. A lawyer’s written work is a fusion of text and typography. I am the first person to tell you that typography is a small little percentage of things but it is a percentage. It’s like the clean shirt that you take from the hanger to wear to the court that day, instead of pulling one from the bottom of the laundry hamper. That few extra minutes is well worth it.
Another thing, which is anybody who thinks that this is purely about aesthetics needs to get into the material. A lot of what I’m talking about is learning how to structure and format your document so it’s easier to maintain these things. For instance, a silly one that a lot of lawyers don’t know is the idea that you can insert a page break in your document not by pressing the carriage return 100 times, which is a terrible way to do things. Once people learn, “A hard page break with one character. I can ensure that you always jump to a new page. Mind blown.” I call it a trick. It’s been there forever. Once you learn that technique, it saves you time for as long as you know it.
To me, it’s not a question of, “Is typography worthwhile?” It’s like, “I’m telling you that not only is it worthwhile but the cost of having typography in your document is minimal on each incremental document.” Once you’ve set it up, it’s always there for you. Once you’ve versed yourself in these techniques, it’s always available to you. If having nice typography every time is no more expensive than having horrifying typography, why wouldn’t you choose nice typography? Many still do but it’s part of the pitch.
Another topic that gets discussed pretty frequently over in appellate Twitter land is the use of dashes. You make the point in the book about hyphens being mistakenly or erroneously used in place of dashes. Do you have a refresher for us on the circumstances under which an en dash or an em dash ought to be used and why people should forget about hyphens?
I’m not putting anybody in the typography jail for this. I’m going to come back to your question but if I were truly the king of typography which I’m not, and I had a magic wand to make everybody obey my will which I don’t, and I had one wish, the one wish that I would make would have nothing to do with word spaces after a sentence. It would have nothing to do with hyphens and en dashes. It would have everything to do with eliminating the overuse of capital letters. That is a horrible scourge. The reason is it’s often used as a technique for emphasis or we’re calling attention to something like, “This is important. I want you to pay attention to it.”
Here’s the irony. When you set something in all caps, it makes it harder to read. It makes people run away or skip over it, which is the opposite of what you want. It’s actively self-defeating typography. There’s a great opinion that came out of the Ninth Circuit some years ago where in the UCC, there are various rules related to conspicuous text.” The lawyers were arguing, “We had all these acres of all caps text.” It was conspicuous. The judge wrote, “The lawyers have to learn that their caps lock key is not an instant make conspicuous button.” That’s a great lesson. There’s more to it. You can’t just put things in caps. You have to think about the context.
Getting back to your question about hyphens and dashes. My advice about hyphens and dashes is taken right out of Brian Garner’s books, which is an en dash is longer than a hyphen. A hyphen is the shortest. The en dash is the middle one. The longest one of all is what’s called the em dash. How would we use these? The hyphen is the one that you see at the end of a sentence when you have a word that’s broken between two lines. The en dash is usually the one you want to use when you have two names or a contrast between things like Arizona–California Reciprocity. If you want to have a range of numbers like a sentence of 5–8 years. In that context, you want an en dash. The longest one, the em dash, is the one that you use to set off a separate phrase from the flow of the text.
Nobody’s going into the typographic pokey but one thing I would like is often lawyers will use two hyphens in a row to signify an en dash or an em dash. I don’t like that because it’s a typewriter habit. Typewriters did not have dash characters on them so people simulated them by typing two hyphens in a row. I understand where the habit came from, but you have a beautiful computer in front of you that’s happy to make a dash character. You just have to ask for it. If you find yourself ever in your life typing two hyphens in a row, take a moment to find out where the dash is and use it.
In the best world, typing two hyphens on your computer will automatically convert into an em dash if you’ve got the shortcuts properly programmed.
The shortcuts can have unintended consequences. One of my favorites being in Microsoft Word. If you type (c) it will substitute for the copyright symbol [©]. The problem is that you also can experience that sequence of characters in an outline if you’re referring to a subsection of some Law Penal Code 1101 subsection (c). You go back and look. It’s like, “Why is there a copyright symbol in the middle of it?” These substitutes, I’m not trying to create fear, uncertainty and doubt, but it can be good simply to learn the direct way of inserting some of these characters and not necessarily relying on the shortcuts.
Although if your (c) inadvertently created the copyright symbol, if you hit the backspace or delete button once, it’ll revert. I’ve learned. It doesn’t help you in an outline necessarily.
You mentioned all caps. One thing I was going to talk about briefly was emphasis. I feel like I see a lot of briefings these days where people do a belt, suspenders, and top hat approach where they’ll bold, underline and italicize altogether. To me, that is almost like you’re screaming at the court, “Look at this.” Where do you come down on maybe a good way to emphasize gently?
Where I come down is that when you start combining all of these techniques for emphasis, you paint yourself into this corner where everything is loud. In the book, I’m a huge fan of white space. People want to make their headings more obvious to the reader. I was like, “Instead of 12-point, I’ll set it in 15-point. I’ll make it bold and italics.” You don’t have to do anything to that. You can leave more white space above and below it. That will also set it apart from the other things on the page without adding a single black mark anymore. Emphasis is overused.
With that said, however, I have heard from lawyers who are like, “Matthew, your whole subtle emphasis thing is interesting and all that. When I go into court, I make all of my headings bold, italic and underlined and I win all of my cases.” I’m like, “Keep doing what’s working.” This is another age-old fallacy which is hard to get around. People object to certain material and they say, “Yes, but you see Matthew, you’re wrong about this because that’s not what judges want.” I’m like, “What do judges want?” It turns out that the person is describing what all judges want is exactly what this person wants. It’s this weird myopia that goes on. Judges are all different people. They have all different preferences. There’s no way to generalize that. I said, “If you need that justification to keep doing whatever it is you’re doing, that’s fine.”
I’m not trying to make people lose their cases. Some people are fearful. They think that this isn’t true and this is restricted to typography. This is restricted to all sorts of things in the practice of law. If there are whatever forms or certain motions and little turns of phrase that people use, nobody remembers why they use these terms of phrase. They just do it.
In California, everybody puts these double lines on the left margin of their page. There’s no court rule that says those need to be there but everybody does it. Why? It’s because the last person did it. There are these momentums and traditions that people don’t want to scrutinize. It’s interesting to be doing this work at the beginning of my law career because as a new lawyer, you’re always scared. I was always scared of screwing up so I was always making sure that I read all the rules one time, two times, three times. Needless to say, many of the rules were not what my supervising lawyer said they were. He had been practicing for over twenty years. Some things he misremembered. Some things have honestly changed. He was right but now he’s wrong. He was resistant at times and I’d be like, “Sir, look right here.” He’d still say, “We’re going to do it the old way.” It’s funny sometimes how much resistance there can be to this. None of this material is a pressure march.
I invite people to take as little or as much as they want and see what the result is. I am not lying to you. Nobody has ever come to me and said something bad has happened. One of my favorite messages, however, maybe it’s coming full circle. There’s a long-time fan who’s been an early adopter of my fonts and he was litigating a case against the State of Michigan. He’s like, “This is great. I’m going to go to court.”
For many years, he’d been excited because he always had the best-looking documents and got compliments. He was using one of my fonts, Equity. He arrives for this court case and he gets the briefing from the State of Michigan side. In this case, the state lawyer had gotten another one of my fonts called Century Supra. He’s like, “You’ve got a Butterick font. I finally met my match.” I said, “I’m sorry. It’s not your secret weapon anymore. The secret is out.”
I’ve got a couple more of the key rules that I want to ask you about real quick. We’ve got a few more questions after that before we wrap up. These are also things that I see at least one of them talked about online sometimes which is turning on hyphenation with justified text. Is the idea there to keep the justified text from spreading out across the page any more than necessary because you get all that white space. White space is good but not when suddenly the words are disproportionately spaced. Is that where this comes from?
You’re speaking about an internet argument thing. What I learned sometimes the hard way is there are certain topics that people love to argue about online. There’s a debate about such and such. It’s like, “No. It’s a social media fight. Nobody else anywhere is debating this. It’s something that you all are into debating. I’m not trying to pry it from your fingers but I like to set out the difference between something that’s a social media phenomenon versus not.”
That’s another one I don’t understand. What’s the argument against it? Let’s be clear, there are four common alignments for a block of text in your word processor. There’s Left Aligned where every line starts at the left edge and ends wherever so you have a ragged right edge. You have Right Aligned, which is the opposite of that. There’s no reason to ever use Right Aligned. We don’t do that. There’s Centered. Sometimes we use centered text for a title or a heading or something, though we should use it sparingly.
You then have Justified. In Justified, the line that you would have had is stretched, so the left and right ends of the line go to the edges of the page. That’s the technique that is often used in a lot of professional typesetting, whether it’s books or newspapers or magazines. A lot of the blocks of texts you see will be justified. I want that to be an option for lawyers.
I say there’s one thing, you have to hyphenate. If you don’t, essentially when you’re justifying a line of text, you’re pulling the words apart so more space is introduced between words. If you refuse hyphenation essentially you can have these awkward line breaks, then when you introduce these spaces, the spaces can be enormous. I give a visual example in the book or on TypographyForLawyers.com. It’s right there. You can see it for yourself.
I don’t know how this can possibly be a debate because if you look at the two options, one of them is horrific. I should also note that using left-aligned is fine too and it doesn’t have this problem because essentially all the extra slop space stays on the right side of the line so all the word spaces in between are the same. You don’t have this variable spacing problem. I don’t like to use justified text in a word processor because I find that it doesn’t do a good job.
If you are a professional designer with access to a professional layout program, whether it’s Adobe InDesign or Affinity Designer, these programs have better algorithms for doing justification and can do a nicer job making everything even. I would rather make it left-aligned. I leave the choice to lawyers. If you’re going to justify, please turn on hyphenation. Some think they shouldn’t have to. How many times do you see me striding onto Twitter to argue with people? It never happens. I can’t do that.
This is more for my purpose. It’s a reminder because I caught this error in one of the briefs of mine that I was rereading, and that is putting a non-breaking space after a paragraph or section symbol. I agree with this 100% but sometimes I forget to do it. When I go back and read the text later, I see that hanging section symbol or hanging paragraph symbol at the end of the line. I keep thinking to myself, “I need to figure out a way to automate that so I don’t forget.”
To those who haven’t heard of the non-breaking space, it’s essentially a thing that looks exactly like a space. It’s the same width and the same color. I’m joking there, it doesn’t print, but instead of allowing a line break to happen at that juncture, it keeps everything together. As Todd was saying, when you have a citation like a section reference or a paragraph reference or other types of things, maybe even a title Mr., Dr. or Ms., you’d want to keep it with the name.
If you use a type of non-breaking space, which is a special character you type, it’s a signal to your word processors, “Don’t allow an actual line break to happen. Make sure these pieces are always kept together.” It doesn’t come up that often. It’s more of a thing to know about. It’s a hard page break. It’s something to add to your toolbox if you like it. It doesn’t change the visual outcome. It’s more of document engineering tips.
What’s your advice to lawyers who would like to use custom fonts like Equity for example but are worried about exchanging documents with lawyers who don’t have those fonts?
That’s a legitimate concern. Probably the number one concern that lawyers have. Unfortunately, word processor file formats is a restriction that exists way above my pay grade as a digital person. Word processors have never been able to embed fonts into their documents the way that a PDF can. If you use a custom font in your document and you make a PDF, what happens is a copy of the font is inserted into the PDF and travels with that document forever. It ensures that the text always is displayed in the font because the font is right there.
That’s not true with ordinary word processing documents. If you’re working on a settlement agreement and you send opposing counsel DOC or DOCX of the settlement agreement, the fonts don’t travel with it. If you’ve used a custom font when the person on the other side opens it up, they’re not going to see that custom font. I don’t control that. That has been the case for decades. I wish it weren’t the case. I wish they had made a different decision but it seemed like a good idea in 1984 so we’re stuck with it. I joke about typewriter history influencing today’s typography. Certainly, the early history of the personal computer also influences it. There are a lot of dumb things that are leftover but we do our best.
The advice I would have for people who are Equity customers is that Equity was designed to layout almost the same as . If you want, use for your draft document, everybody has that. When you get the final thing, switch it to Equity and it’ll layout almost exactly the same. It’ll look nice. Is that cheating? No. That’s pretty much how every document is made in other arenas. The layout doesn’t happen until the final stage. My advice is don’t worry about it. On the other hand, some lawyers say, “Why would I even want it? The whole point of having my cool font is so the opposing counsel will be completely blown away.” I said, “In that case, it’s hard.”
That’s a practical tip. It can be done. It involves a little more massaging of the document on your end once it comes back if someone’s red-lining, a client for example.
I suppose that’s true. On the other hand, plenty of organizations have adopted these fonts so there are clearly ways to handle it too. I appreciate what people are saying. I always want to be practical about my advice to lawyers. I talk about, “Let’s use the rules from professional typography.” That’s great up to a point. There’s always a cost-benefit analysis and I don’t want people to think, “Butterick is out here with a bunch of fiddly weird stuff.” Some of it is fiddly and weird but you don’t have to get that deep if you don’t want to. Some of it is also basic blocking and tackling. It’s easy.
We haven’t talked about the four key things that I speak of in the book. There are four considerations that are fundamental to how your document works. One is the font choice. One is the line spacing. One is the line length or page margins, which is a different way of looking at it. The other is the point size of the font. Those four considerations are 90% of the typography of your document. Those aren’t hard to understand or fiddle with. Moreover, I will give you some ranges that you can work in. I always say, “Focus on those four things. If you focus on nothing else, work on those four things first.” Maybe that’s all you do. Maybe that’s where you stop and that was great because you’re so far ahead now.
Line length, in particular, is something that’s a huge differentiator. People don’t think about it. When these lines of text get too long, they get weirdly tiring to move your eye from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. I always say, “Go look at magazines, books and newspapers. They do not use excessively long lines.” I’m big on text blocks that are a little more compact. Look at the US Supreme Court opinions. It’s a great example where we still use these document layouts that look like they could have been done on typewriters with the lines far apart and so on.
There are lawyers who will say, “That’s what the court wants.” Maybe there are court rules that require that but there are all the other documents that you make, whether it’s memos, letters, this or that. In that case, you don’t have to make them look like typewriters. Typography can make a difference in all those contexts as well. I encourage people to think and I think about it this way. Do what and where you can. Don’t throw up your hands and say, “I can’t do everything all the time. Therefore, none of this has worth it.” No, it’s not that at all. It’s about adding as much typography to the situation as you can.
Out of curiosity for my own knowledge, how do you come up with the names for your fonts?
For the name Equity, I came up with that while bike riding through Los Angeles. I was going to lunch and I had been working on the font. I was trying to think, “I like something short.” I came over and there was a building and it had the word equitable on it. It’s the Equitable Insurance Company. I was like, “Equitable. That would be a great name.” The next day I thought, “Do you know what would be a better name? Equity.” That’s part of the marketing alchemy. I like short names. I like names that are easy to spell. In typography, we have a lot of fonts already so one of the challenges is finding a name that hasn’t been used. Equity was such a great little discovery for a font that was made for lawyers initially so I had to use it.
I love the fact that there are courts out there that have Equity as their default font. That’s great. That totally fits. Our tradition as we wrap up is to ask our guests for a tip or a war story. You’ve given an episode chock full of tips. I don’t know if you have another one or if you have a war story or anything you’d like to share.
Part of what I like about doing what I do is that it’s fun to do something that’s not partisan. Everybody can benefit from this material. I don’t mind that people have these debates. I’d rather that they debate over whether to use a hyphen or an en dash versus many other things. I’m grateful that lawyers have been picking up this material. It’s been fun to hear from people in law school. Five years later, they’re in their first job. A few years after that, they’re in a firm. It’s hearing from people how the material does improve things for them and almost the shock that they feel when they start to both get it on their own and realizing that moment of, “This is not beyond me.”
This is an important point I make to lawyers too. It’s within your grasp. I don’t want to call it easy. It isn’t necessarily easy. It requires a little bit of training your eyes and mind. Once you pick it up, it becomes a great tool. It’s like what Brian Garner’s books do for lawyers in terms of sharing, “Here are some ways to think about how you use language to help you be a more effective communicator.” To me, it makes me happy that lawyers can find a place for this. Appellate lawyers, most of all, I understand why they like the material and I’m totally grateful for it. I hope it continues to be an engine of power.
Matthew, you’ve been so generous with your time. It’s interesting to hear your personal views on some of these things. We appreciate you coming on. Thanks for spending time with us.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.
About Matthew Butterick
I’m a writer, typographer, programmer, and lawyer. In addition to making fonts, I wrote the books Typography for Lawyers, Practical Typography, and Beautiful Racket. To make these books possible I created Pollen, an open-source publishing system. Pollen was built with the world’s most interesting programming language, Racket. I have a visual studies degree from Harvard University and a law degree from UCLA. I live in Los Angeles with my wife, Jessica, who is an appellate lawyer, and Roxy, who is a boxer dog.
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