If you want to send a message that you really don’t care what your document looks like, or that you never really gave it any thought, then this is the font for you. It might mean that you don’t really understand computers very well, and never bothered to learn how to change the default font. It probably also means that you never took a moment to consider the judge (or the client or whoever is reading what you wrote) and how she will have to slog through yet another gray document filled with too-small text that looks like every other one she’s read today.
But mostly it just means that you’re apathetic, and that you don’t consider what you write to be work worthy of craftsmanship.
So what is this font that says so much about you, and what should you use instead?
It’s Times New Roman, of course, the ubiquitous typeface of uncaring attorneys. It resides on just about every personal computer in the world, since it’s a system font on both PCs and Macs. More importantly, it was long the default font for Microsoft Word, which itself is the default word processor for lawyers nationwide. (In 2007, Microsoft replaced Times New Roman with a new sans serif font called Calibri. As a sans serif font, it lacks the little feet — serifs — at the ends of letters. This makes it better suited for on-screen reading, but worse for reading in print.)
Lawyers not being too technologically advanced, they ended up using the default font on the default word processor for all of their documents. As a result, most legal documents (including letters and memos) are stuck in the rut that is Times New Roman.
But don’t take my word for it; I’m no expert. Instead, listen to what Matthew Butterick has to say. Butterick is a California lawyer, but before that, he was a Boston font designer. In addition to running his LA litigation firm, Butterick Law Corporation, he also consults as a typographic expert. His new book, Typography for Lawyers, is available from Amazon (affiliate link).
Here’s what Butterick has to say about the message you send when you use Times New Roman:
When Times New Roman appears in a book, document, or advertisement, it connotes apathy. It says, “I submitted to the font of least resistance.” Times New Roman is not a font choice so much as the absence of a font choice, like the blackness of deep space is not a color. To look at Times New Roman is to gaze into the void.…
If you have a choice about using Times New Roman, please stop. Use something else.
Butterick makes an appeal to lawyers’ vanity, noting that we usually care about appearances in things like the business cards we hand out:
Did you make your business cards and letterhead at your local copy shop? No, you didn’t, because you didn’t want them to look shoddy and cheap. If you cared enough to avoid the copy shop, then you care enough to avoid Times New Roman. Times New Roman connotes apathy. You are not apathetic.
Now many of you simply don’t notice things like typefaces. I’ve had lawyers hand me drafts of briefs or letters where a font change (from our firm font to Times New Roman, usually) occurs in the middle of a sentence and not have them realize it. (This often happens in Word when you cut and paste from another document.) Many lawyers figure that if they don’t notice fonts, then neither will their readers. And I agree, to a point. That is to say, I agree that most readers haven’t read up on good typography, and couldn’t tell a slab-serif font from a seven iron.
But all readers are used to reading professionally typeset books and magazines, where the proper rules of typography are carefully followed. And they never see a magazine or book typeset in Times New Roman. Never. So even if they can’t explain why your documents don’t look professional, they still notice it on some level.
Other lawyers will protest that only their beautiful words matter, and the ideas they convey, and not the format in which they appear on the page. Butterick has an answer for that:
The text matters, but if that’s all that mattered, then everything could be set in 12-point Times New Roman. And that would be the equivalent of staring at the lectern. In the same way that good speaking skills matter during an oral argument, good typography matters in a written document.
Most of us lawyers care about our appearance, whether we are in court or in a boardroom or at a client meeting. We dress a certain way and act a certain way, trying to persuade the people we’re speaking with to do something (hire us, grant our motion, accept our offer). If only the words we spoke mattered and not the rest of the package, we wouldn’t care about appearances. But that’s not the case; appearances do matter. On paper as well as in real life.
So maybe you’re starting to buy this notion, and are willing to consider a different default font for your documents. (That’s a benefit of being at a small firm; it’s easier to get your firm to change its font.) But what font should you use?
For the past decade, my firm has used Adobe Garamond at 13 points. Even though we use it a full point size bigger than the default Times New Roman, it doesn’t take up that much more space on the page. I like it because it looks classier than Times.
On the website that accompanies Butterick’s book, he recommends Sabon (which is similar to Adobe Garamond) for court pleadings and memos. He also likes Stempel Garamond, Lyon Text, Miller, Minion, Williams Caslon, and Mercury. You can see examples of these on the site. (By the way, a large part of the book’s material is on the website, so you can get a good taste of it before buying the book, which you still should do. Unless you’re apathetic.)
By the way, don’t worry if you don’t know how to change the default font on Word (let alone the style settings). You’re not alone. A Google search of “microsoft word change default font” (not in quotes) yields nearly a million hits. (Then again, at least those million people bothered to research the answer. What’s your excuse?) Or you can RTFM.
So stop showing the world that you don’t care what your documents look like (or don’t know how to use a computer). Buy Butterick. Experiment with different fonts until you find the one that fits the professional, unapathetic lawyer you really are.
Updated: An astute reader, Brad, points out that the Supreme Court won’t allow you to file briefs in Times New Roman. For that matter, you likewise can’t use any of the fonts mentioned in this post. Supreme Court Rule 33(1)(b) requires you instead to use a typeface in the Century family (like New Century Schoolbook) set at 12 points. At least it’s not Comic Sans, which is reserved for Cleveland Cavaliers owners Dan Gilbert.
Typography for Lawyers [Amazon (affiliate link)]
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Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a consultancy that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd has also spent 13 years running the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at email@example.com.