Typography for Lawyers—Strunk & White’s “Stylish” Companion Volume

BOOK REVIEW: Appearance matters. We dress well when appearing in court because we are professionals. Yet, much of an attorney’s work involves written communication. How can we similarly reflect professional appearance in our writing?

Typography for Lawyers delivers a concise, useful, and relevant introduction to “dressing-up” professional documents. (The book’s format and writing style are reminiscent of the classic, Strunk & White, grammatical text. These “companion volumes” deserve a place, within easy reach, in any attorney’s library.) The author successfully balances conciseness with comprehensiveness.

In 216 easy-reading pages, author Matthew Butterick successfully introduces good typography and provides a basic, how-to guide for implementing good typography in your documents—using no tools other than common word processors. The author defines typography as “the visual component of the written word”—white space, paragraph formatting, use of proper character symbols, fonts, page layout, etc.

The breadth of coverage is simply remarkable. The thin book is divided into five major sections:

  • definition and discussion of typography (background);
  • proper use of special characters and symbols (such as curly quotes, apostrophes, ellipses, hyphens, dashes, and math symbols);
  • proper text formatting (such as bold/italic conventions, small caps, kerning, font selection, headings, and outline numbering);
  • overview of important page-layout issues (such as alternatives to “single space” and “double space,” tables, line spacing, line length, and keep-lines-together); and
  • sample documents showing “before and after” results of good typography.

Handy, quick-references inside the front and back covers help the reader quickly locate materials.

The main sections are broken into Basic Rules and Advanced Rules sub-sections. The Basic Rules are essential practices—everyone should implement them. Quote character issues (do you know how to distinguish real quotes from straight quotes?), dashes (em, en, and hyphens distinguished), goofy fonts, and line length are covered in the various Basic Rules Sections. The Advanced Rules are best practices—most attorneys should aspire to these rules. Tabs (do you know how to use the types, yes multiple types, of tabs?), nonbreaking spaces, effective font mixing, columns, styles, and keep-with-next-paragraph are Advanced Rules issues.

Each sub-section provides ample, but not belabored, examples of a general issue or typography problem. The author then illustrates a solution or provides options to resolve the problem. Many of the illustrations also give specific keyboard sequences (Mac and PC) or word processor commands (Word, WordPerfect, and Pages) to implement the examples and solutions.

Butterick covers memos, motions, résumés, business cards, letterhead, and letters. (However, the typography conventions presented apply to any written communications.) Notably, Butterick recognizes that local court rules on formatting may apply to some documents and provides tips that may help even if local court rules require specific presentation formats.

The book is not perfect—although close to being so. Perhaps counter-intuitively (since many incorrectly consider “typography” and “fonts” as synonymous), beginners may find the fonts section weak. The fonts discussion seems to reflect the highly-refined perspective of a “font connoisseur.” A beginner might struggle to see the extremely subtle differences between seemingly similar fonts (and to figure out why such differences matter). The author provides a system fonts table (listing fonts available with most computers) that may be useful for general selection of fonts, but the subsequent pages of the text displaying samples of commercial fonts (which you must purchase) seem superfluous. Overall, however, the limitations are minor and do not materially detract from the general utility of the book.

Typography for Lawyers is simply fun to read—frequently resulting in “ah, that’s how that’s done” moments. The reader is led on a journey through good typography techniques that makes you want to implement these simple, but effective, changes to your writing. The techniques not only enhance the reception of your documents but can also enhance overall productivity. The book is relevant to all attorneys and legal professionals who take their work seriously. Nutshell: read it; apply it.

Book Information
Typography for Lawyers: Essential Tools for Polished & Persuasive Documents
by Matthew Butterick

Review first published: 14 February 2011
Revised: 11 March 2011