Formatting documents for branding, readability
Danielle DavisRoe, Affinity Consulting
When was the last time you thought about what font to use in a document? Unfortunately, most legal document formatting occurs “the way it has always been done.” Further, many lawyers mistakenly believe they are required to use Times New Roman font. While some courts require or prefer Times New Roman, most do not.
While document formatting is just one piece of the branding puzzle, anyone comfortable using a word processor can easily tackle it. There is no need to hire a graphic designer or other professional to change document formatting. There is no time like the present to carry over consistent branding into documents your organization produces.
Start the document branding journey by carefully considering the font. Generally speaking, legal documents should contain only one font, and all documents produced by a legal organization should use the same font (except as required by specific jurisdictions). Therefore, you should not take font choice lightly.
Select from system fonts – specifically those included with Windows and, therefore, available on nearly every computer. If working from a Mac, be careful not to select fonts included only with macOS. Proprietary fonts (those purchased from third parties) are expensive and will not display correctly on computers that do not have those fonts installed. For anyone frequently exchanging word processor documents with anyone outside the organization, proprietary fonts are not an option.
Once you have narrowed down the list of system fonts, the next step is to select either a serif or sans serif font. Serif fonts have “feet” on the letters; Times New Roman and Courier New are examples of serif fonts. Sans serif fonts do not have feet; Arial and Calibri are examples of sans serif fonts. Traditionally, serif fonts are considered more readable because typographers design the “feet” to draw the reader’s eye rightward across a word, sentence, etc. In the same vein, sans serif fonts were used for titles, headings, and other short phrases because of their more “abrupt” design style. However, more recent studies have shown no differences in readability between serif and sans serif fonts. Even though most lawyers use serif fonts, very few courts require their use.
Whether a serif or sans serif font is the right choice for you depends on whether the brand is more traditional or modern. Serif fonts give documents a traditional look. Sans serif fonts give a document a modern, clean look. Consider the rest of the organization’s brand when deciding between serif and sans serif fonts.
Additionally, fonts are either monospaced or proportionally spaced. Monospaced fonts’ characters are given equal width. Proportional fonts’ characters are given the appropriate space based on the width of the character. In Courier New (a monospaced font), for example, thin characters (such as an “i”) are given the same space as wider characters (such as an “m”). In Times New Roman (a proportionally spaced font), an “i” is given only as much space as it needs – considerably less space than an “m.” As a result, proportional fonts are significantly easier to read. Unless required by your jurisdiction, avoid monospaced fonts.
Consider how each font looks when reading the document and how the fonts look when viewing the document from a distance. Further, some fonts look better on the screen than in print and vice versa. Indeed, some fonts are designed with a target “platform” (i.e., paper, TV, LCD, etc.) expressly in mind. For example, with the release of Office 2007 for Windows (and 2008 for Mac), Microsoft changed the default Word font from Times New Roman (a serif font commissioned by The Times of London in 1931 for use on newsprint) with Calibri (a sans serif font designed with digital reading in mind) because, as Word program manager Joe Friend explained, “We believed that more and more documents would never be printed but would solely be consumed on a digital device.”
Be sure to view the font on the screen and in print before deciding on a font. When in doubt, consider whether the typical reader will print the document or read it on the screen.
Once you select a font, the next step in branding is to determine how the paragraphs will look. Paragraph settings, such as line spacing, spacing between paragraphs, alignment, and indents, are all intertwined. One cannot select a single paragraph attribute in a vacuum.
Whether paragraphs are double-spaced, single-spaced, or somewhere in-between affects how the document looks and its readability. Double-spaced paragraphs are ideal for editing on paper, and single-spaced paragraphs are better for reading. Frequently, courts require paragraphs to be double-spaced. Be sure to check with your jurisdiction on spacing requirements. On the other hand, for contracts, estate plans, and other documents not filed with the court, consider single-spacing to improve readability.
When working with double-spaced paragraphs, include a first-line indent to set each paragraph apart. Spacing between double-spaced paragraphs is unnecessary and will needlessly increase the page count. Even when paragraphs are double-spaced, headings should be single-spaced. Very few courts, if any, require headings to be double-spaced.
Consider using 12 points of space between single-spaced paragraphs. Twelve points are the equivalent of a single blank line (essentially, instead of indenting on the next line after you hit the “Enter” key once, hit “Enter” a second time so there is a line of space between the two paragraphs). This white space helps readers easily see where each paragraph begins and ends and provides a visual resting place. Especially in complex legal documents, a visual resting place is critical for improving readability. When using a blank line between each single-spaced paragraph, it is unnecessary to use a first-line indent. For example, see how this article’s paragraphs are formatted.
Finally, consider alignment. Most legal documents are fully justified (the text spans from the left margin to the right margin). To line up the text along both margins, the word processor varies the width of the space between words from line to line. While full justification looks nice from a distance, it is more challenging to read compared to text that is left-aligned with even spacing between words. Carefully consider whether the appearance of the document or its readability is more important.
Formatting must be cohesive
No matter what formatting you choose, the most important part of branding through document formatting is creating a cohesive look for your organization. All lawyers must be on board with the decisions made for the documents to positively reflect the organization’s branding. Selecting one consistent set of formatting guidelines for the business is more important than getting the formatting just right.
We’re here to help
The Missouri Bar has scores of document management resources on topics, including rules for template building and establishing file naming conventions in our Practice Management Center. If you have questions or want advice on managing your documents, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org or schedule a no-cost consult with the experts at Affinity Consulting.