Among legal documents, court filings must conform to the narrowest typographic restrictions—court rules. But except for a few jurisdictions, court rules still give lawyers plenty of typographic latitude.
So why do 99.99% of the court filings in any jurisdiction look alike?
One reason is the bandwagon effect. Lawyers usually assume that all the other lawyers are following the rules, so if everyone uses 12-point Times New Roman or puts two vertical lines in the left margin, it must be that the court demands it. Possible, but unlikely. Read your court rules carefully—you’ll probably be surprised at how much is left to your discretion.
Another reason is fear.
A third reason is force of habit. To create today’s filing, lawyers will often just start with last week’s filing, which was based on the filing from the week before that, and so on back to about 1979. Formatting choices get entrenched even if they don’t relate to the rules.
A fourth reason is lack of typographic skill. How do you depart from the usual dreck while still adhering to the rules? Armed with the information in this book, you should have no problem understanding where court rules are strict and where they’re flexible.
Consistency of typography in court filings helps ensure fairness to the parties. For instance, in jurisdictions that use page limits, if lawyer A sets his briefs at 12 point and lawyer B sets hers at 10 point, then lawyer B will get more words per page. Court rules about typography prevent abuse of these limits.
Court rules about typography also exist as a convenience to the judge and the court staff. Judges don’t want to read sheaves of 9-point text. Rules that set minimum page margins or point size ensure a minimum standard of legibility.
As you put your typographic discretion to work, keep these two goals in mind. Don’t expect your judge to be happy if you exploit typographic loopholes in the rules that defeat these goals.
For instance, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California calls for a proportionally spaced font that’s 14 point or larger. (C.D. Cal. L.R. 11-3.1.1.) How about this one? It’s proportionally spaced. It’s set larger than 14 point. Technically speaking, I’ve complied with the rule. But will a federal judge be impressed with how I’ve interpreted the rule? No way.
Conversely, you shouldn’t worry about typographic improvements that result in fewer words per page, like larger page margins. Unless you need every word or every page allocated to you—and good legal writers never do—why not use the extra white space to improve the typography? (See motions for an example.)
Keep in mind that court rules about typography are not designed to produce good typography. That’s your job. Court rules set minimums and maximums. They’re usually phrased in terms of
I’m not suggesting you should use this discretion to be different for the sake of being different. Rather, you should use this discretion to fill in what the court rules deliberately leave incomplete.
I’m aware that some judges have preferences that are unwritten or that conflict with rules of the jurisdiction. Respect these preferences. Typography is about being effective. If the only font your judge wants to see is Arial Bold Condensed, or your judge wants 23 lines per double-spaced page, then that’s the way it is.
If the rules call for a specific font or point size, use it. For instance, Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.210(a)(2) requires either 14-point Times New Roman or 12-point Courier New. In that case, you have no discretion. Follow the rule.
If the rules offer a choice between a monospaced font and anything else, choose the latter.
If the rules call for a font that’s similar to a particular font, use your discretion carefully. For instance, Calif. Rule of Court 2.105 requires a font
“essentiallyequivalent to Courier, Times New Roman, or Arial”. I take this to mean you should use a font that has the general legibility and length characteristics of Courier, Times New Roman, or Arial. (Meaning, pretty much any font in font recommendations.) I don’t take the rule to mean you can use only those three fonts. If the rule meant that, it would have said so.
If the rules allow you to use either a serif or a sans serif font for body text, I recommend a serif font. Most books, newspapers, and magazines use serif fonts for body text. It’s the traditional choice and still the best choice.
If the rules call for a proportionally spaced font, use your discretion. Just about every font is proportionally spaced, so this kind of rule doesn’t create a meaningful limitation. A tasteful serif font, like those shown in font recommendations, is the best bet.
If the rules set a minimum point size, use the minimum. For instance, many courts require that text be set at 12 point or larger. As you know from point size, 12 point is already pretty big. No need to go bigger. (I’ve only found a handful of courts that permit 11 point, and none that permit 10 point.)
The rules may allow page margins that result in oversize line lengths. Feel free to widen the page margins to get a more reasonable line length. For instance, Calif. Rule of Court 2.107 requires margins
“atleast one inch from the left edge ... [and] at least 1⁄2 inch from the right edge”. At maximum, this creates seven-inch lines, which will be too long for most 12-point fonts. The “atleast” qualifier is a signal that you needn’t fill up every square inch.
Likewise, the rules may allow you to fit a certain number of lines per page. You may want to use fewer if it makes for a more legible and appealing layout. Remember the ninth maxim of page layout—don’t fear white space.
Line spacing rules should be interpreted arithmetically, not as word-processor lingo. If a rule calls for double-spaced lines, set your line spacing to exactly twice the point size of the body text. Don’t rely on the
“Double”line-spacing option in your word processor, which may not be equivalent. For instance, in Word, “Double”line spacing is about 15% larger than true double spacing. This reduces the number of lines per page.
Avoid putting rules and borders within or around the page that aren’t explicitly required. It clutters the page. For example, in Los Angeles courts, almost every litigator puts two vertical lines on the left edge of the page and one vertical line on the right. But this practice is not required by any rule. In state court, the line on the left is optional—you can use a solid single or double line, but you can also use a
“verticalcolumn of space at least ⅕ inch wide”. (Calif. Rule of Court 2.108(4).) Nothing is required on the right side. Meanwhile, our federal court requires no vertical lines on either side. Follow the rules, not the crowd.
If a court rule explicitly requires vertical lines, make them no more than half a point thick. This will keep them relatively unobtrusive.
The tips above apply equally to PDFs. PDFs preserve your formatting exactly, including fonts, so you don’t have to worry that readers will see something different from what you intended. (Though make sure you know how to make a pdf correctly.)
But if you have to file certain documents (e.g., proposed orders) as Word or WordPerfect files, be careful. Word-processor file formats require the recipient to have the same fonts installed. Therefore, to be safe, set these documents in Times New Roman or another standard system font to ensure they display accurately.