The problems that afflict research memos also afflict other long documents like transaction agreements and contracts. You can adapt this recipe for any of them.
My legal-writing teacher in law school required memos to be formatted using classic typewriter habits—one-inch margins on all sides, 12-point font, double-spaced lines. Because of its genesis in typewritten documents, this format is often the basis of institutional document-layout rules. Many courts, for instance, require filings to be in some variation of this format.
But have you ever seen a book, newspaper, or magazine that uses this layout? No. Why not? Because it’s not optimally legible. So why would anyone use it? Because it suits the severely limited capabilities of the typewriter. So if we don’t use typewriters anymore, why does everyone still use this layout?
My thoughts exactly.
Times New Roman—snore.
Underlining in heading.
Headings don’t align horizontally with paragraphs.
Transplanting this document from the 1890s into the present is simple surgery.
Page margins larger (2″ on sides and 1.5″ on top and bottom).
Line length shorter (about 65 characters per line).
Point size smaller.
One space between sentences.
First-line indents reduced.
Line spacing reduced.
Hyphenation turned on.
Times New Roman replaced with Equity.
Headings align with paragraphs.
Headings half a point larger than body text.
Space added before and after headings.
An additional virtue: the revised layout fits more text on the page.
If you’re working on documents with other lawyers, you have less typographic control and should adjust accordingly.
The major problem is font choice. If you pick a font your collaborators don’t have, they won’t see the formatting accurately.
This is one of the few situations where system fonts are your best choice. Your collaborators are likely to have them, and these fonts look good on screen, where much of the work happens. If you like, you can reformat with a different font at the end.
If it’s critical that the document appear the same way on everyone’s screens, the only foolproof technique is to share PDF files and use commenting and review tools on the PDF.