Document Aesthetics

Working as a trial lawyer, there was no shortage of CLEs, articles, papers, and even experts out and about that taught about honing appearances for trial. First was spiffin' up the trial lawyer: "Dress conservatively. Wear earth tones. Ditch the pinky ring. And get a new tie; that lucky tie of yours has seen better days." And then the client makeover: "Your boyfriend might think it's cute, but no jury in these parts is goin' to award money to a girl wearin' a thong. And get your teeth whitened. Go to the store, yeah, that one and get some Sunday-go-to-meetin' clothes. Long sleeves. Get long sleeves. Nobody's gonna like that thing on your arm." Regrettably, this attention to detail, presentation, and appearances usually doesn't work its way down to the papers. While they go to great length to doll themselves and their witnesses up to impress juries, trial lawyers risk throwing that all away by filing some of the ugliest documents on the planet. What judge or jury member is going to be impressed with a lawyer whose documents look like they were cut-and-pasted together by a fifth grader?

To demonstrate what I mean, i took a stroll on PACER and pulled a motion from a case pending in the Northern District of Texas, our home federal district. The first photo is the first page of that motion (the second motion I clicked on at random). For your viewing pleasure, I've included first two pages of one of our firm's own motions, filed in the same district, for comparison.

What's wrong with motion number one? Let me tell you:

  • Title. Where besides a lawyer's motion and some used car ads do you see anything in all caps? I don't know what famous Charles Darrow started the practice, but it's a bad one. Words in all caps are hard to read and, besides that, they're screamers (ask any texting teen). The better practice is to follow the New York Times's Manual of Style and Usage: capitalize just the principle words. You'll come across much more level-headed and that's a good thing. And leave the underlining at home; its a relic of the typewriter age and doesn't belong in a modern document.
  • Criminal Action. This side title demonstrates just how little care we take in drafting our documents. The case number contains a "CR" so it isn't necessary. Think: less is more.
  • Margins. While Microsoft (we use Macs) might be good at making software, it isn't at setting margins. Here, the lawyer used the 1" margin default. While it might get a few more words on a page, that's not the goal; persuasion is. White space in a document is a good thing; it gives the reader room to breathe. Set your margins at 1.25" and let the judge breathe a little about your case.
  • Irregular Line Spacing. You'd think that this is out of the ordinary, but it's not. There's no good reason why the first paragraph of the motion should be 1.5 spaces and the rest of the motion two spaces. That kind of sloppiness speaks volumes about the lawyer and how little he cares about himself, the court, and his client.
  • Right Margin Justification. Justifying the right margin makes the motion look like boilerplate. And when it looks like boilerplate, it'll be treated like boilerplate. An unjustified margin doesn't just look professional, it helps the reader to intuitively follow the line of your argument. The only things that should be right-margin justified are block quotes (which present another question altogether).
  • Footer font. On this particular motion, the lawyer, for some odd reason, adopted a different font for his footer. Poor judgment. The only time that a motion or brief should have more than one font is when the lawyer wants to use that Old English font for his cover page (we do that all the time). Other than that, font changes should be limited to italics, bold, or some other variation of the main body font.
  • Non-serif font. Egad! This is the worst mistake of all and we see it all the time. Non-serif fonts, like the Myriad Pro that we use on this site, are okay for computer screens, but they aren't for books and papers. When was the last time that you read a book, magazine, or newspaper in Arial or Helvetica? Publishers know the value of fonts with serifs and lawyers should too.
  • Content. Lots we could say, but let's just ask you this: Imagine that you are a very busy trial judge and the first page of both of these motions hits your desk at the same time. Which one tells you what you want to know and which one wastes your time?
  • If you'd like to impress judges and juries with your documents as much as you do with suits and ties, pick up a copy of Bryan Garner's The Winning Brief. It's well worth the $75 asking price (it might be cheaper on Amazon). And then there's also  Typography for Lawyers—not as extensive as Garner's materials, but it should pique your interest in engendering credibility by way of document design. It's definitely worth a click.