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Use design tips to write attractive legal documents.
Attorneys can make documents more visually appealing by following a few basic design rules.
This post collects some essential document-design tips to help attorneys write briefs that stand out and are easy to read. For more tips on legal document design, check out Ryan McCarl’s Elegant Legal Writing (chapter 12) and Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers.
Spacing and alignment
Left-align body text. Use left rather than justified alignment for body text. Text should be justified only in block quotations.
Use 1.2× or 1.5× line spacing. There is a reason books and magazines do not use double or even 1.5× spacing. Although single-spaced lines are too narrow, excessive line spacing makes text harder to read. In letters and other documents besides court filings, I recommend 1.2× line spacing. In court filings, I recommend 1.5× line spacing. If the court’s rules mandate double spacing, consider setting the spacing to exactly double the text size (e.g., exactly 24 points of line spacing for 12-point text).1
Delete excess spaces. Use one space rather than two after sentence-ending punctuation. Avoid having leading or trailing spaces at the beginning or end of a line or paragraph.
Create manual page breaks. Most attorneys allow their word processors to decide where to end one page and start the next. But this often leads to visually awkward results, such as an argument section that begins at the bottom of a page. When that happens, consider overriding the software by inserting a page break before the heading. The default keyboard shortcut for a page break is Ctrl + Enter (Cmd + Enter on a Mac).
Use nonbreaking spaces to prevent awkward line breaks. Using a nonbreaking space (aka hard space) prevents line breaks at the space’s location. This can be used to prevent visually awkward results, such as having a line end with a section (§) or paragraph (¶) symbol. Create a keyboard shortcut (such as Ctrl + Shift + Space) to insert nonbreaking spaces quickly.
Use hanging indents. Use hanging indents for bulleted lists, numbered lists, outlines, and footnotes.
Avoid the Tab key. Use Word’s formatting styles to set indentation rules. To learn about Word’s Styles feature, check out chapter 11.6 of Elegant Legal Writing as well as Ryan McCarl’s “Advanced Microsoft Word for Lawyers” video.
Use curved quotation marks. Unless you’re writing computer code, use curved (aka “smart”) quotation marks ( “ ” ) and apostrophes ( ’ ), not straight ones ( ' and " ). Use prime symbols ( ′ and ″ ) only for measurements. I use a Microsoft Word macro to automatically convert any straight quotation marks to curved marks whenever I export the document as a PDF.
Use en dashes for numeric ranges. In numeric ranges, use an en dash (–) rather than a hyphen (-). Mac keyboards have an en dash key built in (hold the option key and press the hyphen key). You can also create a keyboard shortcut (such as Ctrl + Shift + N) and text expansion snippet (such as “zend”) to insert en dashes.
Use em dashes. Strong writers often use em dashes to manage emphasis and vary sentence structure; see this post for guidance on how to use them. Be sure not to use a single or double hyphen (- or --) in place of an em dash (—). You can usually make em dashes in Word by pressing the hyphen key twice; if that doesn’t work, check your AutoFormat settings in Word’s Preferences pane.
As with en dashes, I recommend creating a keyboard shortcut (such as Ctrl + Shift + M) and text expansion snippet (such as “emd”) to insert em dashes. It’s up to you whether to surround an em dash with spaces; I do in my documents, but some style guides (notably the Chicago Manual of Style § 2.14) call for connecting em dashes directly to the surrounding words.
Ryan McCarl is a founding partner of Rushing McCarl LLP, author of Elegant Legal Writing (U. Cal. Press 2024), and adjunct professor at Loyola Law School. For more writing tips, subscribe to the Elegant Legal Writing newsletter and follow Ryan on LinkedIn. McCarl’s book is now available for preorder.
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See Matthew Butterick, Typography for Lawyers: Essential Tools for Polished & Persuasive Documents 140 (Jones McClure 2013).