Use readable fonts.

Choosing a font is not just a matter of personal preference.

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Choosing a font is not just a matter of personal preference. Some fonts are more readable than others. The following graphic shows some of the characteristics that distinguish one font from another:

Of these characteristics, x-height is particularly important. Fonts with higher x-heights tend to be more readable than fonts with lower x-heights.

At the outset, note that some fonts have serifs, which are the little notches at the edge of certain letters (e.g., “M”). Legal documents should use serif fonts; sans serif fonts are best reserved for digital and informal settings.

To maximize readability, consider using one of these proportionally spaced, serif fonts:

  • Palatino Linotype or Palatino

  • Book Antiqua

  • Century Schoolbook

  • Baskerville

  • Garamond

Avoid these common fonts:

  • Times New Roman

  • Arial

  • Calibri

  • Courier and other monospaced fonts

  • Verdana

  • Georgia

While many or most attorneys use Times New Roman, you can make your documents stand out by making better design choices — and that starts with readable, aesthetically pleasing typography. Times New Roman is a poor choice because it is unusually narrow, as it was designed for newspaper columns.

Avoid monospaced fonts and underlining.

I described the five fonts recommended above as “proportionally spaced.” That means that the space between their letters varies based on the letters’ characteristics. By contrast, in monospaced fonts, each letter is allocated a fixed amount of space. Here is an example of a monospaced font:

Monospaced fonts are designed to look like they were produced by a typewriter.

Never use monospaced fonts unless you are writing computer code.

A related tip is to avoid underlining, which is another holdover from the typewriter era. Instead, use bold or italics as appropriate — bold for first and second-level headings, and italics for more deeply nested headings or occasional emphasis. Don’t use bold for emphasis in legal documents.

As an example of what not to do, here is a snapshot from a legal brief that looks like it was drafted on a typewriter. The use of underlining, a monospaced font, and all-caps headings are all design sins to avoid:

In short, the best legal documents are readable and aesthetically pleasing — both in their writing mechanics and in their design choices.

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Ryan McCarl (LinkedIn | Twitter | Blog) teaches Advanced Legal Writing at the UCLA School of Law and is a partner at the law firm Rushing McCarl.