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Prudence in Legal Document Design

As part of the coursework for Legal Problem Solving (LPS), all students contribute a post to this course blog. Students develop posts from a weekly journal entry, which also is required coursework. The purpose of journal entries is to invite deeper, personal reflection on the subject matter in LPS, reflection being a key component of content understanding and mastery. This course explores how human centered design and other creative problem solving methods and mindsets inform three areas: (1) the delivery of legal services, (2) how we solve clients' (legal) problems, and (3) how law students can intentionally shape their professional journeys. Each student post will touch on one or more of these three areas.

This LPS post is by Dave Eckelmann, Vanderbilt Law School class of 2019.

Alix Devendra’s visit to our Legal Problem Solving class immediately convinced me that something was very wrong with the design of most legal documents.

Briefs, memos, contracts, and other legal documents all tend to follow the same typographical formula: Slim margins, 12-point font, and double-spaced lines. Alix pointed out that this formula is a holdover derived from the functional limitations of typewriters. It was the best typewriters could do, so it became the standard-bearer for all legal documents.

Here’s an example of a boilerplate typewriter-formatted Confidentiality Agreement:

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Evidence suggests that more readable formats exist. Formats that are not only more optimally legible, but are also more persuasive because of their typography. Because of this, Alix insisted that we move on from our current typewriter formatting paradigm for legal documents to something better. Our documents, she explained, can be more readable and more persuasive with larger margins, wider fonts, smaller line spacing, and a host of other typographical tricks. Legal documents should look more like books, magazines, and newspapers.

Here is that same Confidentiality Agreement altered to incorporate some of Alix’s design suggestions:

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The difference is night and day.

So the evidence favoring redesigning our legal documents is compelling. But a massive problem lingers: What can we do about it?

It’s not much of a stretch to say that lawyers, as a group, tend to resist change. And, by and large, lawyers are the audience that will soon receive my memos, briefs, and other legal documents. As a new attorney, I’d be apprehensive about deviating from the formats lawyers know and expect. Especially in a competitive legal market. I’d be taking a risk by rocking the boat. I’m sure I’m not the one who feels that way.

But this apprehension, no matter how justifiable, does not have to rule the day. Good document design is important. The evidence shows it. So figuring out how new lawyers can incorporate good document design into their work products without fear of repercussions is a worthwhile endeavor.

So I came up with three ideas for new lawyers who want to create better designed legal documents, but aren’t sure of how to prudently go about it:

1) Context is Key

Context will be the crucial factor when incorporating good document design into your legal work products. What is your position? Who is your audience? What is your firm’s culture? Size? The answers to each of these questions will allow you to gauge the appropriateness of when and how to incorporate Alix’s design suggestions into your work.

If you join a small or medium-sized law firm, you will likely be interacting with more clients on a day-to-day basis. Contracts and memos intended for clients directly can and should be better designed with wide margins, wide fonts, and smaller spacing. The same can be said for documents you prepare if you work in-house.

Even if you’re a new associate at a large law firm, you will still have opportunities to incorporate better document design into your work. If you are preparing a document for a mentor or a colleague who trusts you, you may be able to take more risks and produce a better designed document for him or her.

Briefs, too, can better designed in certain contexts. While it would be inadvisable to have your first brief look like a magazine article, you will likely be able to adjust the design of your briefs and court docket documents following Alix’s format as you build relationships with judges and learn more about their preferences.

And while better legal document design is our key aim, better document design in general is an admirable goal. Emails, letters to clients, and other forms of written correspondence can all benefit from the same formatting principles. In the context of general communications, better design will always be appropriate.

Regardless of where you begin your career, you’ll have opportunities to incorporate good design into your legal work. Know that any amount of good design helps, and it’s just a matter of finding the right context.

2) Pick and Choose Your Tools

Even if you are concerned about negative reactions to better designed legal work products, you can still create understated, yet impactful changes in the design and readability of your documents by picking and choosing design elements to incorporate into your work.

The most readable documents generally have 45-90 characters per line. This is why wider fonts and wide margins are so important. But any incremental advance you make towards that character range will make your document that much more readable.

This means that something as simple as replacing character-dense fonts like Times New Roman with wider fonts like Century Schoolbook will create a better document. The same can be said for slightly narrowing the margins. Another tool involves avoiding underlines and CAPS LOCK for emphasis, and, instead, using italics or bold. This allows you to emphasize words, while maintaining their shape, which is critical for readability.

Taken together, your documents might not look all that different from other legal documents, but they will be eminently better designed and more readable.

3) History and The Supreme Court are on Your Side

If you are ever questioned about any of the above document design choices while practicing, you have a major authoritative voice to rely on: The U.S. Supreme Court. Here’s an example of a recent Supreme Court slip opinion:

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The Court has designed its slip opinions for maximum readability. It follows Alix’s document design formula: Wide margins, wide font (Century Schoolbook to be precise), and single spacing. The Court's use of this format can be a terrific tool to persuade lawyers around you who may doubt the merits of document design.

If resistance continues, take solace in knowing that this isn’t the first time the legal profession has been slow to change regarding an issue in legal writing. Good legal writing is clear, concise, and made up of plain language. But as recently as the 90s, some lawyers favored “legalese.” They asserted that plain language could not could not adequately cover the nuances needed in legal writing. This argument appears ridiculous today; the best legal writers in the country lawyers are now lauded for their ability to use clear language to express complicated ideas.

Holdovers who prefer typewriter-based legal document formatting will linger, just as those who favored “legalese” lingered. But the evidence supports document design clarity. And the proof is in the product. Just as those who favored “legalease” eventually changed their tune after seeing great plain language in legal writing, so too will many of these holdovers change their tune when confronted with a more readable legal document.

Until then, don’t be afraid of creating better documents. As long as you remain prudent in your design choices, you can help spark a new legal document standard regardless of where you are in your legal career.