Justice Was Blind, But Now Can Read

Matthew Butterick, type designer turned lawyer, is the author of Typography for Lawyers: Essential Tools for Polished and Persuasive Documents. This first book of its kind for the legal profession recalls the turn of the century when handwriting manuals for “business” were popular. But this book (which can be ordered here or here and the website is here) is totally modern.

Nonetheless, I have one very important question for you, Mr. Butterick. And remember you are under oath:

How many lawyers do you think will apply themselves to your principles of type and readability?
In the long term, maybe 25 percent. Bear in mind, this is a profession where we’re basically starting from 0%. I always joke that if I notice a decline in the number of ALL-CAPS PARAGRAPHS IN CONTRACTS, I’ll feel free to take credit. I also think that, like the website, the book will find an audience outside of law.

The good news is that lawyers — even typographically inept lawyers — write me often to say, “You’ve totally sold me on the premise that typography is important.” When you think of all the time designers spend explaining the value of what they do, that’s a huge relief. Lawyers also tell me that implementing good typography is easier than they thought it would be. With a few hours of effort, they can transform their documents.

The bad news is that the legal profession is notoriously hidebound. Anything that challenges a deeply ingrained habit invariably meets resistance. So I don’t expect a lot of big law firms to say “Aha! Typography for Lawyers!” and immediately impose it on the thousand lawyers working there. It would be nice. It would certainly benefit them. But I don’t expect it.

That said, I think we’ll see a generational shift over the next 15–20 years. Lawyers aged 40 and under are the first generation who didn’t ever have to use a typewriter. They came of age in the era of the Font menu. So my plan is to focus on them, and focus on law students. They’ll probably spend part of their career in law firms that make them use Times New Roman. But as they assume leadership roles in those firms, or start their own firms, they’ll put typography to work.

Do you think designers will recommend this to their solicitors and barristers?
I’ve heard from typographers and graphic designers who are recommending this book to lawyers (and nonlawyers) as an educational tool. That’s very satisfying, because I didn’t want this book to be Moronic Typography for Morons. I wanted to treat typography in a serious but accessible way. Matthew Carter sent me a nice note this week saying he was buying copies for his lawyer friends. Even though I recommend in the book that they stop using Georgia and Verdana.

Author’s Note: For more about law, read this about the doctrine of Fair Use on AIGA VOICE. And to read more on the book, visit one of our recent Obsessions.

(Lady Justice, above; “Three Lawyers,” below, by Honore Daumier)

One thought on “Justice Was Blind, But Now Can Read

  1. Linda Joy Kattwinkel, Esq.

    As a former grahpic artist/typographer and current lawyer, I have always been pushing the envelope for good typography in our legal documents.  I co-authored AIGA’s standard form contract, and I think it looks pretty good.  🙂  But even there, we had to use ALL CAPS in certain places.  The ALL CAPS thing is ugly. But it is not a habit, it is a condition forced upon us by some court decisions that have decreed that certain types of language in contracts must be made more prominent (e.g. ALL CAPS) than the rest, or they won’t be effective.  Typically, these are provisions that limit warratnies or iabiliy, for example, when a designer’s contract disclaims liability for loss of business if there is a technical breakdown in a website. Designers always want to change the ALL CAPS (understandably), so we included an explanation in our Standard Form booklet.  See http://www.aiga.org/resources/content/3/5/9/7/documents/aiga_9standard_agreement_07.pdf p. 13.

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