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Transcript of Legal Geekery Interview with Matthew Butterick (@typogforlawyers)

Please note, this is not a word-for-word transcription. It’s simply the best I could do with my measly 120 wpm typing abilities. If you’d like to hear the entire interview, head on over to the podcast.


Legal Geekery: Can you give us a little pitch for lawyers and law students and why they should care about typography?

Matthew Butterick: Lawyers and law students should care about typography for the same reason any professional writer should — and I do consider lawyers and law students professional writers. In any written document, typography plays a part and readers care about typography. So for the writer, typography is a tool that will improve your writing by conserving reader attention, and by reinforcing the goals of the document.

LG: I know you have a strong background in typography. Did you go into law school thinking you were going to put that background to use in your own work product or did you become frustrated at how generic everything looked? How did it evolve?

MB: No, I wouldn’t say I went to law school expecting to upturn the established order on typography. I had an early run in with my LRAW professor regarding our first assignment. I used a nice font and nice margins, and he said “No, no, no, you’ve gotta do 12 point Courier, 28 lines to the page.” And that was my first loud wake up call. And after that I followed the rules.

But when I got out of law school, I kind of realized that, wait a minute, all the legal typography is bad and in most cases there isn’t a reason for it. For most documents lawyers create, there aren’t those kinds of rules and it’s just sort of, lawyers are using the bad habits, and urban legends, and typewriter habits, and there’s no need for it.

LG: Knowing what you know now, do you think you would have put up more of a fight with your LRAW professor to see if you could get those things changed? Or should law students sit back and accept whatever arbitrary guidelines their professors have adopted?

MB: Legal Writing professors are the greatest unsung heroes of legal academic because the only skill you learn in law school that is valuable at all is legal writing yet all the legal writing professors are sort of this academic underclass, which I think is just so horrible and terrible. So I don’t spend any time criticizing LARW professors—if they all want to do Courier 12 point, then do it and follow what they say.

When we first came out with the book, the publisher said, “hey LARW professors, anyone who wants a free copy can have one.” We gave away a lot. What they do with it, I don’t know. I had one professor who told me that the reason he always makes student use Courier is because when he’s teaching Bluebook, it’s easier to see errors if something is improperly underlines or whatnot. But at the same time when you get into your legal practice, you’re never going to submit a memo to your supervising partner in Courier 12 point, so I feel like at a certain point you have to take the training wheels off and be able to see an italicized comma from across the room. The professor kind of agreed with me and told me for the Spring semester he would relax the rules and let the students do what they want. And I thought that was a good compromise.

To law students, do I advise them to put up a fight? No. Giving law professors a hard time is sort of the national past-time at law schools, so I think they’re pretty much immune to it. Put it to work on your resume. There’s many opportunities outside class to start to get value from this stuff.

LG: What would you do if you had a judge, and you know for a fact this judge prefers things a certain way. Even if from a typographical perspective, it’s bad, would you give it to the judge?

MB: So if the judge wants everything in Arial Bold Condensed? I haven’t been in front of a judge who’s made any edicts like that, but one thing you learn in court is you do what the judge says. You always do what the judge says, no matter what. So if the judge says he wants everything done in 16 point Comic Sans, it’s like, “Yes, Your Honor.” The point is it’s not bad typography in that context. The judge has said, I’m your audience, I want it a certain way. That’s how you do it.

LG: So given all the legal documents you’ve looked at, what’s your biggest pet peeve when it comes to legal documents?

MB: The overuse of ALL CAPS. It needs to end. It’s just such a ludacrous convetion.

LG: I’ve actually been wondering if there’s a rule that certain things have to be all caps. It seems so ludacrous, I have to wonder who started it.

MB: Well I know who started it, do You want to know?

LG: Sure.

MB: Well I think a lot of it goes back to the Uniform Commercial Code. Certain provisions of the UCC require that certain provisions be conspicuous. And if you look up the definition of conspicuous, it says: “heading in capitals.” But it doesn’t say that caps will always make something conspicuous. Yet lawyers in their usual fashion think, “If I put something in all caps, it will be conspicuous.” Which is not true. Lawyers adopt these little rules of thumb at their peril. So when I say not to use all caps, it’s not just typographical, it’s also cautionary.

LG: Aside from not using all caps, what would you say is one tip that everyone can do to improve their work product?

MB: I think just changing the approach to the text block, the dimensions of the text block. Everyone could make the lines narrower in the horizontal direction, they could move the lines closer together in the verical direction, and they could make the text smaller and make everything more compact. That is a huge problem with all legal documents, and it goes back to the typewriter habits where everything went edge-to-edge and was double-spaced. Look, once you have a computer, you don’t do that, you shouldn’t do that, you don’t need to do that. Stop it!

LG: What’s the best way to handle someone like one of our associates who realizes that your typography practices make forms look “really pretty” but who doesn’t want to put the time or the effort into figuring out what makes good typography?

MB: How long has this gentleman been a lawyer, because I don’t know about you, but a lot of things about being a lawyer are pretty boring. I think it comes back to the practical argument. Okay, you don’t want to do the work? Well, if you have a secretary or a paralegal and you want to teach them to do the work, I don’t care. All I want to explain to you, lawyer who isn’t interested in the material, is that you can’t make this stuff not important by ignoring it.

In the same way that you can say, I don’t like how the subjunctive tense of the verb sounds so I’m not going to use it, or I don’t like how this word is spelled, so I’m going to spell it wrong. That’s ridiculous—you don’t do that. And people who know better make judgments about your work based on that. And maybe that’s unfair or wrong, but it’s the way it is. So I guess my argument to him would be, hey, if you’re not interested in it, that’s fine. All I need you to do is acknowledge that it does affect your work, and you’re willing to do the minimum to improve your work.

LG: I like that.

MB: But why wouldn’t you want to make your work better though? If this fellow were going down to criminal court and had a big coffee stain on his shirt, wouldn’t he want you to tell him? Or does he think it would be okay to show up in a dirty shirt? We don’t have a problem convincing people that laundry is a good idea. So for me, it doesn’t seem like typography should be such a hard sell.

But you know, it may be that people may feel insecure. They feel like, hey, I need to have some kind of traditional or design sense to be able to put this stuff to work. And if they don’t feel that way, maybe they feel like they’ll just ignore the whole thing to just keep it off their desk. I go through pains in the book to assure people that you don’t need to know about design? Okay, I have a Visual Arts degree, sure, but you know what? You don’t need to be me. You don’t have to be a fashion designer to be able to dress nicely for court. You don’t need to know about design in order to improve the typography in your document.

LG: Give us a quick argument about why people should stop double spacing after periods.

MB: There’s two reasons. There’s a reason of typographic visual coherence. When you have two spaces after a period, you create an extra gap in the sentence. And multiplied across a paragraph, you can have rivers of whitespace appear. It tends to disrupt the overall even color of the paragraph. When a typeface designer is working on a font, one of the things they’re going for is a nice, even consistency of the text. And that’s what these double spaces do is they disrupt the whole balance.

The other reason is that this is what every professional typographer does. This is what they do in books and magazines, and I’ve challenged people to send in an example of a professionally typeset document that doesn’t do it, and nobody ever has. Where I get frustrated is when folks say, “Well, you know, it’s a matter of opinion—you could go either way.” Well, no it’s not a matter of opinion.

One side has typographic authority, and the other side has nothing.

Another one people offer is, “well, I really feel like the two spaces sets off the beginning of a sentence better. Makes it more legible.” And I say, well that’s a great argument, but here’s the thing: if it were true, don’t you think professional typographers would have adopted it by now? But again, they haven’t done it, so, what can I do?

LG: As law students and lawyers, we have to give a lot of presentations. After reading your book, I had a pretty good idea about how to lay out documents and make them more aesthetically pleasing. Do you think the same principles in the book can be applied to Powerpoint or Prezi?

MB: Sure, you can adapt the information. I like elegant, classic typography that isn’t stiff. I think that’s a good guideline for presentations. Fewer fonts and fewer colors. The big problem is people having too much information on the screen. Much like resumes. If you take off a whole lot of text from each slide, you’ll find that the typographic problems are easier to solve.

For people who are actually going to project something onto a screen, I would say, maybe reduce the contrast, maybe don’t use black text. Because black and white can be grating. And if you’re giving a presentation in a dark room, think about doing light type on a dark background, Otherwise having a giant rectangle of light can be irritating to people sitting in the room.

There’s a fellow named Edward Tufte who has a pamphlet called The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, which I think is available from his website for $7. Anyone who wants to know more about how to design  powerpoint, go get his pamphlet because he’s a smart man.

LG: The book focuses primarily on printed typography, but what about people who are designing for the web? How do you deal with web typography issues?

MB: I think the big problem with web typography is, there’s sort of this long tradition of really tiny fonts. And now we have bigger screen than we used to. I think 12 point is about the minimum legible size, and you can actually get away with 13 or 14 point too.

Other than that, we’re about to turn this corner on the web where we’re starting to see web fonts available thanks to the fontspace tag and CSS. The problem right now is that all the browsers prefer a different font format. The font-makers of the world want to steer everyone to WAAF. The other issues is licensing, and for people who buy fonts based on my recommendation, they need to realize that you can’t just take a font you license and put it on your website. That ruins the license. one thing that’s available right now are these hosted web font services like TypeKit and what they do is interpose special javascript magic so that you can use fonts without redistributing them. But I kind of think that in a year or so, hosted web fonts won’t be as important. But for right now, for lawyers who want to host fonts right now, the web hosted font services like TypeKit are probably a good option.

LG: What do you suggest for email? There’s terrible support for even basic HTML in most email browsers. Do you suggest people use plaintext, or do you know some secret?

MB: Yeah, I mean, email—I never ceased to be amazed at how mangled emails can get. And doubly so because a lot of people retrieve their email on some weird devices. So, what do I do? I don’t use formatting in my emails, because for all I know, I’ll be trying to make some special point with bold or italic and it’ll just be stripped out. So I just use Helvetica. It’s not even Helvetica, it’s plaintext. I might put in some bold or italics, but it’s optional. I will occasionally resort to putting like *asterisks* on things. So even if someone’s on the International Space Station on some Telex machine, they’ll still understand that I’m trying to emphasize something.

LG: So obviously you don’t use signature images because you use plaintext, what do you think about signature images in general?

MB: Do people still do that?

LG: They do, for sure.

MB: I mean, your grandma? Do lawyers do this?

LG: Yup.

MB: I think everything lawyers add to the bottom of their emails is annoying. That includes that 500 word ethics disclaimer at the bottom of their emails. I kind of think of email a fast method of communication. Anything that I put in my email that isn’t relevant, I’m wasting somebody’s time. That’s my advice. Don’t put in anything you don’t want people to pay attention to.

The problem with images that you put in your signature is that if you’re putting your firm address and name and phone number, if someone’s looking at it on a device that doesn’t support images, then that image isn’t there. Again, you’re better off with text.

LG: Okay, Matthew. Recognizing we’ve already kept you longer than we said we would, we’re hoping we can get through this rapid-fire round. These are questions you’re not meant to give thoughtful answers to—just the first thing that comes to your mind.

MB: So just completely wreckless, thoughtless answers?

LG: Right. First question comes from @jamiegordon. Fonts for outlining. We need something compact, fast, and we can’t afford the fonts on your website. What do you recommend?

MB: Before I answer that, what do people think fonts should cost? Some of the fonts on the website are some of the greatest typographic masterpieces in the past century, and you can get them for $125 or $150.

LG: Well I think people don’t understand what goes into making a font. I remember trying to delve into it and thinking, “Holy crap, this is hard!”

MB: Even if it weren’t hard, let’s suppose it was really easy, the point is maybe manufacturing a beautiful suit is easy, but you still can’t do it, and if you get the nice suit, you’ll look better in court. So how cheap would fonts have to be to satisfy a guy like this? It just seems like a peculiar objection when you think of all the things lawyers and law students spend their money on. How about buy a few less Emanuel’s outlines per semester and you could afford a nice font family.

LG: You don’t hear law students start complaining about books until they start passing the $100 mark. So I think we should price fonts on par with video games and everything would be good.

MB: Well even a video game would only last you 20 hours if you’re lucky, and I think that if you look at fonts as a type of software investment, I mean you’re going to pay $200 for the next Office upgrade, and I can almost guarantee you it’s not going to give you anything different than the one you’ve got now.

Whereas a nice font family, there’s fonts I’ve owned for 15 years. I keep using them. They don’t go out of style, they don’t become obsolete. To me, this is the best software purchase I’ve ever made. Fonts have never let me down.

So what fonts should he use in outlining? What are the special requirements of outlining?

LG: I don’t really know. In fact, he says fast and I don’t know what that means. But, best general-purpose law student font?

MB: He should use whatever he likes! When I was in law school and doing outlines, for my 1L year I made these beautiful typographically elaborate outlines. I’d use multicolored tables with information presented really well, and I did kind of mediocre on my exams. So I came back 2L year and said, you know what the thing is? I spent all that time dinking around with the typography, and I didn’t really learn the material. So from that point I just let myself not care about the typography, and then I did a lot better on my exams.

LG: So Helvetica basically gave you straight A’s in law school.

MB: Your mileage may vary. Again, an outline is not for the consumption of regular people. It doesn’t matter. If you like it, that’s all that matters.

LG: Comic Sans: great font, or the best font?

MB: Here’s the thing about Comic Sans: among typographers, that joke isn’t funny anymore. The man who designed comic sans is named Vincent Connare who’s a very, very sweet guy and he’s still active on the type forums and he’s been such a good font about all the awful things people have been posting about him. And the funny thing is, he designed the font, but it was for a kids product—

LG: Exactly, you can’t hold it against the font designer that people decide to use it in their resumes.

MB: He says, it’s kind of like a politician being taken out of context. He says he designed it for a very particular purpose, he never thought it would be included on every Windows machine and that people would actually use it.

I will hold one thing against him, and that’s the name. Comic Sans. I’ve seen a lot of comic strips and comic books. Is that what the typography looks like? Not really. It should be called Kids Cryon Scrawl or something. To me the most annoying thing about Comic Sans is when people use it as comic book lettering or, this is my favorite, the Wall Street Journal did a story where they had comic book style illustrations and they used comic sans for the lettering. That’s not what comicbook lettering looks like! And there are so many good fonts out there that actually are a good reproduction so…

I’m letting Comic Sans off the hook.

LG: Signature lines: yea or nay?

MB: What’s a signature line for? It’s usually to put on a document that you want someone to sign to indicate to them, put your name here. So if you’re signing a document, you know where your signature is going to go. The signature line is optional. For instance, I wouldn’t put a signature line at the end of a letter that I would sign. As I reflect on it, if I do a court filing, I would put a signature on the end, which is weird, but I do.

So yea or nay? For court filings, I would leave it to your discretion, but I think it’s typical and I don’t think you’re going to get in trouble one way or the other.

LG: Our Twitter friend @attyatlarge asks, what percentage of lawyers actually do typography well?

MB: Well, I haven’t seen all of them. You know who actually does typography well? The United States Supreme Court. Look at SCOTUS! They love typography! They’re very strict about it! The Seventh Circuit has very nicely formatted opinions and has a document on their website about formatting and typography, which is great. They’re the only Circuit that has that kind of information. Chief Judge Frank Easterbook is known to be a typography fan and is known to be a vocal opponent of Times New Roman so I have the feeling me may be the one responsible for that.

LG: Giving you a shameless plug: what’s the best monospaced font?

MB: Well, avoid using monospaced fonts. Is there anybody forced to use a monospaced font?

LG: My law review.

MB: My goodness. Well, thank you for setting it up. Monospaced fonts that come on your computer are just so bad. And people are obviously only exposed to Courier so they’re like, looks pretty good to me, why would I need another one.

Well, there was an era in our country’s history where we actually had good monospaced fonts and that was the typewriter era because that was the only thing offices had. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an IBM Selectric typewriter, but they had these little type balls where it’s actually a font in a sphere and if you want to change the font you just pop out the sphere and put in a new one.

I am about to release a font called Alix through the Font Bureau which is sort of a reinterpretation of one of these typewriter fonts. It’s a great replacement for Courier. If you replace it, it won’t change the length of your text at all. But unlike Courier, it has a real italic, it doesn’t just have a sloped-over Roman, it’s got a nice bold and bold-italic, it’s got other nice typography features. And I think it’s a little more comfortable to read on the page because it’s not as overly rigid. It’s got a little more variation between the characters.

But, there’s a sample online and a sample of the book. I’m told it’ll be out within the next 3-4 weeks.

LG: Great. Well thanks again Matthew. We appreciate your time and we hope that everyone will go out and check out your book and your website, and give you a follow on twitter at @typogforlawyers.

MB: Well thank you for your time, and thank you for being champions of typography. It is a group effort. Spreading the word is how good typography wins. In the next five years, if I see fewer all caps in briefs, I’m going to feel free to take credit.

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