Legal Document Design Factors

Uncover essential aspects of legal document design, from font choice to white space utilization and ethical image selection, enabling clearer and more engaging legal writing.
  • Joe Regalia
In the world of legal writing, clarity is king. Every word, sentence, and paragraph must contribute to your argument. But what often goes unnoticed is the importance of how the text appears on your reader’s page or screen. As a legal writer, it’s crucial to consider document design, white space, and typography. They are silent persuaders, shaping the reader's experience and subtly influencing their interpretation of your text.
By choosing the right fonts, using effective text styling, managing punctuation and text spacing properly, and using white space smartly, you can create legal documents that are not only compelling but also visually appealing and easy to read.

Choosing the Right Fonts

When it comes to fonts, the choice you make can have an impact on the readability and professional appearance of your document. Your goal should be to choose a font that makes your text easy to read while still reflecting the serious nature of the material.
There's a reason why some fonts are called 'book-friendly' – they're easy on the eyes, especially when read over prolonged periods. This is an essential consideration when your audience is using e-readers, which is increasingly common in the legal field.
Fonts such as Book Antiqua, Century, Garamond, and New Baskerville have stood the test of time and remain popular choices because of their readability and elegance. But so long as you are asking which font you should use (and trying to make informed decisions) all the more power to you.

Styling and Emphasizing Text

In terms of styling, italics often serve as a better tool for emphasizing case names and other critical details in your text. Unlike underlining, italics do not interfere with any descenders in the letters, ensuring that the text remains clean and clear.
Make use of smart quotes and apostrophes, also known as curly cues. Unlike 'straight' quotes and apostrophes, these have a curved shape, and they enhance your text's professional look. Remember, it's often the small details that count when building credibility with readers. And most style guides consider these correct.
A word about using all caps. It's something you should generally avoid as it can make text more difficult to read and may give the impression of shouting. But if you need to emphasize something strongly, limit your use of all-caps to a single line of text. Overusing this style can quickly overwhelm your reader and make your document appear cluttered.

Punctuation and Text Spacing

Consider joining the one-period crew, if you aren’t a member already. In our digital age, there's no need to use two spaces after a period, a practice inherited from the era of typewriters. Modern fonts provide sufficient space after a period, and an extra space can disrupt the flow of the text. Especially when using the above-recommended fonts, adhere to one space after a period.
Kerning, the process of adjusting the spacing between characters in a proportional font, is another key aspect of document design. Turning kerning on can improve the visual harmony of your text, leading to a more polished and professional document.

Mastering White Space

A key yet frequently overlooked aspect of document design is the use of white space. White space, or negative space, refers to the unmarked portions of a page. It’s not 'empty' or wasted space; rather, it's a powerful tool that can significantly enhance your document's readability.
In legal writing, where dense and complex texts are common, white space can provide the reader with visual breaks and make the content more digestible. It can be particularly effective in separating different sections, making the text easier to navigate, and reducing the cognitive load of the reader.
Consider the humble paragraph break: a single line of white space that provides a visual cue of a new thought or idea. The use of bullet points and numbered lists can also create valuable white space, breaking up long, complex passages into more manageable chunks. Similarly, headings and subheadings not only introduce white space but also provide signposts to guide the reader through your argument.
When writing for smaller digital screens (like smartphones) white space takes on an even more significant role. Limited screen space makes text appear denser, and without adequate white space, it can become challenging to navigate.
Paragraph breaks are a must to ensure the content doesn't appear as one large block of text, which can be daunting to the reader. It’s even more important to use tools like bullet points and numbered lists to break down complex points. Subheadings are also crucial in digital writing, acting as signposts for the reader. They break up long sections, allow the reader to scan the document more effectively, and provide pauses in the content.

Layout and Alignment

The layout of your document, including margins, alignment, and line length, can also have a significant impact on its readability. Left-aligned text is typically the easiest to read, as it maintains a consistent starting point for each line.
Ensure you have ample margins. Not only do they frame your text and help guide the reader’s eye, but they also provide space for readers to make notes – a common practice in legal reading.
When considering line length, keep in mind that shorter lines are generally easier to read. A good rule of thumb is to aim for 60-70 characters per line, including spaces. This will keep your reader’s eye movement consistent and prevent fatigue.

Consistency is Key

Finally, no matter what design choices you make, be consistent. Random changes in font, style, or layout can be distracting and confusing. By sticking to a consistent design, you make your document easier to follow and reinforce its professional appearance.
Document design, white space, and typography play crucial roles in shaping the reader's experience of your legal text. They subtly guide the reader's eye and can significantly affect how well your arguments are understood and received. Mastering these elements of design can transform your legal writing from merely clear to truly compelling. Remember, in the field of law, every detail counts, and it's these seemingly small details that can set you apart as a skilled legal writer.

Ethical Considerations in Visual Selection

The ethical use of visuals, particularly stock images and copyrighted material, is paramount.
  • Copyright Compliance: When selecting images, ensure you have the appropriate rights to use them. This involves understanding different types of licenses, such as royalty-free, rights-managed, and Creative Commons licenses. Popular tools like Canva will ensure you have these rights, although you’ll need to pay for the service.
  • Attribution: If you do use copyrighted images, proper attribution is crucial. This involves crediting the source and the author of the image. Even when images are labeled for reuse, attributions serve as a form of ethical and professional courtesy, recognizing the original creator's work.
  • Avoiding Misrepresentation: Legal writers must ensure that the use of stock images does not mislead or misrepresent any facts or situations. The images should be relevant and used in a context that accurately reflects the legal argument or information being presented. Manipulating graphs, charts, or images to mislead or exaggerate can not only undermine the argument but also breach ethical standards.
  • Alt Text for Images: When using digital documents, provide alternative text (alt text) for images. This text should concisely describe the image's content or purpose, enabling screen readers to convey the information to visually impaired users.
  • Colorblind-Friendly Design: Use color schemes in charts and graphs that are distinguishable to individuals with color vision deficiencies. Tools are available to test visuals for colorblind accessibility.
  • Readable Fonts and Sizes: Ensure that all text within visuals is in a readable font and size. Avoid overly stylized fonts that may be difficult to read for individuals with dyslexia or other reading difficulties.
Joe Regalia
Write.law co-founder Joe Regalia combines his experience as both practitioner and professor to create exciting new ways to teach legal skills.  Learn more about Joe

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