Font Matters

You’d think by now it would be common knowledge that lawyers should avoid using Times New Roman as the default font for their legal documents. But it isn’t. A while back I had a conversation with an experienced lawyer, about font choices in appellate briefs, and this experienced lawyer tried to tell me that changing fonts was a bad idea. “Just leave it on Times New Roman,” the experienced lawyer said. “That’s what judges are used to; it’s what they expect. There’s no reason to shake it up.”

Maybe this is true. Maybe, after seeing thousands of court filings in Times New Roman, judges simply get used to and “expect” all filings to look that way. But expectations are not preferences. The fact that judges have grown to expect Times New Roman does not mean judges prefer Times New Roman. In fact, there’s evidence to the contrary.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, for example, explicitly advises lawyers against using Times New Roman. The appellate court in Connecticut requires briefs to be in either Arial or Univers. And the U.S. Supreme Court has long required lawyers to use a font from the Century family (e.g., Century Schoolbook).

Of course, most courts don’t go so far as to require a particular font. Most courts merely require a “legible” font of a particular size (usually at least 12-point). So, does that mean it’s okay to go ahead and default to Times New Roman—because it’s legible and that’s what judges have grown to expect?

No. Not at all. And don’t just take my word for it.

First, read Bryan Garner’s full-throated endorsement of a book called Typography for Lawyers, by Matthew Butterick. Then read what Butterick has to say about using Times New Roman in legal documents:

When Times New Roman appears in a book, document, or advertisement, it connotes apathy. It says, ‘I submitted to the font of least resistance.’ Times New Roman is not a font choice so much as the absence of a font choice, like the blackness of deep space is not a color. To look at Times New Roman is to gaze into the void.

If you have a choice about using Times New Roman, please stop. Use something else. *** Times New Roman connotes apathy. You are not apathetic.

Butterick offers several font recommendations for legal briefing. Personally, for federal court I like Century Schoolbook. To me, it just has that federal-court feel. I’m also fond of a font that Butterick designed himself, called Equity, which I often use in my state-court briefing.

The key is to choose a font that looks clean and professional. Because you’re a professional writer and you care about what your published writing looks like. (And yes, filing a brief is the same as publishing your writing.) Choosing a new font means your brief won’t look the same as all those thousands of other court filings that the judges see every day, in Times New Roman. But that’s probably not a bad thing.

[A version of this post appeared previously here.]

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