What lawyers can learn about typography from a Bibas opinion

Yesterday I opined that the typography in Judge Bibas’s opinions was the best typography on the Third Circuit “by a country mile.” Lawyers looking to improve the appearance and readability of their briefs could learn a thing or nine from Judge Bibas’s opinions.

Let’s take a closer look at specific things Judge Bibas gets right that oh-so-many lawyers get wrong:

  • Heading capitalization His claim headings, both in the opinion body and the table of contents, use Title Caps not ALL CAPS. The subsidiary headings all use neither. Only the section headings in the body of the opinion use all caps (and even there he uses small caps—and not in the table of contents). The key point: no unreadable multi-line all caps headings. Most briefs still get this wrong and, to any reader who cares about typography, it’s like showing up for your oral argument wearing a propeller cap. Sorry.
  • One space after periods
  • Zero underlining, and easy on the boldface
  • Smaller paragraph indents Just say no to those goofy 1-inch paragraph indents so many lawyers still adore, at least.
  • Hyphenation on with justified text
  • Better line spacing Opinions are single-spaced, but Judge Bibas uses slightly more open line-spacing to improve readability. What a difference: notice how much more visually pleasing it is to read the majority opinion than the dissent. The rules for briefs prevent lawyers from single-spacing (alas) but we can get closer to the ideal by using 28-point line spacing (ie.e. actual double-spacing for 14-point type) instead of Word’s default double-spacing.
  • Hard spaces after § symbols
  • No orphan headings (“keep with next” setting in Word)
  • Using a bulleted list for emphasis
  • En dashes for number ranges
  • Real em dashes Not double hyphens autocorrected into en dashes
  • Citations in text not footnotes With more judges reading briefs on tablets, this has gone from the majority choice to the correct choice for lawyers.

Put it all together and it looks terrific. With a little effort up front, your briefs could look almost this good too. (Good luck matching Judge Bibas’s clear writing, though.)

Sure, a professional typographer could still pick some nits. Using Times New Roman is the biggie; CA3 judges may not have the option of picking a better font, but lawyers do and should. I use Equity for maximum font-nerd cred. And using soft returns (shift + return in Word) and hanging indents in your tables of contents makes the structure easier for readers to see.

To learn more about good typography, the indispensable resource is Matthew Butterick’s book Typography for Lawyers, now in its second edition. If the appellate lawyer you were thinking about hiring doesn’t own a copy, keep on looking. Other reliable resources that are free include Butterick’s superb website and the Seventh Circuit’s typography guide.