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The Great Fonts Debate: Choosing a Font for Legal Documents

By Alexander T. MacDonald


We’ve all had the “fonts” debate. Everyone with a word processor has an opinion about them. Some people like writing in Garamond; others like (heaven forbid) Arial. But few people think about why they prefer some fonts to others. It’s not just that some fonts are prettier; it’s that some are more readable. And readability is the sine qua non of typography—particularly in legal documents. A few tips will help you make the most readable choice.


First, you should prefer proportionally spaced fonts to monospaced fonts. The difference is letter width. In a monospaced font, every letter takes up the same amount of horizontal space—a w is as wide as an i. That effect can give your text a flat, typed-in-1972 look. Proportionally spaced fonts, by contrast, adjust each letter’s width automatically; the letters are “proportional.” The effect is not only more visually pleasing, but also more economical. For example:


This is a monospaced font. (Courier New)


This is a proportionally spaced font. (Times New Roman)


As you can see, the proportionally spaced font takes up less space than the monospaced font, even though it uses more letters. The proportionally spaced font is also easier to read. Its dynamic spacing helps readers quickly distinguish between words, whereas text set in monospaced font tends to blend together. Monospaced fonts do have their uses (for example, when you need all the letters to line up horizontally); but for legal documents, prefer proportionally spaced fonts.


For similar reasons, you should prefer serif fonts to sans serif fonts. “Serifs” are the little flourishes on the ends of letters. Fonts that have them tend to be easier to read in long stretches because they help the eye quickly recognize individual letters. In other words, when reading a font with serifs, the reader doesn’t have to work as hard to distinguish an e from a c. For any given letter, the extra effort may be negligible. But over the course of a 50-page brief, it can add up.


In fact, many courts require briefs to be set in serif fonts. For example, Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 32(a)(5) requires serifs for all proportionally spaced fonts in the body of a brief. (It does allow sans serif fonts in headings.) Commonly accepted serif fonts include Times New Roman, Century Schoolbook, and Garamond.


If, however, you insist on using a sans serif font (or an office style requires you to do so), choose one of the better-designed varieties. Verdana, Tahoma, and Franklin Gothic all have their evangelists. But whatever you do, avoid Arial like the plague. Its uneven spacing and amateurish letter design can mar even the most carefully designed document.


That’s not to say sans serif fonts don’t have their uses. Some typography experts consider sans serif fonts more “legible,” which means they’re easier to read at a glance. That’s why road signs use sans serif fonts. The same principle applies in memos and briefs: Short bursts of text, like headings, may be easier to read in sans serif. That means you might want to use both a serif and a sans serif font in the same document—the serif font for your body text, the sans serif font for your headings. As a bonus, using a different font will emphasize your headings more elegantly than other typography tricks, like underlining and all-caps. (Never use all caps. Never.)


You might also use a sans serif font for a document meant to be read entirely on a computer screen. Some experts think sans serif fonts are more readable on a computer than serif fonts. That’s why many websites use sans serif. But if there’s any chance your work will be printed and read on paper, use a serif font.


Of course, you don’t always have a choice about which font to use. Many of us work in offices with strict house styles; others write for audiences with their own stylistic preferences and requirements. So obviously, if your boss or a court rule requires you to use an inferior font, use it. But if you have any leeway, choose a more readable font. Before you can persuade your audience, after all, you first have to convince it to read what you’ve written. And on that count, a few small choices can go a long way.


Alexander MacDonald is the editor in chief of the Practice Tips Series. He is a 2012 graduate of the William & Mary School of Law and works in the Office of the General Counsel of the United States Postal Service. He can be reached at