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The right type makes your message more effective

November 29, 2017

Lawyers can do many things to present more effective cases for their clients. They can work harder, work longer, conduct more research, and think more creatively. But one simple step is often neglected — using simple tools to make their writing more understandable.

That’s the theme of a recent article on the benefits to lawyers and their clients of better, clearer, and more readable text. The article, by Mark Sableman of Thompson Coburn LLP, is titled, “Typographic legibility: Delivering your message effectively.”

Many important legal communications are made in print, such as briefs, contracts, and correspondence. But lawyers often give little attention to typographic legibility — specifically, how the typefaces and page designs that they use affect the ability of readers to readily and fully understand their messages.

The article describes many elements of typography, page design, and reading comprehension that lawyers should understand. It draws on scientific research about how readers read and understand text, and demonstrates how design elements can impede or promote understanding. Essentially, it gives lawyers some simple lessons for how they can improve the effectiveness of their writings without working any harder or longer.

For example, some typographic conventions used in consumer agreements, such as putting liability or warranty disclaimers in all capital letters (one of the only ways to show emphasis in the typewriter era), may impede understanding of the very provisions that the law demands be made conspicuous. While many precedents still permit the all-cap approach, judges are increasingly skeptical of such methods, based on legibility research and the availability of better methods using computer typography.

Similarly, litigators can better get their messages across by using good typography and design, as writing expert Bryan Garner and the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia have advised. The article explains how different typographic and design techniques, can substantially improve readability and comprehension of briefs and other advocacy documents.

Everyone is a publisher in today’s digital world, so everyone can learn from typographic legibility – from rules of thumb like “serif for print, sans-serif for screen” to subtle guidelines for font selection, type display, and use of integrated graphics. 

The article was published recently in the SCRIBES Journal of Legal Writing, a journal founded by Garner.