Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Does Your Choice of Fonts Really Matter?

As a legal writing teacher, I emphasize to my students that pathos in legal writing is important. One aspect of pathos is using the medium to influence the reader to have a favorable view of your writing. In other words, a good legal writer wants a persuasive document to look good in addition to being written well. And part of looking good means following rules, conventions, and traditions that apply in the court to which the writing is addressed. Not everyone agrees on what makes a document look good, and one of the recent battles has been over fonts (yes, we legal writers fight over some interesting things).

Many years ago, of course, appellate advocates typed their documents on a typewriter. Typewritten documents were in either pica or elite type. There simply weren't very many choices to make about how the type would look in a document.

Then came word processing programs. The default font in the early days seemed to be Courier; after all, it looked a lot like type from a typewriter. All you needed to do was open up your word processing program and there it was. Courier felt right, it felt like security.

Courier or Courier New (with maybe a little Times New Roman thrown in) sufficed for many years. Older judges were accustomed to it; it gave them a sense of security, too. But then a new generation of judges showed up--suddenly Courier New wasn't so new anymore. Make it prettier! Make it more readable! Make it so I can read it on a tablet! Those were the clarion calls from on high.

So what font is acceptable? What font is desirable? It really all depends on who you ask, but for all intents and purposes it appears Courier and Courier New have been outlawed or at least relegated to the dust bin of antiquity where old VCR tapes and CDs now reside.

In my home state of North Carolina, the Rules of Appellate Procedure were changed a few years ago to permit only proportionally-spaced fonts with serifs. No more non-proportionally-spaced fonts (we're looking at you, Courier and Courier New). As acceptable examples, the rules mention Constantia and Century. Constantia seems like an interesting choice, but someone making the rules really must like it--a fact that should be kept in mind when writing to the rule-making body known as the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Some studies have shown that fonts with serifs are more readable, but that may not be true for reading on a computer or tablet. Not everyone agrees. In fact, courts like the appellate courts of Connecticut require Arial or Univers fonts, both of which are sans serif fonts and both of which appear to an outsider to be random choices.

The bottom line, again, is that legal writers hoping to persuade an appellate court must follow the rules. Where there are multiple possibilities to choose from, though, the question may come down to whether to use a serif font or a sans serif font. We may not be able to agree about what is best, but we can all agree that there are some fonts that are unprofessional, ugly, or easily recognized as hard to read. Just because a high-powered lawyer might make the ill-advised decision to use Comic Sans for an important letter, for instance, doesn't mean we should use it.

Me, I was always fine with Courier New. But I can roll with the times. And like every advocate, I want my audience at an appellate court to feel good (or at least not be peeved) while reading my brief. Century Schoolbook is my favorite now; if it's good enough for the Supreme Court of the United States, it must be good.

The answer to the question asked in the title for this post is yes, your choice of fonts does matter if it matters to your readers. I've adjusted, and so can you.

But don't even get me started on WordPerfect versus Word.

Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts | Permalink


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