Who is to blame? That’s one thing I would really like to know. Who is to blame for making Times New Roman the default font on just about every word processor under the sun? The other thing I’d like to know is what do we have to do to change it?
The right tool for the job
Why this hostility to Times New Roman? I’ll tell you: because it’s the wrong tool for the job we lawyers have to do. Our job involves creating documents that people will read: letters, filings with courts, contracts, deeds, trusts, and so on. Times New Roman is simply the wrong font for documents that anyone is going to read.
I can hear the skepticism already. “What are you talking about? Times New Roman is the standard, man. Everyone uses it.” True, but that doesn’t mean Times New Roman is the right tool for the job. Let me explain.
The goal of anyone who creates a document should be to make that document as easy to read as possible. This goal is what fuels the “English and not Legalese” movement. Using shorter sentences, active voice, and all the things we learn from Strunk and White is only half of the task. The other half involves making sure the document doesn’t make the reader’s eyes hurt.
Fonts: why they matter
We’re going to get a bit geeky here, so hang on.
There are studies that show certain printed pages are easier to read than others. In a nutshell, the human brain needs white space. Margins, space between paragraphs, and illustrations help break up the huge chunks of grey text. Who doesn’t prefer a book with illustrations over a book with only words on the page?
The problem with Times New Roman is that it was designed to be printed in relatively narrow columns—which is how the Times of London was printed back in the 1930s when Times Roman was created. Times New Roman has a relatively slender character space. Its lower case m is narrower than a lower case m in another typeface, for example. This feature makes Times New Roman the perfect typeface for a two-inch column in the newspaper. More words fit on the line.
The font should fit the paper (just like the punishment should fit the crime)
We lawyers, however, do not print our works in narrow columns. We use 8.5 by 11 inch paper, usually with one inch margins. This means our columns are 6.5 inches wide, and Times New Roman allows too many words on a single line. (Some lawyers may recall the days when courts had rules that limited the number of characters per line. There was a method behind that madness that went beyond reining in long briefs.) As a result, the page looks dense and the brain doesn’t have any white space to help.
Thankfully, there are many other options available to us. For example, I do almost all of my work in Palatino Nova. The characters are a bit wider, and therefore my letters, contracts, briefs, and other documents do not look so dense.
Lest you think that I am crazy, I have a few authorities to back me up. The first (and most important for lawyers) is Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers. You can read his web site or even buy his book. I’ve probably read it four times since I purchased it earlier this year. Butterick is not only a lawyer, he’s a typeface designer as well. He has the credentials.
The second is the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Prominently featured on the court’s home page is a link to an article, Painting With Print [PDF file]. The court put that there for a reason. If judges think good typography makes a difference, we lawyers should probably listen.
The third is the Supreme Court of the United States. If you review the Court’s rules [PDF file] you will see that the Court requires all filings to be printed in a specific typeface family. (Go ahead and look—it’s right there in Rule 33—but I’ll give you a hint: it’s not Times New Roman.)
Go ahead—get rid of Times New Roman
The lessons from Butterick, the Seventh Circuit and the Supreme Court are not of concern only to lawyers. Anyone who creates documents to be read should care: doctors, CPAs, college professors, teachers, police officers…the list is infinite. Butterick includes perhaps the best reason of all to care about typography: we are professionals, and our products should look professional. If you’re the type of lawyer (or doctor, teacher, whatever) who doesn’t care about your appearance, then you don’t care about creating professional looking documents. But if you are the type of person who makes sure your tie is straight or that your hosiery do not have runs in them, then you care enough to make your documents look better.
The first step toward that goal is to stop using Times New Roman.