Stop and think about design in the legal industry for a moment. As with most things in the legal industry, design has not changed for a very long time. Prior to 1961, most typewriters used a Courier font. In 1961, IBM introduced the Selectric typewriter with its replaceable typeball. Typists could change the ball, switching between Courier and Times New Roman typefaces (with the Selectric II, they also could change between 10 and 12 characters per inch). Lawyers moved to Times New Roman and never looked back.
This is what Matthew Butterick, a lawyer, Fastcase 50 winner, author of the book Typography for Lawyers, and founder of the website typographyforlawyers.com says about the Times New Roman font:
When Times New Roman appears in a book, document, or advertisement, it connotes apathy. It says, “I submitted to the font of least resistance.” Times New Roman is not a font choice so much as the absence of a font choice, like the blackness of deep space is not a color. To look at Times New Roman is to gaze into the void.
Today, lawyers live in two worlds. One world, mostly the judicial world, often requires that we use Times New Roman font. Specifying the font restricts the creativity of lawyers who sometimes try and wedge more words into the space allotted for legal briefs. Outside the judicial world, however, lawyers generally may do what they want, and yet lawyers typically “connote apathy” and stick with Times New Roman. Beyond typefaces, legal document lack color, graphics, and even a hint of design.
Good Design leads to Delightedness
Design is important. Outside the legal industry, design carries great weight since it can make the difference between successful and unsuccessful products. Designers focus on what separates the good from the bad. At a recent Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference, executives from leading software companies talked about how empathy and delight define good from bad. Without empathy, the user doesn’t engage with the product. Frustrating experiences defeat user delight.
Using good design in legal documents can help accomplish many of our goals. Good design helps clarity. We want clients and opposing parties to understand our documents. Clients need to use contracts, and clear and engaging documents will help them do so.
Good design helps with readability. In an age when adult literacy is declining, it is ever more challenging for lawyers to create documents clients are willing to read. We compete with smartphones, YouTube, Netflix and a host of other content sources. The less distance we put between our content and the competition’s content, the easier it will be to draw our clients into engaging with what we do. We don’t have to create 30 minute sitcom contracts, but a contract that looks more like it came from a magazine than a 1960’s Selectric typewriter will take us a long way towards clients believing we want to delight them.
Change is Easy
Using the same font, even one that causes us to “gaze into the void,” is not the biggest challenge in the legal industry. But, it does speak to our creativity. Even though we have no design restraint on most of what we do, we refuse to deviate from a typeface used for over 50 years that connotes apathy. In this modern era where it is incredibly difficult to engage audiences, we choose to use the path of least interest.
Fortunately for all of us, updating our legal designs does not take much effort. Changing fonts is easy to do, and through the Internet and advisors such as Mr. Butterick, we have a wealth of advice on what to do. Modern software permits us to add colors to titles, callout boxes to emphasize certain points, use formulas rather than text for precision, and add many other design elements to our documents. We have extensive experience putting legal terms in documents that contain other elements (advertisements, instructions) so we know how to point the user to what is helpful and what is binding. Now is a great time to transform legal documentation from apathetic to delightful.