Make Law More Accessible with Typography

An Interview with Alexandra Devendra

Can the legal system be more understandable for non-lawyers? Can legal documents be more legible? We talk with lawyer Alexandra Devendra to learn what good typography can do to make the legal system more effective.

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Alexandra Devendra

TypeThursday: Alexandra, thank you for being here for TypeThursday.

Alexandra Devendra: Thank you! I’m really excited to chat with you. Please feel free to call me Alix :)

TT: Of course! I’m very excited to have you here. I saw a blog post you did about legal documents and how they can be better designed. I was so shocked how dramatic the before and after were. Before we move forward, I would love to learn more about your background. Could you tell us more about yourself?

AD: I am a lawyer by training, but I left practice a couple of years ago to start a “legal design” consulting business. When I was working at a law firm I read the book Typography for Lawyers by Matthew Butterick, and that is what sparked my interest in typography (and other areas of visual communication design). The principles Butterick discusses in his book are all things I had been doing intuitively in my own practice, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about them because I had never studied design in school. The book really gave me an understanding of the underlying principles of typography and graphic design and how they are relevant to the law.

Steps to Improve Legal Documents

TT: You may have no design education at school, but I think the results of your before and after speaks volumes. What was your design process for making these adjustments?

Temporary Restraining Order: Before on the left side, After on the right side.

AD: This is a before-and-after of the court order that temporarily suspended President Trump’s January 27 executive order (which has been referred to as a “muslim ban” or a “travel ban”). Redesigning court documents can be a challenge because each jurisdiction has rules about how documents must be formatted. For example, if you’re filing a document in California state court, the court rules say that you have to use a font “essentially equivalent to” Courier, Times New Roman or Arial. In Typography for Lawyers Butterick argues that this simply means any standard serif, sans serif or monospaced font. But lawyers tend to be risk averse and many of them read that rule to mean that they can use only one of those three fonts.

Another common requirement is to use line numbers, which you can see in the “before” example above. These are often accompanied by vertical rules on the left and right margins. Even in jurisdictions where these are not required, most lawyers still use them. In California, for example, the line numbers are required but the vertical rules are optional. However, when I was practicing in California, I never saw a document filed without the vertical rules.

When I redesigned the court order above, I took the liberty of removing both the line numbers and vertical rules. I suppose I cheated a little bit because in this court line numbers are required. But I wanted to show what a big difference it can make to remove them and the vertical rules. I think the line numbers and vertical rules create a lot of visual clutter, which makes the document harder to read. I also think they are somewhat intimidating to non-lawyer readers, if only because it’s not entirely clear what purpose they serve.

Another choice I made was to move the citations from the body of the text to footnotes. There is a lot of debate among lawyers and judges about whether citations should be in line or in footnotes. I think the majority still prefers in-line citations. And if a lawyer has a case in front of a judge who prefers in-line citations, I think it makes sense to give the judge what she wants. However, I wanted to show what a difference it can make — particularly to non-lawyer readers — to move the citations to footnotes. I think it makes the document a lot easier to read, and it’s easier to follow what the judge is actually saying.

TT: To summarize, your design decisions were focused on producing a document non-lawyers could read comfortably. Is that a fair summarization?

The more we can do to make the system and the documents more accessible to more types of users, the better off we will all be…

The Importance of Good Typography in Law

AD: Yes, exactly. Especially with the fragmentation of news sources, I think it’s important for the public to be able to read and understand primary sources as much as possible. But even setting the political climate aside, I think this is an important issue. Many people who need a lawyer cannot afford one and end up having to represent themselves in court. Our court system is designed based on the assumption that the “user” is a lawyer. Litigants who are not lawyers have a really hard time navigating the system, understanding the rules, and preparing legal documents. The more we can do to make the system and the documents more accessible to more types of users, the better off we will all be because right now the system is under a lot of strain; judges have to coach self-represented litigants on a lot of these issues, which takes a lot of time.

TT: This perspective you have about how non-lawyers interact with legal structures; Did it stem from your experience as a practicing lawyer?

I grew up thinking that lawyers should be avoided at all costs, and that if you stayed out of trouble you could get through life without really having to interact with the legal system at all. Now I see how naive that is.

Our Experience with the Legal System

AD: Yes, very much so. I did not have much experience with the legal system before I went to law school. There were no lawyers in my family and I did not really even consider becoming a lawyer until after I graduated college. I grew up thinking that lawyers should be avoided at all costs, and that if you stayed out of trouble you could get through life without really having to interact with the legal system at all. Now I see how naive that is. Most people will need legal services at some point in their life — whether to start their own business, get a divorce, resolve a dispute, declare bankruptcy, write a will, etc. We have made the legal system so complicated that it’s really hard to do these things without some legal help. For example, I tried to start an LLC last year with three other lawyers and even we had trouble figuring out what the requirements were to start the business!

There are so many areas where we can make improvements, and typography can play a big role in that. From drafting laws and organizing statutory codes to creating new chatbot interfaces to resolve disputes online.

TT: Do you reference such diverse applications of law because typography is used throughout?

AD: Yes, the law is very verbocentric. For example, if you pick up a traditional law school textbook, it is almost only text; there are few if any illustrations or diagrams. The same is true of the documents lawyers use in their day-to-day practice: court filings are usually all text, as are contracts, etc. I think part of this has to do with tradition, and the law wanting to be seen as being “serious.” But there is also legacy of technological constraints. Back when lawyers used typewriters, it was very difficult to add any sort of illustration or chart to a document. Now it would be relatively easy to do that with word processors, but the law is a “graying profession” meaning that many practitioners are on the older side. They learned on typewriters and have not really changed their habits.

The law is very verbocentric.… I think part of this has to do with tradition, and the law wanting to be seen as being “serious.”

So, to summarize, I think the law is verbocentric for a variety of reasons, and I think there are a few different implications of that legacy. First, since the law is so verbocentric, typography should be an important consideration. Unfortunately, lawyers have a lot of bad habits that developed during the typewriter era that have carried over to the 21st century (like double spacing final documents). There are simple typographic principles that lawyers could adopt that would improve the readability of legal documents. And second, there is an opportunity to incorporate more visual aids in legal documents to help support the text or illustrate certain concepts. One thing I learned from Edward Tufte is that text and visuals should be intertwined to support the writer’s message. Tufte illustrates this using some of Da Vinci’s annotated anatomical drawings. Tufte said, “back when the mode of production for words and images was the same, they were perfectly integrated.”

TT: Thank you Alix for sharing all these great insights on typography and the law. If people want to learn more about this topic, where can they find out more?

AD: Thank you, I really enjoyed our conversation! I blog about these topics on my website, and those who are interested can also follow me on Twitter @alixdevendra.

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