By Tyler D. Helmond, Voyles Zahn & Paul
Attorney and author
He is a graduate of Harvard University and the University of California Los Angeles School of Law. He is an attorney. He is the typeface designer behind Equity, a font for lawyers. And he is the author of “Typography for Lawyers.” He is Matthew Butterick, and he has been served with interrogatories.
Q For lawyers who have not read your book, what is typography and why is typography important in legal writing?
A Typography is the visual component of the written word. And since lawyers depend on the written word, good typography is part of good lawyering. Obviously, nothing is more important than the content of the writing. But it’s like an oral argument in court. Judges and juries aren’t supposed to decide a case based on the lawyer’s clothes or speaking style. But lawyers still give thought to those issues, because we want the presentation to enhance the argument, not distract from it. It’s the same on the printed page.
Q What are some of the most common mistakes lawyers make with typography?
A First, the belief that there’s some special canon of typography rules that apply to legal documents. I consider lawyers to be professional writers who have access to professional-quality typesetting equipment (i.e., modern word processors and laser printers). Therefore, the rules of professional typesetting should apply. Much of what we think of as traditional legal typesetting is an accumulation of bad habits handed down from high-school typing class. But the typewriters are gone. So the typewriter habits should go too.
Beyond that, the overuse of ALL-CAPS would be my biggest complaint with legal typography. It’s an example of what I call self-defeating typography. The reason you’d put something in caps is to emphasize it. And for less than one line of text, it works. But when you have a whole paragraph of caps, it’s harder to read. So what do readers do? Do they pay more attention? No. They skip it. Which is the opposite of what you want. Lawyers sometimes defend this habit by saying “There’s a law that says you have to use caps.” To which I say, “OK, show me.” And no one ever can.
Q One of the misconceptions you dispel in your book deals with court rules. Many lawyers assume court rules prevent good typography when they often do not. But sometimes they do. If you were in charge of making a model rule on typography, what would it look like?
A It’s surprising how many lawyers haven’t read their court rules about document formatting. They just imitate what they see other lawyers doing, on the assumption that those other lawyers have read the rules. But no, they haven’t either.
True, there are some restrictive court rules out there. But there’s always latitude to make the typography better. And it’s not about being different for the sake of being different. Court rules, on their own, don’t produce good typography. They just set minimum standards. The rest is up to you.
As for a model rule, in general I’d want it to be lenient rather than restrictive. A big improvement would be to move from page limits to word limits. Most court rules about type size and line spacing were set up to support page limits by ensuring a consistent number of words per page. This made sense in the typewriter era. It makes no sense in the computer era.
Q You have designed two fonts for legal writing – Equity and Concourse. How do these fonts succeed in legal writing where others have failed?
A Lawyers working in page-limit jurisdictions told me that while they wanted to switch away from tired old Times New Roman, it was the most efficient font in terms of fitting words per page, so they were reluctant to give it up. And it’s true — Times New Roman was originally designed for newspaper typesetting, so it’s a bit narrower than most traditional typefaces that you might see in a magazine or book. So my goal with Equity was to make a font family that was as efficient as Times New Roman on the page, but better looking.
Concourse was designed as a sans serif companion to Equity, with the goal of being equally practical. With sans serifs, what you often see is that they look good in all-caps, or good in body text, but not both. So I tried to find a middle ground.
Q How ubiquitous have they become?
A I wouldn’t call them ubiquitous, but they’re off to a very good start. Thousands of lawyers are using them. But I’m not in a rush. A good typeface has a lifetime measured in decades.
Q “Typography for Lawyers” has been hugely successful, with one of best endorsements imaginable coming from Bryan Garner – “If Matthew Butterick didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” What are you planning for the follow up?
A Bryan has been a true friend to the project, which I’m tremendously grateful for. Reading his “Modern American Usage” start to finish made me want to write a usage guide for typography.
As for the follow-up, it probably wouldn’t surprise you to hear that many of my readers are nonlawyers. So I’m working on a new version of the book aimed at them.
Q Your career has taken more interesting turns than most: from typeface designer, to website developer, to lawyer and author. If you had to give a commencement speech, what would you suggest to the graduates as the key to success?
A Well, I think of my career as less peripatetic and more cumulative than it may appear to others. I’m interested in this broad theme of how we create the written word. It leads to new investigations, which I try to combine with what I’ve already learned. Sometimes with unexpected results. For instance, I wouldn’t have expected that writing a book about typography would improve my type-design skills. But it did.
The best advice I got before I went to law school was to find out which professors had the best evaluations, and then take their classes, regardless of the topic. But I think that’s good advice out in the world, too. Kind and smart people will make any topic interesting. But they are rare. So if you meet one, you should make the most of what they have to share with you.
Q In your experience, is there any overlap between excellent design and excellent lawyering? You have said “solving problems is the lowest form of design.” Is there a lesson there for lawyers?
A Sure. I think design and lawyering are similar in that they both have this huge layer of mechanics and production interposed in this essentially human interchange. The challenge is keep bringing the human aspects forward, and not let them get lost in the noise. We could say that filing briefs is the lowest form of lawyering because a lawyer’s job is not to file briefs. It’s to represent clients. The brief is just the vehicle.
Sometimes lawyers say to me, “I see, typography is important because it makes things pretty.” Yes and no. True, we’re not trying to make things uglier. But the reason to “make it pretty” is to make the most of the limited attention we get from our readers. We need that attention to best serve our clients. Once a reader has lost interest, we’ve also lost our chance to persuade.
Q What are the last three albums you added to your iPod?
A I’m a big streaming-music user these days, so based on the phrasing of your question, I don’t need to confess to all the guilty pleasures I keep over there. The last three albums added to the iPod were “Silver Age” by Bob Mould, a six-disc compilation of 70s soul, and “Cargo” by Men at Work.•