This column originally appeared in the Bar Association of San Francisco’s blog, Legal by the Bay, on February 1, 2016 and in their February 2016 Bulletin.
As lawyers we use words to explain complex ideas and persuade others to agree with our position. Thoughtful attorneys spend a lot of time honing their writing skills and take pleasure in carefully selecting the words they use. But too often we fail to put the same effort into the design and presentation, which—like it or not—also matter. To make our words and our work more impactful, we can draw on some foundational principles from the design disciplines.
Who is your audience?
Before you start writing, take some time to think about your reader. The design-thinking process begins with developing empathy for your reader and gaining insights that will allow you to tailor your writing to the reader’s unique needs. For example, you might discover that your judge would appreciate an electronic courtesy copy of your brief, complete with hyperlinks to case law and deposition excerpts. Or you might learn that your client doesn’t actually understand your status updates because you use too much jargon and omit important background information.
How does the text look?
Typography should not be an afterthought. Font, point size, line length and line spacing all affect the legibility and readability of a document, which in turn affect the reader’s ability to comprehend and retain the message. In other words, good typography can bolster the persuasiveness of your writing. In the words of Matthew Butterick, “Did you make your business cards and letterhead at your local copy shop? No, you didn’t, because you didn’t want them to look shoddy and cheap. If you cared enough to avoid the copy shop, then you care enough to avoid Times New Roman.” Typography for Lawyers, p. 111. (And court rules give you more latitude than you might think!)
Would a graphic be helpful?
Adding a graphic can have numerous benefits. For one thing, it is increasingly likely that your readers expect it, since we are becoming—in the words of Paul Martin Lester—a visually mediated society. Graphics can also help reinforce your message by involving more areas of the brain than text alone. (Although text is visual, reading it actually taxes the auditory cortex—thanks to our phonetic alphabet.) And because the brain processes visual images much more quickly than text, a graphic helps your reader immediately grasp your core message. For example, you could insert a visual timeline into your brief to illustrate a key fact or explain a complicated procedural history.