What’s Your Font of Choice for Legal Argument?

Seanna and I watched Gary Hustwit’s documentary film about the Helvetica font on the weekend. It’s led me to pose the question, “What’s your font of choice for formal legal argument?”

The movie explains that, aside from being ubiquitous, Helvetica is modern, minimalistic and neutral. I like it for formal legal advocacy for two reasons. One, I feel it’s a good “empty vessel” though which I can impose my own meaning without a font signaling something “off message.” Two, I’ve bought into the idea that persuasive argument is, first and foremost, digestible argument: writing point-first, plain language argument in Helvetica seems to be a good way to accomplish this objective.

Here’s a wonderful clip that gives you a sense of the Helvetica’s essence and advocacy potential.

I admit that my attraction to Helvetica could be misguided. In fact, Matthew Butterick’s excellent Typography for Lawyers website suggests that sans-serif fonts like Helvetica should be avoided in legal argument because they are tiring to read in long documents. Remarkably, he cites a number of American court rules that require documents to be submitted in serifed fonts. Who am I to quarrel? Butterick, a practicing lawyer and former typographer, is an expert. He prefers to write legal briefs in a nice-looking serifed font named “Sabon.”

Do you have a view? Please share it below.

(Hat tip to Doug Jasinski for the introduction to Typology for Lawyers.)


  1. Thanks Simon.

    I forgot about these in writing, and now have re-read them with a whole new appreciation. The Ken Adams post-and its endorsement of “Calibri”-is worth a direct link.

    Such an interesting topic. I know better, but am tempted to risk all political capital and suggest our firm strike a “font committee.”


  2. I remember having discussions a few times in the office about what our standard font should be for things like letters and briefs.

    I typically use Palatino, since Times New Roman has sort of become the typographical equivalent of Polo cologne.

    On occasion, however, I’ve been tempted to use wingdings…

  3. I don’t know why one would question that sans fonts are easier on the eye than serif fonts. Stanley Morrison, when he was designing Times New Roman (first used in The Times newspaper on Oct. 3, 1932), conducted the first “scientific” tests with type fonts to study how they facilitated reading. His tests showed that type fonts with serifs made reading significantly easier and faster; that they enhanced legibility and comprehension; and that the eyes tired less quickly. Times New Roman has a bad rap these days, possibly because it is ubiquitous. (Among other things, it’s the font face used in Canada Law Book’s logo.) But there is good reason it is so widely used, and it remains one of the best and most elegant type fonts ever designed. Designed by Morrison specifically for The Times, the font is remarkable for its sculptural quality and clarity in all sizes, whether tiny (e.g., when used to print classified ads) or large (in display fonts for headlines) and every size in between. Morrison’s tests proved that serif fonts, and his design in particular, were also more compact than sans serif fonts, meaning publishers could fit more type per inch — a serious economic consideration in the newspaper business — and not compromise legibility or style. Serif fonts, especially the ubiquitous Times New Roman, are recommended for any text application where comprehension, clarity and concision are required, even legal.

  4. In an increasingly-online world, one consideration is the balance between on-screen legibility and on-paper legibility. It is often impractical to switch fonts depending on where a document is being read, so it is good to use a typeface that is as legible as possible in both media.

    Of the most commonly available typefaces (sadly, this set is largely populated by what’s available with Windows and Word), the Cambria family is a good choice. (For interested Windows users who don’t have the typeface, it is available in Microsoft’s free Powerpoint 2007 Viewer.)

    When discussing legibility, it is good to look beyond one’s own subjective experience. Cambria has been empirically demonstrated to be more legible than common competitors (Constantia and Times New Roman) in print and on screen (see, for example, this preliminary study by Chaparro et al, for example). Cambria is a bit heavier and more uniform in stroke weight than Times New Roman, and is a bit looser in spacing, both of which do a lot to improve it’s on-screen legibility.

  5. Thank you for the kind words on Typography for Lawyers & the link.

    If you want to set longer texts in a sans serif font, consider Franklin Gothic, Syntax, Univers, Frutiger, Myriad, Scala Sans, or Quadraat Sans. All of these are “modern, minimalistic, and neutral” and any of them would be more appealing than Helvetica.

    I’ve heard from lawyers who have suggested (as Owen does, above) that if you need screen and print legibility, that Cambria, Calibri and their ilk are the best choices.

    If you are delivering your work in PDF, this is not true. Why? In Windows, fonts like Cambria and Calibri are optimized for the screen using hinting, which is extra software code stored in the font itself. Windows relies on this hinting when it draws text on screen (e.g. in Microsoft Word).

    But Adobe Acrobat (what most people use to read PDFs) draws text on screen using its own technology that ignores the hinting. So in PDF, Cambria / Calibri / etc. lose their screen-legibility advantage over other fonts.

    Any PDF could also end up being printed. So as a rule, you’re better off using print-optimized fonts for PDFs, regardless of how you expect the PDF to be read.

    For the skeptics, here’s a sample I made showing how Cambria and Georgia look worse on screen in PDF than in Word. Meanwhile, Sabon and Quadraat, two print-optimized fonts, look better on screen in PDF than Word. Even if we say that all four fonts are about equally legible on screen in PDF, Sabon and Quadraat will definitely look better when printed, so that’s the tiebreaker.

  6. Assessing typefaces on their own merits, I might agree that Sabon and Quadraat are nice, but I suspect many people do not have those on our computers. In addition to screen- and print-legibility, I think availability is worth considering.

    The point about display in Word vs. display of PDFs is interesting, but I’m not sure the comparison was a fair one. Cambria looks pretty good for me in PDF format, though not identical to Word.

    My own quick sample leads me to think that the source of the problem in Acrobat is Matthew’s settings, rather than the selection of typeface. First, it is obvious that the zoom level is different; the characters in Adobe are all smaller and thus will naturally be less legible. Secondly, it looks to me like he has Acrobat optimized for a CRT monitor and I would guess (from the Word screenshots) that he is actually using an LCD monitor. Correcting that setting (under Edit > Preferences > Page Display > Rendering) should improve how Acrobat renders those typefaces.

  7. Owen was correct about my Acrobat display settings, so I fixed them and replaced my sample with a new version.

    My conclusion is the same, however: while Cambria and Georgia have a clear advantage in screen legibility in Word, that advantage is lost in Acrobat.

    My point is not that Cambria looks bad on screen in PDF, merely that it doesn’t look better than anything else. So if you’re sure that your PDF will never be printed, Cambria is a fine choice.

    But if there’s a chance that your PDF will be printed — seems like there always is — then a print-optimized font is better. On the printed page, Cambria and the other screen-optimized fonts for Windows (like Georgia, Verdana, and Calibri) just can’t compete with a print-optimized font.

    I used Sabon and Quadraat because I happened to have them handy. But Windows / Office fonts that are more suitable for printing than Cambria include Bell MT, Book Antiqua, Californian FB, Calisto MT, Century Schoolbook, Goudy Old Style, and High Tower Text.

    (PS. Note that the legibility study linked above tested the fonts using the Windows text rendering engine, not Acrobat; and only on screen, not print. So it doesn’t answer the questions posed here)

  8. I have a special interest in this because my old eyes need high contrast and enlargement on the screen. That calls for two adjustments.

    #1> To get high contrast I set my choice of font style and size in my software to be applied to incoming text. This only works if the switch is enabled by the sender and it doesn’t work with PDF files. In both cases I have to copy the text to another program that allows me to make the switch. I use Notepad; many use Word. However it is done, it is an annoying time waster.

    #2> My old eyes often need the screen to be enlarged. This calls for word wrap to be enabled by the sender. If it isn’t done, it truncates the lines and I would have to go from side to side for each line. Again, the fix is to copy the text to another program which allows word wrap, annoying and time wasting.

    Adobe is trying to improve the accessibility of PDF files, but their fixes are clumsy add-ons and not easy to use. The instructions themselves are not accessible.

    So please, all of you, Be elderly friendly; enable the viewer’s choice of font style and size, and enable word wrap in everything that will be read on a screen.

    BTW, in my search for minimum legibility standards I found three: for label on aircraft wiring, for briefs for a Mid-west federal judge, and for material the State Dept. sent to President GWB.