When you begin designing a document, a good place to start is the body text (since it makes up a majority of the writing). The four variables that have the greatest impact on how your body text looks are: font, point size, line length (aka margins) and line spacing.
In court documents, attorneys tend not to play with these variables much at all. The majority of briefs are written in 12-point Times New Roman with one-inch margins and double spacing. I have written previously about why this is not a good formula, and I have pointed out that court rules often give attorneys more leeway than they realize to adjust these variables.
In California, for example, attorneys are allowed to widen their margins and reduce their line spacing, both of which can help create more readable body text. But what do you do if you’re in a jurisdiction that does have pretty strict rules?
In that case, you simply must embrace those constraints. Designers actually love working within constraints—it’s part of the fun! In fact, one definition of the noun design is “a specification of an object ... subject to constraints.”
Let’s take a look at what you can do if you’re in a jurisdiction with stricter constraints. In Oregon, for example, court filings must be double spaced and have one-inch margins on all sides. See UTCR 2.010(4). This means that you have only two main variables left to adjust: font and point size. So, how should you set them?
First, we should reference the guidelines for designing body text. Ideally you want a line length of 45–90 characters (including spaces). Longer than that and the eye has a hard time tracking the line all the way to the end. Your reader will have to slow down or use a finger to avoid getting lost.
When you draft a brief in 12-point Times New Roman with one-inch margins, you are really pushing the limits of comfortable line length. In my “before” example below, the average line length is right around 95 characters. But if you can’t widen your margins, what else can you do to achieve a more desirable line length? Two things: you can use a wider font and you can increase the point size. In the “after” example below, I switched out Times New Roman for Century Schoolbook, which is a wider (and generally easier-to-read) font. I also increased the point size from 12 to 13. By making these two small changes, I was able to reduce the line length by about 17% (down to an average of 79 characters per line).
To test whether this really works, try printing out both versions and reading them for yourself. (Or better yet, give them to a non-attorney to read.) The “after” example should be easier on your eyes.
I should note that, in general, the ideal point size for body text is 10 to 12 points. But you have to consider all of the variables together. When the margins and line spacing are dictated by court rule, then you may have to bend the point-size guideline to work within those constraints.
Of course, using a wider font and a larger point size will mean a longer document overall. So, if you’re running up against a page limit and you really can’t cut any content, then you might not be able to make these changes.