Thinking about design can go a long way

People with heightened design sensibilities will tell you that a law firm’s documents — everything from brochures to business cards to contracts to invoices — create an impression from the moment clients see them.

Paul Cahill, a partner at Will Davidson LLP, has become more sensitive about aesthetics since taking on responsibility for marketing and working alongside the firm’s newly hired marketing director.

“We’ve been trying to raise our public profile,” he explains, “to maximize the persuasiveness and readability of whatever it is we’re trying to convey.”

Know your clients (and their tastes)

To that end, Larry Port recommends law firms know their clients, and not just in the legal sense. Their tastes matter too.

“Law firms must understand their audience and design materials that reflect the relationship they want to have,” says the former film school student and professional photographer turned founder of online practice management system Rocket Matter.

Make the words attractive

Imagery and layout matter in professional documents, but in the text-heavy legal world, lawyers need to focus chiefly on what their words look like. That’s what their clients will notice, even if only subconsciously.

If you work with design firms, Port notes “they prefer looking at Helvetica, sans-serif, modern, clean-looking fonts.” If you design documents for banking or insurance-related industries, “you might want to stick with Times New Roman or other serifed fonts.” He recommends the ABA publication Typography for Lawyers by Matthew Butterick. “This book is very highly regarded.”

Design consistency matters

Once a firm designs a brand, that brand must appear on anything the firm produces that those prospective and current clients might see. “We have a look and feel we keep consistent across all media,” Cahill says of the fonts, logo, shade of blue and all other visual criteria of the firm’s brand. “We keep everything looking like Will Davidson,” he says.

Law firms can bake branding into templates so they need not re-create the wheel with each new document. However, anybody who creates templates in software like Microsoft Word is advised to not use existing documents as a starting point. It’s better to start from scratch so that the template creator does not carry any formatting bugs from older documents into new ones.

The payback on time spent creating a template is time saved whenever that template is used to create a new document. The authors need not set font size, line spacing, margins, headers, footers or the myriad other details that add up to the appearance of that document as they type.

Do your work with style(s)

The most powerful “branding consistency tools” in Microsoft Word are paragraph and character styles. By choosing the right styles as you build a document, you ensure that most of what you type will be properly formatted.

Another benefit: proper usage of heading styles makes tables of contents a snap to generate.

Clear up invoices

Port has designed clients’ invoices for them. That’s the source of much of his knowledge on fonts, mentioned earlier in this article. Often, “I think less is more,” he says, referring to the fact that firms can easily overload clients with a superabundance of information. “People paying the bills want to know what’s been done, and by whom,” he explains, adding “You may not want a lot of detailed information on payment histories and trust balances.”

“What clients really need to know is how much money to pay.”

Keep images with relevant text

There’s little sense in putting images in appendices the way lawyers did before they started using computers. “You’d have to flip through to tab 1B to look at the document as you’re reading it,” Cahill recalls. “Over the last few years, I’ve incorporated images in the body of my texts, like a journal article.”

Cahill also annotates images. Doing so makes his point clearer. “I’ve had the judiciary compliment me. ‘This is really readable, easy to understand.’ ‘You took something complicated and you made it simple.’”

He limits images to those that make the case. “Use images sparingly and tastefully,” Cahill says.

Notes on the business card

If there’s one “document” every lawyer must carry at all times, it’s the business card.

Like other documents, cards must “match” the audience lawyers want to attract. “It’s a situation where you’re trying to gain business, unlike an invoice where you’ve already closed the deal,” Port explains.

When lawyers solicit business from technology and media companies and other people with refined senses of aesthetics, “get copies of their business cards,” Port advises. Design details like rounded corners and extra thickness are simple enough to incorporate into a card’s design. “If you want to say ‘I understand your business,’ you want your card to say ‘I understand your business’ by the way it looks.”

When pitching more conservative industries, like insurance and banking, lawyers may opt for a more refined look that includes ordinary edges and embossed letters.

Cards serve as tools people can use to remember you, so Port recommends you make it easy for people to write notes on them by choosing a matte finish — never glossy. A professionally taken photo can also help people remember the person who gives them a card.

Port has seen clip art including gavels, scales and buildings with pillars on business cards. “It looks cheap, and people recognize that,” he says.

Limits on design flair

Good design isn’t always possible when documents are destined for a given jurisdiction’s courts. Port notes, for instance, that certain jurisdictions demand that each line be numbered down the left side of each page. “There isn’t much we can do to improve there,” he admits.

Design expertise isn’t just for the pros

Requisite design skills may not reside within a law firm, so Cahill recommends hiring outside help when necessary.

“We use different designers,” he says. “You can get tired of what one designer comes up with.”

However, Cahill also wants lawyers and staff properly trained so they can manage the design technology they have. Cahill himself uses Microsoft Word to assemble documents, plus Adobe Photoshop and other tools.

“There’s a time and a place when you should hire professionals to do document design,” Cahill says. “Don’t hire designers for work you could do yourself.”

This article originally published in Lawyers Weekly Magazine. To view the print version, click here.

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