Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Layout tips for legal documents

Last month, I read a document produced by a law firm, then one produced by Adobe Systems Incorporated. The Adobe document? Attractive. The legal document? Not so much.

Could legal documents use an Adobe-inspired layout makeover?

Probably. “In a document I recently reviewed, the price adjustment language for share purchase prices was contained in one paragraph almost two pages long,” recalls Brock Smith, a Vancouver-based partner in Clark Wilson LLP’s technology and IP group. “I don’t know how we expect business people to understand this.”

“Walls of copy daunt the average person who doesn’t understand legalese,” adds Zahra Al-harazi, creative director for Calgary-based Foundry Communications Inc.

Poor document layout causes problems other than lousy communication. In a 2007 article entitled “Beware the Hidden Costs of Bad Formatting,” president of New York-based Chelsea Office Systems Inc. Roberta Gelb estimated billable time needed to make three basic changes to two visually identical (but differently formatted) 30-page Microsoft Word documents. One required 2 ½ minutes, the other more than 60 minutes.

According to Gelb’s math, such layout-related cost overruns for a 20-lawyer, 20-secretary firm exceed six figures annually.

Then there’s the actual look of the document, something that might, in a client’s mind, not compare favourably with the professionalism and credibility implied by a firm’s web site, brochures or other branded material.

“You can’t overlook the psychology that occurs when you hand people a document,” says David Canton, a business lawyer with London, ON-based Harrison Pensa LLP. “If a document looks sloppy, people assume the contents are not high-quality.”

He uses standard customer agreements as an example. “I prepare documents in a very professional format,” he explains. “A user perceives that agreement as cast in stone. But if it seems cobbled together, the look implies it could be challenged.”

“Clients don’t want to have to call their lawyers to find a specific sentence or paragraph,” Canton continues. “Good formatting is a pragmatic approach to increasing readability. You should do it just to be a better communicator.”

Yet the 1950s look persists in many legal documents. A lack of computer training is commonly blamed, but lawyers wonder how clients would perceive slick layout. “Would the client pay for extra training, proper layout, even dedicated document layout professionals?” Smith wonders. “For some of the old-school clients, there’s nothing wrong with Courier 12 point, and they might think ‘If you’re making it all fancy, do I pay for that?’”

In a large firm, not necessarily. Smith, for instance, goes to people in the word processing or support departments when he needs help. “That will be a job of the future,” he says. “Lawyers, as a group, will never be as good at document layout as their support staff.”

Lawyers sometimes bring formatting difficulty on themselves. A document Gelb mentioned in her article, for example, was full of tabs, hard returns, manual numbering and other direct formatting which can’t be changed easily. If the font size for 50 paragraphs needed to be changed, all 50 paragraphs had to be individually formatted.

Pasting content from other documents can also foul up formatting.

Improving document layout

Want to make over the staid look of your firm’s documents while you reduce the time it takes to create them? Try the following tips:

Brand your business first

“What’s your point of differentiation?” asks Al-harazi. “Do you market to women? Do you see yourself as more approachable?” Once you decide on your point of differentiation, put it into everything that shows your firm identity.

“Do it right the first time,” Al-harazi advises. “If you do stuff cheaply, in the long run your competitors will outshine you. It’s better to do it right up front than to rethink it as you go.”

Brand your documents

“Have some idea of what you want the document to look like,” Canton advises. Take styling cues from your firm’s branded materials as well as documents that you like the look of.

Write with style(s)

Word styles let you apply multiple formatting settings with one choice, whether for headings, paragraph text, numbered or bulleted lists and so forth.

If you need to change the look of hundreds of paragraphs to which you applied the same style, you need only change that paragraph style and not the hundreds of paragraphs.

“Documents generated by users who don’t have a strong grasp of Word styles are very difficult to work with,” Smith says.

Have all authors use one word processor

Different word processors handle Word’s .doc document format (the most commonly used format) in different ways, which means they often undo sophisticated formatting. If it’s created using Word, all co-authors should also use Word.

Keep non-printing characters visible

While they can take some getting used to, non-printing characters show all manual formatting, and thus any formatting errors manually introduced to a document.

Non-printing characters expose one of Canton’s pet peeves. “In Word, you can use styles to make the spacing between paragraphs look consistent,” he says, “but people often don’t set up spacing before and after in a style. They just create extra line breaks to get the spacing they want.”

Shorten paragraphs

Break down large sections into smaller ones and give sections descriptive headings. “There’s no excuse for a two-page paragraph,” Smith says.

Paste special

Word lets you apply the right formatting in your target document when you paste something from another document when you use “Paste special” in the Edit menu.

Create modular documents

“For long documents that have definition sections, put definitions in a schedule that can be detached and referenced without the reader having to flip back to the section each time,” Smith advises.

Create templates

Once you have a design that works, capture that design in a template you can reuse endlessly.

“We give clients stringent brand standards so they know what they can do and what they can’t,” Al-harazi says, noting those standards cover colour palette, font use for headings and body copy, and everything in between.

Create a style guide

Turn the template into a style guide. List your brand standards in the template lawyers use to start documents. In particular, explain how each style should be used, using actual styles in the guide itself to illustrate their use.

Train document creators

Schedule mandatory training sessions to coincide with computer upgrades or other occasions. Even quick lunch-and-learn sessions can promote time- and cost-saving behaviour.

Consider outsourcing important documents

Need to create special documents for high-stakes matters like mergers or acquisitions? Consider contracting a graphic designer to get the layout just right.

This article originally published in Lawyers Weekly.

For a PDF of this article, click here.

  1. Thanks for this tips regarding the layout of legal documents. I appreciate that you mentioned it’s important to have templates, especially if you have a design that works. It’s a great way to have a quick fix, so that you can start work immediately. The sooner you can get to work, the better.

    • Thanks for your comment, Taylor. Yes, templates hugely reduce the time needed to create a professional document.