We know what you’re thinking: Why should I care about fonts? The authors of this article—an appellate judge and a few litigators—would like to answer this question in two parts.
The first part discusses the current font norms for North Carolina lawyers, and why the fonts favored by those norms are not optimal for legal writing.
The second part briefly describes how fonts within the Century family increase readability and retention—features that can give lawyers a competitive edge.
The Current Font Status Quo
This is Times New Roman, the font that most North Carolina lawyers use for their legal writing. Times New Roman was developed in the 1920s by a British newspaper, The Times of London. It was designed for a specific purpose: to allow speed-skimming the newspaper’s articles.
The letters in Times New Roman are narrow, closely spaced, and designed to force readers’ eyes across the page as quickly as possible. Another benefit of this closely spaced font was that it left ample space for advertisements. It was not, however, designed for intensive reading—for example, reviewing lengthy briefs. The emphasis was on speed, not retention.
Today, for whatever reason, Times New Roman has become the standard, including for North Carolina lawyers. As one commentator has remarked, Times New Roman is “the font of least resistance.” It “is not a font choice so much as the absence of a font choice.” It is the beige of fonts.
This is Courier New, another font that many North Carolina lawyers use. Courier was developed by IBM in the 1950s, but it became the standard typewriter font in the 1960s.
Courier’s original purpose had even less to do with reading retention than Times New Roman. Instead, its purpose was to make it easier to edit documents typed on typewriters. With Courier font, the letters are all the same size—in typography terms, “non-proportional.” With an “i” taking up the same space as a “w,” for example, it allowed a typewriter to use a white-out key that was the same size for every letter.
In the 1950s, this function may have seemed modern and streamlined. Even after typewriters began to die out in the 1980s and 1990s, however, Courier stuck around. Perhaps it was because writers found it familiar. Eventually, it became the basic font for computer processing. From there, like Times New Roman, it gained popularity because of its ubiquity, not its attributes.
Recently, governments and private companies have started to reject Courier as an old, outdated, and “clunky” font. Like all non-proportional fonts, Courier is not an efficient use of each page because it takes up more space than necessary. It is also more difficult to read than newer, better-designed fonts. This is, in part, because “[w]hen every character is the same width, the eye loses valuable clues that help it distinguish one letter from another.”
Ultimately, though, neither Times New Roman nor Courier was designed for legal writing. For their legal writing needs, lawyers can do much better.
Fonts in the Century Family = Better Readability and Retention
For good reason, fonts within the Century family have emerged as the favorite of many legal writers.
(Editor’s note: Unfortunately, we have no Century family fonts installed on this WordPress theme. The font you’re currently enjoying is Lato.)
Among its attractive features, Century Schoolbook is “highly readable, yet commands an air of authority with letters that take up more space than Times New Roman.” It has even been called the “crème-de-la-crème of legal fonts.”
The book “Typography for Lawyers,” for example, ranks Century Schoolbook on a short “A list” of fonts. Times New Roman and Courier, by contrast, made the “C list” of “questionable” fonts for lawyers.
While you may not immediately recognize the name Century Schoolbook, you’ve been reading legal opinions in this font since your first year of law school. The U.S. Supreme Court publishes its opinions in Century Schoolbook. Likewise, Rule 33(1)(B) of the Supreme Court’s Rules states that the text of all major documents, including briefs, “shall be typeset in a Century family (e.g., Century Expanded, New Century Schoolbook, or Century Schoolbook) 12-point type.”
In addition, the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 5th, 7th, and Federal Circuits have long used and endorsed Century-family fonts. The 7th Circuit has offered this explanation for its choice:
The briefs, opinions of the district courts, essential parts of the appendices, and other required reading add up to about 1,000 pages per argument session. Reading that much is a chore; remembering it is even harder. You can improve your chances by making your briefs typographically superior. It won’t make your arguments better, but it will ensure that judges grasp and retain your points with less struggle. That’s a valuable advantage, which you should seize.
For that same reason, fonts within the Century family—especially Century Schoolbook—are used in situations where readability and retention matter most. As one non-exclusive example, pharmaceutical researchers recommend Century Schoolbook for prescription medicine labels—a place where suboptimal font choice could have serious consequences.
Switching to fonts in the Century family may also produce cost savings. As NPR reported, when a major university recently switched its e-mail system’s default font from Arial to Century, it saved thousands of dollars annually in printing costs.
The Supreme Court’s recent amendment embraces the uncontroversial idea that lawyers should use a font that serves two purposes: readability and retention. After all, briefs are not meant to be quickly skimmed over a morning cup of tea along with newspaper advertisements (The London Times’ Times New Roman). Nor are they meant to meet the mechanical needs of a typewriter’s white-out function (Courier New).
As the 7th Circuit explained, “The Times of London uses Times New Roman to serve an audience looking for a quick read. Lawyers don’t want their audience to read fast and throw the document away; they want to maximize retention.” North Carolina’s appellate courts, by switching to Century Schoolbook for their opinions and endorsing it for appellate briefs, apparently agree.
In view of the Supreme Court’s use of Century Schoolbook and its endorsement of that font in the appellate rules, perhaps more North Carolina lawyers will consider using a font in the Century family for their legal writing needs. The authors are hopeful that this article may be useful in inviting a dialogue on the topic.
While fonts may not be at the top of everyone’s list of important items to tackle, we hope that this article was thought-provoking.
We welcome your comments on the information in this article. We would enjoy picking up this discussion with you by phone or by e-mail—particularly if your e-mail is written in Century Schoolbook.
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Richard Dietz is a judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals. He was the first Court of Appeals judge to switch to Century Schoolbook for opinions.
Drew Erteschik is a partner in the Raleigh office of Poyner Spruill LLP. He is a board-certified appellate practice specialist who has embraced Century Schoolbook for all his writing needs.
Clark Tew is a litigator with Homesley & Wingo Law Group in Mooresville, concentrating his practice on employment and labor law. Despite his firm support for Century fonts, Clark hypocritically writes his personal documents in Iowan Old Style.
J.M. Durnovich is a litigator in the Charlotte office of Poyner Spruill LLP. His go-to font is Century Schoolbook.
See U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, Practitioner’s Handbook for Appeals § 23, at 131-32.
See Tom Vanderbilt, Courier, Dispatched, Slate (Feb. 20, 2004), http://www.slate.com/articles/business_and_tech/design/2004/02/courier_dispatched.html (last visited April 12, 2017).
See Matthew Butterick, A Brief History of Times New Roman, Typography for Lawyers, available at http://typographyforlawyers.com/a-brief-history-of-times-new-roman.html (last visited April 12, 2017).
 Mark Wilson, 5 Non-Times New Roman Fonts Courts Use in Their Opinions, Greedy Associates (Nov. 26, 2014), http://blogs.findlaw.com/greedy_associates/2014/11/5-non-times-new-roman-fonts-courts-use-in-their-opinions.html (last visited April 12, 2017).
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