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Simple Genius: Lawyer's Typeface Makes Legalese Easy To Read

Matthew Butterick's elegant new typeface is "inspired by legal typography and the needs of legal writers."

Only the legal profession would be so anal-retentive as to prescribe typographic rules, and only the legal profession would be so unimaginative as to set the default at Times New Roman. Here to introduce a little flair to the world of court filings, contracts, and legal memos is Matthew Butterick, who has developed Equity, a typeface "inspired by legal typography and the needs of legal writers."

Butterick is an attorney in Los Angeles. He is also a typographer, having graduated from Harvard with a degree in visual and environmental studies. After college, he worked as a digital font designer and engineer for type legends Matthew Carter and David Berlow on projects for Apple Computer, Microsoft, Ziff-Davis, and others. Last year, Butterick combined his two professional interests in Typography for Lawyers, a field guide to fonts for legal professionals. Designing a new legal typeface was the next, if not immediately obvious, step. "If you had asked me 12 months ago, I would’ve said ‘lawyers should use one of the many great text faces that already exist,’" Butterick tells Co.Design. "But earlier this year I had the ‘aha’ moment where I figured out how I could make something useful and novel."

A word on attorneys: They read and write a lot. They are also prolific self-publishers: They design layouts and print and deliver their own work. "Often, these documents are typographically complex and have to come together on short notice," Butterick says. What’s more, court filings have to adhere to regulations about typography, layout, and page limits. As a result, Times New Roman, a narrow, mousy little font that allows you to squeeze in more words per page than your average font, has become the industry standard. But "TNR has no special magic," Butterick says. "In fact, there are very few situations where it’s actually required." (The Supreme Court even forbids it.)

So Butterick designed Equity, a serif typeface, to be every bit as space-efficient as TNR, but eminently more readable—and a tad sexy. "I wanted Equity to be like a navy-blue Armani suit: a classic updated with contemporary virtues," Butterick says.

He drew inspiration from Monotype Ehrhardt, a once-influential, early 20th-century typeface (created by Stanley Morison, the same guy behind TNR) that all but disappeared by the end of the letterpress-printing era 50 years ago. "With Equity, I’ve tried to capture the heft and authority that made Ehrhardt appealing, while cutting out many details that seemed quaint or outdated," Butterick says. "Ehrhardt guided the shapes of the roman alphabet and some of the italics. But everything else had to be done from scratch."

[A comparison of Equity on the left, and Time New Roman on the right. Definitely click to view larger—thought it’s hard to see here, the difference is pronounced.]

The final product is a series of heavy, rounded letter forms that are designed to look good with the odd point sizes and double-line spacing lawyers often have to use. It has separate small-caps fonts that are already letterspaced, and it comes with two weight grades that can accommodate office printers (lawyers’ printing presses of choice), which differ in the quality and darkness of the text they spit out. Importantly, Equity is designed to be as legible in print as on a PDF—the targets for the majority of legal documents.

Whether lawyers can actually use the typeface in official filings depends on the rules of the court, which vary from one place to the next. "I’ve already used Equity on fil­ings for Cal­i­for­nia state appel­late courts," Butterick assures readers on his blog. He also points out that most legal documents, like letters, memos, and contracts, are free of typographic constraints.

Ultimately, the point is to give lawyers a better tool for organizing their writing. That, in turn, can help convey complex legal arcana. Despite all their fussy rules, judges are required to vet court documents according to substance, not presentation. They cannot, for instance, throw you in jail for printing something in Comic Sans (though, of course, they should). At the same time, Butterick believes, the clearer a document, the easier it’ll be for readers to follow an argument. He puts it this way: "Equity will make good legal writing easier to read, and bad legal writing easier to tolerate."

Equity can be licensed for $120 to $480 here.

[Top Image: Flickr user illuminaut; Images courtesy of Matthew Butterick]

Add New Comment


  • MrsMarkleham

    As its name suggests, Times New Roman, is perfect for newspaper-style printing i.e. single spaced and in narrow columns with single line spacing. The compact nature of the font leaves breathing room around the letters enabling much text to be printed in a small space. That's why it actually looks so good in the comparison above - because it's printed as a newspaper column. 

    Equity, as the article above suggests, has been designed for legal documents, which are usually full page width and double spaced. For these docs, TNR just looks a bit weak, because there is suddenly too much space and the lettering has insufficient impact. I would have been more interested to see a comparison based on this model.

  • Stephan

    They better start using shorter sentences and less jargon. Not only the legal branche, but also the ensurance/telecom, etc. The problem with reading their contracts and other material is not a lack of readability, but a lack of clarity and common sense.

  • Cacophonix1984

    The TNR is more readable. The proof needs to be in the pudding.

    Perhaps Equity needs to be a drafting font for lawyers to do their work and TNR the printing font, for both businessmen AND lawyers to read after the deed is done!

  • andrea from raisin peanut

    I disagree with the other comments. Equity ... my eyes flew down the page. With TNR, I had to pay closer attention to the words. It seemed I absorbed the content in Equity much more easily.

    I've heard Doyald Young once say the TNR is thee most perfect font designed. While that may be the unpopular opinion, he did have me take a closer look at the font. It is nice.

    But for the purpose stated above, Equity wins, hands down.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Karen

    hosanna! i detest times new roman - and at my intellectually-posh independent school even my computer is defaulted to it.  my choice has been palatino which is a more visually welcoming font.

  • Leban

    I am always a fan of new solutions and Equity is definitely a quality font, but I may have to agree that Times New Roman draws me in more as a reader in the side-by-side comparison. I understand the idea of bulking up the font for small print (which is very common in legalese), but I think some of the original elegance of form and manipulation of negative space in TNR gets lost in translation with Equity.

    Cheers to the attempt!

  • Alexander

    I keep wondering how long it will take for people to realise there's not actually anything wrong with Times roman...

    Equity looks a nice enough typeface, but he's solved a non-existent problem