You won’t see it cited too often, but Rule 5:6 is without a doubt one of the most revolting recent developments in Virginia appellate practice. It’s the Supreme Court rule that says, “Except by leave of Court, all pleadings and briefs, including footnotes, must be in at least 14 point type, [and] must use Courier, Arial, or Verdana font….”

The resulting product is visually abhorrent. A brief in 14-point Arial looks kind of like what my daughter might put together with her markers–the major difference being that paper is not Caroline’s medium of choice.

It’s difficult to understand the logic behind Rule 5:6. If shorter briefs are the goal, then it seems like the right move would be to limit length, like Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 32(a)(7)–not to mess with fonts. If the rule is aimed at legibility, on the other hand, it could have required 14-point type, but given lawyers their choice of fonts. I’m far from sold on the readability of the sans serif fonts, and Courier is garbage. Also, it’s worth asking why, if the Century fonts are good enough for the SCOTUS

Anyway, Rule 5:6 is on my mind today because I’ve been working on a Fourth Circuit brief. One of the relative pleasures of practicing in the Fourth Circuit, as opposed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, is the opportunity to make reasonable design choices and put together a more professional-looking piece of work.

Not that I’m any sort of an expert. But there are plenty of resources available for lawyers looking to learn about basic typography for briefs and filings. One of my favorites is this guide, which is available on the Seventh Circuit’s website. It convinced me to stop using Times New Roman. (Times New Roman was originally designed to allow the reader to skim quickly over words. That’s not what you’re looking for in a brief–you want the reader to linger.)

The Seventh Circuit also offers this law review article. It’s long, but there’s some good stuff in there. Finally, Bryan Garner offers some characteristically good advice in The Winning Brief. Some of his tips for designing text:

  • Put a little more white space above a heading than below it;
  • Use a 13-point serifed typeface (14-point in federal court);
  • Set tabs at the equivalent of 5 characters for the first inch, .15 inches after that;
  • Set margins at 1.2 inches on the side, and 1 inch on the top and bottom;
  • Leave the right margin ragged (not justified) for greater readability; and
  • Avoid all-caps text, which is basically impossible to read.

And this brings us full circle. I was at one of Garner’s CLEs last summer, and I mentioned Rule 5:6 to him. He looked at me like–well, see the above photo.