How could I have missed this?! On December 15, the Supreme Court of Virginia revised Rule 5:6 to update its list of acceptable fonts. (H/t Steve Emmert.)

Until now, SCV briefs had to be printed in 14-point Arial, Courier, or Verdana. I’m on record as expressing mild disapprobation for that list. The new list is vastly improved. I’ve reproduced it below. I’ve also added some information from Matthew Butterick’s excellent Typography for Lawyers–second edition, you should buy it now–in which he assigns the system fonts to various lists:

  • A List = generally tolerable
  • B List = OK in limited doses
  • C List = questionable
  • F List = fatal to your credibility

Butterick also indicates whether each font presents a plausible choice for body text, or is better reserved for letterhead or other special projects. Bear in mind that Butterick is a Harvard-trained fontologist, so he is probably much harsher on system fonts than your typical audience will be.

Thus we have the list of SCV-approved fonts, with the Butterick Grade and Body-Text Rating for each:


The next obvious question is which font to use. Brother Emmert tells us that Times New Roman is the densest of the lot and will let you cram the most words into 35 or 50 pages. That’s maybe not what the Court was going for when it amended Rule 5:6. Emmert himself is vacillating between Cambria and Constantia. Butterick may frown on those choices, but I think that Steve can pull them off. One of his secrets is writing very short, very carefully mapped out briefs. If your brief makes a compelling argument in 1/4 of your allotted pages, you get to take some liberties with the font.

As for me, I tend to be wordier than Steve. I need all the help that I can get when it comes to preserving my readers’ attention, so I’m looking at Palatino Linotype and Century Schoolbook as my go-to choices. But those are preferred choices, not defaults. I view typography as just another tool to accomplish my goals in a brief, and those goals vary by project. One font is not going to be the best choice for every brief. For example, Century Schoolbook looks like, well, a schoolbook. Like the sort of thing that an elementary-school teacher would have read to you about the escapades of Dick and Jane and Spot. It also looks like a Restatement. So if I’m writing a brief in opposition, and I want to tell the Court that the law is settled and needs no further development, and that it clearly and authoritatively mandates the result below, then I will choose Century Schoolbook. I will cite many authorities, and I will try to rein in my worst and most distracting tics as a writer–like my overuse of em-dashes and shrieking italics. As a result, my brief will look (and hopefully feel) like black-letter law.

On the other hand, if I have a novel issue or a sympathetic plaintiff, or if for some other reason I want my brief to feel like a story, then I may choose Palatino Linotype–because, to me, than font feels like a story. [I wish I knew how to quit you, em-dash!] Palatino looks like something I might read on iBooks.

To be clear, this is not [tic] a concession that every time I use Palatino Linotype, I’ve given up on the legal argument. It’s just an observation that using the font can help create a different overall feel. Some lawyers, for example, are very good at telling the story behind an overall statutory scheme, or the development of an area of law. Paul Clement and Stuart Raphael come to mind. Of the fonts listed, Palatino Linotype would probably be the most useful for that type of project.

And I won’t tell you what 14-point Arial and Verdana look like.