Rule Change Introducing Word Limits to Appellate Briefs Offers Opportunity for More Font Variety, Increased Brief Readability

April 05, 2016 8:03 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

A recent rule change impacting appellate court briefs provides an opportunity for attorneys to experiment with typography—the general character or appearance of printed matter—and choose fonts with superior readability than Times New Roman. 


Beginning on January 1, 2016, Supreme Court Rule 341(b) was amended to provide an alternate limit to an appellate brief’s length. Now, instead of solely being bound by page limits, litigants are alternatively bound by word limits—15,000 words for appellants’ and appellees’ briefs, and 7,000 words for reply briefs. Ill. S. Ct. R. 341(b). This rule change ends the need to use smaller, less readable typeface to meet page limits to avoid sacrificing arguments in a complex or multi-faceted appeal.


Typography impacts readability in brief-length documents. In Professor Ruth Anne Robbins’ article, Painting with Print: Incorporating Concepts of Typographic and Layout Design into the Text of  Legal Writing Documents, she presents basic and valuable concepts of visual design such as contrast, organization, justification, and the use of all capital letters. Journal of the Association of Legal Writing Directors, Vol. 2, at 108-34 (2004). She notes that “the look of the words themselves affects visual perception. Thus, even with text alone, legal writers can create a picture using typography as paint on the canvas of the page.” Id. at 110. Simply put, “[t]he more readable the document, the more likely the reader will remember the content.” Id.

at 113.   

Broadly speaking, fonts are distinguishable by two types of attributes. First, type can be proportionally spaced, meaning that the more narrow letters take up less space on the page, or monospaced, meaning that each letter takes up the same amount of width regardless of the natural letter shape. Id.at 121. Second, font can be “serif” or “sans serif.” A “serif” or “wing” font has small horizontal or vertical strokes at the ends of the lines that make up the letters. See id. at 119. Examples of “serif” fonts are Times New Roman and Garamond. “Sans serif” fonts, such as Arial, have no extra strokes at the end of the letter line. Id. Professor Robbins asserts that “[t]he popular view among graphic design experts is to use serif fonts” for large blocks of text. Id. at 119. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals even provides a link to Professor Robbins’ article on its homepage. See http://www.ca7.uscourts.gov/ (last accessed March 24, 2016).


The Seventh Circuit expounds on the choice of font in appellate briefs in its “Requirements and Suggestions for Typography in Briefs and Other Papers.” See http://www.ca7.uscourts.gov/Rules/type.pdf (last accessed March 24, 2016). It advises, “[y]ou 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.” Id. at 4. It expressly criticizes Times New Roman as a font choice, noting that, “The Times of London chose the typeface 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.” Id. at 3. Instead, the Seventh Circuit suggests choosing font with a larger “x-height”—where the letter “x” is taller in relation to a capital letter. Id.at 5. 

By way of example, the Seventh Circuit offers that both the United States Supreme Court and Solicitor General use Century font, and professional typographers set books in New Baskerville, Book Antiqua, Bookman Old Style, and many other proportionally spaced “serif” faces. Id. “Now that only words count,” it commends, “everyone gains from a more legible typeface, even if that means extra pages.” Id.

Now that Illinois courts of review accept word limits for briefs, practitioners should seize the opportunity to select what they believe is the most readable typeface. As the Seventh Circuit notes, it won’t guarantee victory, but enhanced ease of reading and increased retention for judges and their clerks can only benefit the appellate practitioner.

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