The ABCs of Legal Document Formatting For Non-Legal People

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Alice Wilson* – Legal document formatting is a key requirement for both lawyers and for those who are writing legal documents to be easily understood by consumers and others, but the basics to clear legal writing for these purposes are often misunderstood.

 

For lawyers, the exact requirements for legal document formatting will change depending upon specific jurisdiction that the document is being prepared for, as shown in this article in Clio.com. 

Document formatting involves arranging documents that are most readable for those seeking the information and for law-related documents  such as legal articles, contracts, wills, trust deeds, and more, you will need to know how to format them.

Below we explain how to go about with effective legal document formatting and include some views expressed by business people outside the legal profession who rely upon accurate, clear legal documents for non-legal users or readers.

What Is Legal Document Formatting?

Legal document formatting is the process of arranging your legal documents in a way that is readable by your readers. This includes a variety of factors including the choice of font, paragraph style, and margins. 

It also includes things like headers, footers, and tables. The most important thing to remember is that all of this should support the overall purpose of the document.

According to Meredith Kokos, Head of Marketing at Guaranteed Rate, “Readers will judge your documents by the way they are formatted.”

It it important to ensure that the legal documents you create and not misunderstood by those who need to understand them.

Why Is Legal Document Formatting Important?

Legal document formatting is important for two reasons. First, it helps your reader understand what is written in the document. This is especially important if you’re writing a contract. For example, if the contract is in purple when the rest of the document is blue, the reader might not understand it at all.

Second, it can increase the ease of reading. This is especially important when producing legal documents in large volumes. If documents are difficult to read, they can have a negative impact on both productivity and the quality of the finished products.

You can remember the basic principles of creating accessible documents from the co-founder of Finn, James Shalhoub. He said that “Legible, professional documents give your clients confidence that they chose the right company.”

Clients who can’t make heads or tails of your contracts and other documents are far less likely to stick with you going forward. Give your clients confidence in what they’re reading, and you will have a much better business relationship.

How to Format a Legal Document

Before we get into the details of legal document formatting, it’s important to understand the different types of legal documents and their requirements. This will help you to understand the importance of legal document formatting. 

  • The name, address, phone number, and email of the author should be included at the beginning of the document. This is for the benefit of the reader, as the name, address, and contact details of the author will help the reader to know who the author is, where the document came from, and how to get in touch with the author if necessary. 
  • The title should be bold, clear, and concise. This helps the reader to decide at a glance what the document is about.
  • Paragraph style should be consistent throughout the document. As Alex Czarnecki, founder and CEO of Cottage puts it, “Consistency makes your document easier to read and understand. It’s that simple.”
  • Headers and footers should be used to indicate where the section ends and where the next one begins.
  • Tables should be used sparingly, only when they are absolutely necessary. Otherwise, they can make the document difficult to read.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s move on to the actual formatting process. For this section, we’ll be looking at Microsoft Word from 2007 and up. There are some slight variations in older versions, such as Windows XP, but the end result is the same.

Steps to Format Your Document

Step 1

In Word, create a blank document.

Step 2

You can change the standard letter size from 8 ½ inches by 11 inches to legal-sized paper. Click on the “Page Layout” tab to change the paper size. Select “Legal” under “Size.”

Step 3

If necessary, adjust the margins to suit your needs. The page’s top margin should be at least 2 inches. For all subsequent pages, the top margin should be at least 1 ½ inches. All pages should have a minimum of 1 inch at the bottom. 

All pages should have a left margin of 1 ½ inches. All pages should have a right margin of ¾ to 1 inch. Justification is not required. The right margin of your document should not exceed 1 inch if you are justifying it. 

Step 4

Click on the “Page Layout” tab to adjust the margins. Click Margins in “Page Setup.” Enter the amounts in “Page Setup” by clicking “Custom Margins.”

Step 5

Choose a standard serif font such as Times New Roman or Courier. Serif fonts have fewer strokes, dashes, or hooks at major letter lines. A 12-point font size is recommended. Text that must be highlighted or stressed can be written in bold, italics, or underlining.

Step 6

You can adjust the spacing to suit your needs. Double spacing is used in most legal documents. However, it should be used for the main body of text. Indented text should use single spacing. Triple spacing should be used between headings. 

To change the spacing, click on the “Home” tab. Click Line Spacing in “Paragraph.” To choose from the available options, enter the number or click “Line Spacing Choices.”

Different Types of Legal Documents and Their Requirements

When choosing how to format your legal documents, you should keep in mind the purpose of the document. This will help you to choose the right type of document for the right purpose. 

As Will Watters, co-founder and creative director of Western Rise states, “Some of the most common types of legal documents are agreements, wills, contracts, grants, and deeds. They need to be right every time and without fail.”

You should also keep in mind the type of reader that will be reading your document. According to Brandon Lurie, Marketing Director for Y Meadows, you have to ask the following questions: “Who is the reader? What is your likely audience? Understanding these things will allow you to choose the right type of legal document for the right audience.”

How to Apply Basic Legal Document Formatting Principles

Before learning about specific legal document formatting rules, you should try to understand the basic principles behind document formatting. 

Care about Your Product

As the CEO of Chronos Digital, Joshua Chin, puts it, “When you care about your work product, you’re going to be much more likely to put in the effort to make sure that you’re doing a good job.” Very true. And you’re also going to be more likely to be accurate and concise so that you don’t wind up wasting a lot of time on things that aren’t important.

Ensure Accuracy

In order to ensure that you’re accurate, you need to ensure that you’re following the guidelines for your documents. This is because different governments and organizations will have guidelines for how things should be written. Once you know what these are, you’ll be able to make sure that you’re staying accurate.

Be Concise

The more words that are in your legal documents, the more likely it is that something is going to be off. There could be a typo. There could be factual errors. There could be anything else that makes your document incorrect. If you don’t stay concise, you could wind up with inaccurate information.

Organize Your Writing

One of the best ways that you can stay organized is by using headings. Listen to what Max Schwartzapfel, CMO of Fighting for You, has to say about headings: “Headings are what help to bring order to a large amount of information. You can use headings to help to keep things really clear. If you’re able to do this, it’s going to make it much easier for the reader to understand your work.”

Connect with Your Audience

Jared Hines, Head of Operations at Acre Gold, says that when you’re writing legal documents, “You need to keep in mind the audience that you’re writing for. This doesn’t just mean that you need to think about your reader; it also means that you need to think about the context of your work.”

In doing so, you will find it’s much easier to create fluid, concise, and engaging information for your clients.

Summary

Legal document formatting is important in any profession. But in order to make sure that your legal documents are formatted correctly, you need to study and incorporate the guidelines that are in place. With practice, you can be sure to produce quality, legal-based content.

Author:

Alice Wilson writes on content management, content writing and technical writing for professional and non-professional users, including articles on related topics involving marketing and management issues.

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