Vol 44, Issue 4

March/April 2005

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Styles in Legal Documents

by Tracey Deison

Styles are commonly used in technical writing and design to format text and create visually unified and appealing documents. Styles are particularly useful when applied to long projects such as manuals, guides, and books. As a student in upper level English courses at the University of Houston–Downtown, I have encountered the academic love of the use of styles, and have been left to wonder just how useful such a tool is to the legal industry.

In the legal field, as with any industry, each law firm, individual attorney, and legal assistant is part of a large spectrum of different ideas on organization and work production. While many firms use templates and styles to standardize work product, some firms do not. In firms that do not use styles, each attorney has his or her own formatting preferences and the issue of style use within documents is a matter of personal choice.

In the case of personal choice, the benefits of using styles to format documents must outweigh several factors for it to be perceived as a worthwhile tool.

  • The legal industry is very form driven. Legal documents are often simply a compilation of forms. These forms are preformatted, kept handy in “form files” on the computer and are inserted into documents as needed.
  • Legal documents, particularly in litigation, are simple. The format of a typical pleading is governed both traditionally and statutorily and consists of a case style at the top, double-spaced text with centered roman numerals between sections of information, and a signature line.
  • Time is another factor. Every legal assistant has heard this: “I don't care how it looks, I have to be in court in ten minutes.” In the rush of the moment, both the attorney and the legal assistant look for a form. Since the form is preformatted, formatting is seldom a consideration.
  • Attorneys are increasingly computer savvy and many produce some portion of their own work. Thus, the format of the documents produced is consistent with that attorney's own computer skill level and formatting preference.

Considering each of the above factors, the key to making styles a preferred formatting choice lies in proving that styles enhance both efficiency and the visual appeal of the work product. In many cases where the documents are short and simple, or where the attorney is producing the document, styles are not used. They are deemed useless when simple tabs, indents, or double-returns will produce the desired result. In these cases the benefits of styles do not pierce the “if it's not broke, don't fix it” mentality.

However, there are factors that make style formatting a beneficial choice. As technical communicators can attest, using styles helps regulate the look and feel of documents with little effort. This benefit can be most fully realized in the production of long contracts and real estate documents. Any document that has layers of information or varying levels of indention is an ideal candidate for use of styles. Styles control the appearance of paragraphs of text and thus help to keep a document intact during round after round of revision. This is a definite plus when adding, deleting, and moving text. Without a tool to help regulate the look of the document, layers of indention and formatting can get mixed up and cause confusion to the reader.

Styles can also help in the production of tables of contents. Instead of marking text, one simply chooses to generate the table of contents from the styles. This is a very beneficial feature, particularly when text additions contain new headings. Updating the table of contents is then simply a matter of the few “clicks” it takes to update the table of contents, instead of a matter of remembering to mark new headings and then updating the table of contents.

Undoubtedly, the use of styles entails a little planning, but the benefits are worth a little bit of work at the front end of a project. And, while we have discussed the benefits the attorney and legal assistant gain from styles formatting, the greatest benefit of all actually goes to the reader who gains a clear and even road map through the text, guided by structured layers of indention and formatting. This is a true courtesy in a profession where clarity is often lost.

Interviews with:

Angie Osborn, Legal Assistant
Richard Yount, Attorney
Bill Voss, Mandamus Staffing Solutions, Inc.
Arlette Giuliano, Director of Education, Bradford School in Houston

Submissions for approval with:

Charles S. Turet, Jr., Attorney
William L. Van Fleet, Attorney
Bill Voss, Mandamus Staffing Solutions, Inc.
Arlette Giuliano, Director of Education, Bradford School in Houston
Dolores Brooks, Legal Assistant

Tracey Deison is a legal assistant with 14 years' experience and a student at the University of Houston-Downtown working toward her degree in Professional Writing.

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