Correctly formatting your legal documents is critical to ensuring that they look their best.

In many cases, those documents may be the first interaction that a client, opposing attorney, or officer of the court has with your firm.

You want to make sure that the impression they get is positive, professional, and authoritative.

However, creating detailed legal documents can prove challenging, especially if you need to make changes to the standardized document formatting presented by your word processor. 

Are you formatting a legal document in Word? While there are many elements you may need to take into account, setting up templates and styles can make it easier for you to develop the documents you need. 

Resize Your Document

Legal documents are slightly different from the standardized letter-sized paper used for most other paperwork across the United States.

While those documents are usually 8.5 x 11 inches, legal documents are 8.5 x 14 inches.

If you’ll be printing on that size paper, start your document formatting by choosing the right size for your document.

Go to Layout and choose the Size option. There, you’ll find a Legal option that will format your document in the 8.5 x 14 inch size. 

Ideally, you want to resize your document before changing other formatting, since the size of the paper can have significant impact on other elements of the document, as well.

Note, however, that not every document you create in a law office will necessarily be in 8.5 x 14″ format. If you’ll be publishing a standard manuscript or simply sending out a letter, for example, you may want to keep your document at the more standard 8.5 x 11″ size.

Pick Your Fonts

Choosing the right font or fonts is essential for creating the crisp, professional appearance you want for your legal documents. While the legality of the document has nothing to do with the font it’s written in, it may prove much more difficult to get others to take the document seriously if, for example, it’s written in Comic Sans. 

Many law firms will have their own preferred font choices: Times New Roman, Century, Gothic, or Arial are common choices. Other firms will simply prefer to adhere to the standards required by the local court system. 

Note that in some courts, you may need to submit documents in an approved font to have the document recognized by the court. 

The Virginia Supreme Court, for example, has a short list of approved fonts that includes Arial, Cambria, Century, Tahoma, and Times New Roman, among others. Massachusetts, on the other hand, recommends the use of Courier New when filing a document in Appeals Court. 

Do your research ahead of time and make sure you know what fonts are accepted by your state and local court systems so that you can create documents that adhere to those guidelines.

If multiple people in your practice will be creating legal documents, you may also want to create a style template that will ensure that everyone is using the same fonts. 

Set the Line Spacing

Line spacing helps make documents easier to read. Allowing plenty of white space in a document makes it easier for people to skim across it, whether they’re trying to absorb the entirety of the document or quickly go to the content they need. 

Legal documents typically use 1.5 or double line spacing to help add white space and improve readability. Using wider spacing also makes it easier to mark up draft copies, since you’ll have room to write directly on the page. 

To set your line spacing in Word, go to Layout, then select Paragraph. In the expanded menu, you have the option to set line spacing for the document. In addition, you can use that formatting window to set space before or after your paragraphs.

Additional spacing before or after paragraphs makes them stand out and can further improve readability. 

If you simply want to double-space a document, Ctrl + 2 will activate double spacing without needing to go through the menu.

Format Your Columns

Columns can serve as a valuable way to present information, particularly if you need to present a longer list as part of your legal document. You can format the entire document with columns or choose to use those columns only in a specific segment of the document. 

Go to Page Layout, then click the Columns option. There, you can select the number of columns you want to include in your document or document segment.

You can also individually size each column if you need a custom column size. When you’re ready to return to your previous column formatting, simply go back to the Columns option and change it back. 

If you need to add columns after you’ve created a list or other segment of your document, highlight that segment, then select Columns and apply the relevant formatting.  

Set Up Your Table of Contents

A table of contents can make it much easier to find the content you’re looking for in a document, whether you’re viewing that document virtually or using a physical copy.

You can choose to set up your table of contents in a couple of different ways, depending on the type of document you’re creating.

Go to References, then choose Table of Contents. Word will give you the option to either manually generate a table of contents based on its pre-created formatting or to create your own table of contents manually.

If you choose to use the template already included in the document, Word will generate your table of contents based on your headers and subheaders. You will need to use those formatting styles to label the various sections of your document. On the other hand, if you generate your table of contents manually, you can provide your own headers and link to page numbers.

If you make changes to your document that will impact the table of contents, you may need to update it in order to ensure its continued accuracy. Simply click on the created table of contents, then click “update.” This will make any needed changes to the table of contents.

Create Your Table of Authorities

Building a table of authorities allows you to quickly and easily reference any other legal material used in the creation of your document. Microsoft Word makes it easy to keep up with those references and create your table. 

First, mark your citations. Choose the first citation in your document. You can then either use Alt + Shift + I or click the References option, then choose Mark Citation in the Table of Authorities. When the text box pops up, edit the long citation to include all relevant information. Then, click the category that applies to the citation. 

Next, fill in all relevant information in the Short Citation box. Once the information has been completed and you have selected either Mark Citation or Mark All, move on to the Next Citation by clicking the button.  

Next, insert the table of authorities in your document. Choose References, then Table of Authorities, then Insert Table of Authorities. You can either create a table of authorities that is specific to specific categories or select “All” in the Category box. 

Word provides several preformatted table of authorities options. However, if you prefer to choose your own formatting or layout, you can customize your format. 

Automating Your Formatting

Automated formatting makes it easy to start a new legal document. Instead of having to go through and reset all your formatting options each time you begin a new document, you can simply choose the format you’re looking for and get started providing the relevant information. 

Creating a Style

Creating a style allows you to quickly select the formatting you want for a specific document or section of a document. It can prove useful to have a style for document types or formatting areas that you use regularly. If you’ve already set up the document or section of the document to use the style you want, highlight it and click Styles. Then, select Create a Style. You can name your style based on its purpose: for example, if you use the style for a particular type of legal document, you might want to name it after that document. Then, when you next want to use that style, you can quickly select it from the Style menu. 

Choose a simple naming system so that you can easily find the format and style you’re looking for.

Setting Up Autoformatting as You Type

There are several ways Word can help with autoformatting as you type your document. If you want to see what changes Word is set to make, or to create your own formatting, go to File, select Options, and click on AutoCorrect Options. Not only can Word take on some basic formatting, including smart quotes and hyperlinks, it can handle:

  • Automatic bulleted lists
  • Tables
  • Heading styles
  • Border lines

You can also set whether you want Word to automatically format the next item in a table or list like the one in front of it. Choosing this option can make it easier to maintain consistency as you go through the document or list. Autoformatting helps speed up your document creation and, in many cases, creates a smoother look for the document. 

A Note on Different Documents

Some documents may have some specific formatting needs. Setting them up correctly will ensure that they look clean and professional, majntaining your law firm’s reputation and ensuring that you do not have to go back and make changes to those documents later.


Legal pleadings may need to include paragraph numbers to make it easy to refer back to specific areas of either the pleading itself or the original legal document. Select Paragraph, then Numbering, and choose the format you want for your paragraph numbers. In addition, pleadings are typically double-spaced, so you may want to create a specific style or format for these documents to ensure that they meet those requirements. Word includes a template for legal pleadings that you can modify to fit the requirements of your firm or your court system.


Legal briefs are typically short and concise, with no extra details. You may want to use very clear formatting, including clearly labeled headers and footers that make it easy to track the information provided in the document. Keep the formatting simple, with no extra details or flare, so that the focus remains on the information included in the document.


Writing a longer manuscript is often time-consuming. Create a clear format or use a template in the beginning so that you don’t have to worry about going back and making extensive changes later. 

  • Set your margins to 1″ all the way around.
  • Make sure you’re using the right size page for your manuscript. Manuscripts are typically 8.5 x 11″ sized, not the 8.5 x 14″ often used by legal documents. 
  • Use a clean font that is easy to read. While you may have more options for fonts in a manuscript, since you won’t have to worry about court standards, it should still be professional and clear. Make sure that the font is free to use and that it will transfer easily. 
  • Set a clear distinction between headers of different types. Make sure you can easily see the difference between H1, H2, and H3 headers. 

Review your full manuscript for any possible formatting errors before submitting or publishing it, as errors can creep in over the course of a longer document. 

Grow Your Firm the Smart Way

Learning how to format your legal documents can help you streamline your process and work more efficiently. Get your document sized appropriately, your margins set up, and your font selected. And if you regularly need to do unusual formatting, consider setting up a style that can make this job faster.

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