Formatting Legal Documents in Microsoft Word

We are Stuck with Microsoft Word

Microsoft Word is not good software, especially the proprietary file formats (.doc and .docx).  They were (allegedly) designed by Microsoft to be essentially impossible for Microsoft’s competitors to work with, so that Microsoft could leverage its monopoly power in the word processing/office software market (and in the personal computer operating systems market) to shut out competitors.  That is why I recommend using LibreOffice (or Apache OpenOffice) and the .odt file format, and I would like to see institutions move towards that, including courts and universities.

But until that happens, as a practical matter, attorneys need to use Microsoft Word to edit Microsoft Word documents that they will send or receive from other attorneys.  Here is a guide to fixing a legal-formatted Microsoft Word document.  Since I don’t know what your document looks like, I will explain how to create one from scratch — and you can use that information to see how you might want to fix your broken document.

Having Side Numbering

Documents filed with the court (and other documents, such as discovery requests that are served but not filed with the court) typically need to have numbering down the left side, and a caption on the first page.

The normal way to include left-side numbering (along with three vertical lines spanning the length of the page, two close together on the left side of the content and one on the right side of the page) is to put that into the header.  If the word document has only a single “section,” and you don’t check the option for “different first page,” the header will be replicated across every page in the document, which is what you want (there will be numbering on every page in the document).  The line numbers themselves go into a text box and the vertical lines are just that, [insert->shapes->line].

Making it Line Up

For a document that has a professional appearance, you will want the text in the document to line up with the line numbers.  This is generally accomplished by making sure that the side numbering has the same spacing as the text itself.  There are several options for the spacing: you could choose [home->paragraph->line spacing->double], but I’ve found it is easier to use [home->paragraph->line spacing->exactly].  The two most common values for exact line spacing are either 24 points per line, or 22.75 points per line.  The advantage to 22.75 is that you can fit an extra line on each page, which can help with meeting a page limits requirement (although I’ve found the best way to meet that requirement is to revise your work and carefully consider what is really necessary).

So if the body of your document is going to use 24-point spacing, then the side numbering should also be set to 24-point spacing, and if the body of your document is going to be set at 22.75 point, that should also be the formatting of the side numbering.

You may need to adjust the position of the text box that contains the left-side line numbers, so that it lines up with the text of your document.  You can do that by opening the header and clicking on the text box itself.  Then you can drag it up/down/left/right, to the position that you want.

Lining up Single-Spaced Lines (two lines of text per line number)

Not all parts of your document are going to have significant space between each line.  For example, blockquotes (long quotes that are indented and single-spaced, which causes people’s eyes to glaze over and they don’t read it) are typically done with two lines of text per line number.  At the top of the first page, you will have attorney/law firm information, and case information (a/k/a, the “caption”).  If your document is set to 24-point, and you use [home->paragraph->line spacing->single], you will get roughly two lines of text for each line number on the left side of the page, but they text won’t line up with the line numbers.  To make it line up, you would use [home->paragraph->line spacing->exactly->12 pt].  Similarly, when people have 22.75 point spacing, they typically use 11.4 points when you are fitting two lines per line number.

Creating the Caption

The caption itself consists of left-aligned text at the top-left identifying the attorneys who authored the particular paper, and identifying who they represent.  Below that is center-aligned text identifying the court.  (e.g., “Superior Court for the County of San Mateo, Unlimited Jurisdiction”)

Below that are two boxes, side-by-side.  The box on the left side contains the names of the parties (e.g., “John Smith, Plaintiff, vs. Widget Corporation, Inc., et al., Defendants”).  The box on the right side has the case number, title of the document, date/time/place of the hearing (if applicable) and often, the date the case was filed and/or the scheduled date for the trial.

I’ve found the easiest way to set up the boxes is to insert a table, with one row and two columns.  You can use [Table Tools->Design->Borders] to remove all borders, and then for the left table cell only, add a bottom border and a right-side border.

You will also see people make the border between the two boxes out of a stack of parenthesis “)))))” but I’ve found it’s simpler and better-looking to use table borders.

Adding a Footer

You will want a footer identifying the name of the document, and listing the page number, and possibly other information (for example, the case number).  Also, the footer typically contains a horizontal line running between the vertical lines on the left and right side of the page.  You can create this horizontal line by making a new line that has nothing but a few minus signs in it, and hitting enter.  (A line that is nothing but: “—–“).  If you want to remove or edit it later, you should know that this type of horizontal line is actually considered by Word to be a border.

The best way to insert page numbers is to add a field.  Use [Insert->Quick Parts->Field->Page].  Avoid using anything from [Insert->Page Number] to add page numbers.  (This raises a question: what is a “quick part” and why did Microsoft choose such a ridiculous name for it?)

Common Problems With Formatting Legal Papers

Sometimes, the line numbering or footer is different on different pages of the document.  This is usually because they are contained in the header and footer, and you may have a different header/footer on different pages. If your document has more than one “section,” these sections can have different headers/footers.  You can add sections by inserting a “section break” [Layout->Breaks->Section Breaks].  You can remove sections by deleting the section breaks.

Sometimes, you delete a line of text, and suddenly, the line numbers disappear from your document.  This usually happens when you delete a section break.  Section breaks are visible if you click on [Home->¶]

One reason to make multiple sections is if you want more control over page numbering.  In particular, most short papers have a page number on every page, starting with “1” and counting up.  But on large briefs, you may want the very first page to have no page number at all, followed by roman numeral page numbers (i, ii, iii…) for the table of contents and table of authorities, followed by Arabic numeral page numbers (1, 2, 3…).  You can accomplish this by causing the first page to be section 1, the TOC/TOA to be part of section 2, and the rest of the brief section 3.  You will want the header to be identical between the 3 sections.  So within [Header & Footer Tools->Design->Link to Previous], you want that to be enabled for the headers.  You won’t want that for all of the footers, because your footer for the very first page will have no page number at all.  Go to the second page, and open the footer (by double-clicking on it).  Then go to [Header & Footer Tools->Design->Link to Previous] and uncheck that for section 2 only.

Now you can go back to the section 1 footer and delete the page number.

To change how page numbers are displayed for each section, go to that particular section (click on some text in that section, so your cursor is inside that section).  Then go to [Insert->Page Number->Format Page Numbers…]   Choose the appropriate “Number Format” and whether you want to “Start at” “i” or “1” (you don’t want to “Continue from previous section”).

If you want to delete a section break between sections A and B, first do “link to previous” for both the header of Section B and the footer of Section B.  Then, when you delete the break between Sections A and B, it won’t throw your formatting into chaos.

The California Rules of Court require, for documents filed in superior court, consecutive numbering of all pages, starting with Page 1.  CRC 3.1110 and 3.1113.  This is a good change, because it eliminates the need to have multiple sections in documents.  This means that when your document is converted into a PDF, the page numbers at the bottom will match the page numbering of the PDF itself.

Document Headings

Unless it is a very short document, you will probably want headings, like “I. Introduction” and “IV. Conclusion”

If these headings are going to be a single line, you can space them the same way as other text.  For example, if your heading is short, you can set it at Exactly 24 point [Home->Paragraph->Line Spacing->Exactly->24 pt].

But if you have a long heading that spans multiple lines (and generally, I prefer to keep headings short and to the point) it doesn’t look great to have it at Exactly 24 point.  But you still want it to line up with the line numbers.  You can use [Home->Paragraph->Spacing] to put in different numbers, to obtain a different look while still lining up with the line numbers.  For example, if your document is spaced at 24-point, and you have a heading that spans two lines, it will look better if you use [Home->Paragraph->Before->12 pt] [Home->Paragraph->After->6pt] [Home->Paragraph->Line Spacing->Exactly->15 pt].  With before: 12, after: 6, exactly: 15, for two lines, that add up to a total of 48 points (12 + 15 + 15 + 6 = 48), so your heading looks good but will not cause the text below to be misaligned.

When you have multiple headings stacking on top of each other (e.g., “III. Argument.” “A. This Court lacks personal jurisdiction over Widget Corporation, because Widget Corporation has insufficient contacts with the forum state and none of the transactions underlying Plaintiff’s complaint occurred in this state.”) you can use some other combination of “Before, After, and Exactly” to add up to a multiple of 24 points (probably 48 or 72 points) so that your headings look good, and the text below the headings still lines up with the line numbers on the side of the page.

When a Document Has a Formatting Problem that You Just Can’t Fix

Sometimes, the best way to fix a problem document is to start over with a clean template, and paste in the document’s contents.  But you don’t want to copy the problems into your new document (and you might not even know what the problems are).  If you first copy the content from the broken document, then right-click on your clean document where you want to insert it, and choose [Paste Options->Keep Text Only], none of the formatting will copy over.  Which is, on one hand, annoying (you will have to go back and bold, italicize, and underline the text as necessary) but at the same time, you will avoid copying over anything that causes problems.  You can leave all of the problems behind.


You should now have enough information to create your own legal document template, or to edit/fix someone else’s template.  Most lawyers will start with someone else’s template.  Usually there is no reason to create your own from scratch.  You now can fix the most common problems that make a document look unprofessional.