Why is design so absent in legal products?

I absolutely detest it when someone gives me a document or a spreadsheet to read and the type is set in Calibri (the default typeface in most Microsoft Office apps). Two things about this particularly annoy me. The first is that Calibri has to be one of the ugliest typefaces ever created. It is absolutely miserable to look at, particular at small sizes. The second is that I know that the author of whatever it is I've been given to read didn't take to the time to notice (a) how horrible the document looks or (b) have the imagination to change the font! 

I know that sounds a bit obsessive, but it winds me up when I come across something that is so obviously devoid of any care taken in relation to its appearance - the "that'll do"-factor. 

I get the same feeling when I look at WestlawUK and LexisLibrary, both of which are the leading online research platforms in the legal market. The more I look at the way these products have been designed, the more I wonder whether there is some accepted conventional wisdom that says products for lawyers can only be taken seriously if they look crap or simply whether nobody cares about how these products look. 

Typography

The big legal research platforms trade in long, dense and complex textual structures - great big documents such as law reports and statutes. There's a lot of reading to be done. Why then is it that both WestlawUK and LexisLibrary insist of setting text in god awful sans serif fonts? Sans serif fonts are a notoriously poor design choice for long blocks of text, particularly at small point sizes.

Here's an example of what I mean, courtesy of LexisLibrary. The following extract is taken from the headnote in Cavendish Square Holding BV v El Makdessi; ParkingEye Ltd v Beavis [2016] 2 All ER (Comm) 1:

Two appeals were heard together because they raised similar issues concerning the principles underlying the law relating to contractual penalty clauses or the penalty rule. The respondent in the first appeal, M, agreed to sell shares in a company, which were ultimately transferred to the appellant, Cavendish. Under that agreement, cll 5.1 and 5.6 provided that, if M breached restrictive covenants in the agreement, he would not be entitled to receive interim and/or final payments, and could be required to sell Cavendish the rest of his shares at a defaulting shareholder option price, based on asset value and so ignoring any goodwill value (for the full provisions, see [55], below). Cavendish concluded M had acted in breach of the restrictive covenants and gave notice of the exercise of its call option, under cl 5.6. It subsequently issued proceedings against M for breach of the agreement. Cavendish sought a declaration that M was a defaulting shareholder, was not entitled to the interim payment or the final payment as a result of cl 5.1, and was obliged, as of the date 30 days after the service of its notice exercising the call option to sell to Cavendish all his shares in the company at the defaulting shareholder option price, and it sought specific performance of the latter obligation. The judge at first instance concluded that cll 5.1 and 5.6 were valid and enforceable. The Court of Appeal held that the two provisions were unenforceable penalties under the penalty rule as traditionally understood because it felt bound by the traditional explanation of the rule as being directed against deterrent clauses as such. Cavendish appealed. In the second appeal, the appellant, B, parked in the car park for which the respondent, ParkingEye, provided management services to the landowner and which contained signs providing the parking terms, including that parking was free for two hours and that failure to comply with the terms would result in an £85 parking charge (for the full text of the signs, see [91], below). B overstayed the two-hour time limit by nearly an hour and ParkingEye sent him a standard first parking charge notice, which demanded that he pay the £85 charge. B ignored the demand, as well as a subsequent standard form reminder notice and warning letter, and ParkingEye issued proceedings in the county court to recover the £85 alleged to be due. Before the judge and the Court of Appeal, B raised two arguments as to why he should not have to pay the £85 charge, namely, that it was unenforceable at common law because it was a penalty and/or because it was unfair and, therefore, unenforceable by virtue of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, SI 1999/2083. The Court of Appeal upheld the judge's decision rejecting each of B's arguments and B appealed. The issues for determination were: (i) the scope of the penalty rule and whether it should be abolished; (ii) whether cll 5.1 and 5.6 were unenforceable as penalties; and (iii) whether the £85 charge was unenforceable as a penalty or as unfair under the Regulations.

The above block of text uses Verdana at 12px with a line height of 1.6em. Now let's look at how WestlawUK does things, by looking at the headnote in the headnote in the same case (this time, the headnote is taken from [2015] 3 WLR 1373:

In the first case, following extensive negotiations in which both sides were represented by highly experienced commercial lawyers, the defendant agreed to sell to the claimant a controlling interest in the advertising and marketing company which he had founded. The claimant agreed to pay up to $147m, depending on a calculation of profits, in instalments, with a large amount reflecting goodwill. The agreement provided that for a period after the sale the defendant was not to compete with his old business and that, if he did, he would not be entitled to any further payments (clause 5.1) and the claimant would acquire an option to buy his remaining shares at a price which disregarded goodwill (clause 5.6). When the defendant breached the non-competition provision, the claimant sought a declaration that he was not entitled to further payments and was obliged to sell his shares to it. The judge, rejecting the defendant's contention that clauses 5.1 and 5.6 were penal and therefore unenforceable, made the declarations sought. The Court of Appeal allowed the defendant's appeal, holding that the clauses were not genuine pre-estimates of loss but rather their function was to act as a deterrent, and that, therefore, both clauses were unenforceable penalties. The claimant appealed, contending that the clauses were not penal and that, in any event, the common law rule that contractual penalty clauses were unenforceable should be abolished or at least restricted so as not to apply to commercial transactions where the parties were of equal bargaining power and each acted on skilled legal advice.

In the second case, the defendant parked his car in the privately-owned shopping centre car park which was managed by the claimant. Notices prominently displayed at the entrance and throughout the car park stipulated that the maximum permitted stay was two hours, that parking was free up to that time but that £85 would be charged to those who stayed longer, reducible to £50 if paid within 14 days. The *1374 defendant drove out of the car park nearly an hour after the permitted time and was charged £85 by the claimant, which he did not pay. The claimant brought proceedings in the county court to recover the charge. The judge gave judgment for the claimant, rejecting the defendant's argument that he should not have to pay the charge because (i) it was unenforceable at common law because it was a penalty, and/or (ii) it was unfair and, therefore, unenforceable by virtue of regulation 8 of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 19991 . The Court of Appeal dismissed the defendant's appeal. The defendant appealed.

Just like LexisLibrary, WestlawUK has opted for a sans serif font, in this case Trebuchet MS. To the extent that design choices were made in favour of Verdana and Trebuchet MS, I'm baffled as to the logic. 

Quality newspapers tend to provide a good cue for decent typography. The Times, for example, uses its own custom designed serif typeface, Times Modern. 

The Times, Times Modern typeface

The Times, Times Modern typeface

Serif fonts, like Times, are famed for their clear legibility, hence their extensive use in the typesetting of books and newspapers. Why, if a design choice had in fact been made, would the developers of WestlawUK and LexisLibrary have opted for sans serif fonts (and terrible san serif fonts at that)?

One answer may be that the continued use of sans serif fonts is a hangover from a design decision taken when the services were built many years ago to instil some misguided sense of futurism.

Law on my computer? That is just *so* futuristic, man.

Had that been the case, I would have gone for Helvetica Neue. The other possibility is that nobody asked themselves the question "How can we make it easier for the user to read our content?". If that's the case, it's a shame. 

So, returning to extract from the Cavendish case, here's how it should look (note, this following extract has not been set for display on a smartphone):

In the first case, following extensive negotiations in which both sides were represented by highly experienced commercial lawyers, the defendant agreed to sell to the claimant a controlling interest in the advertising and marketing company which he had founded. The claimant agreed to pay up to $147m, depending on a calculation of profits, in instalments, with a large amount reflecting goodwill. The agreement provided that for a period after the sale the defendant was not to compete with his old business and that, if he did, he would not be entitled to any further payments (clause 5.1) and the claimant would acquire an option to buy his remaining shares at a price which disregarded goodwill (clause 5.6). When the defendant breached the non-competition provision, the claimant sought a declaration that he was not entitled to further payments and was obliged to sell his shares to it. The judge, rejecting the defendant's contention that clauses 5.1 and 5.6 were penal and therefore unenforceable, made the declarations sought. The Court of Appeal allowed the defendant's appeal, holding that the clauses were not genuine pre-estimates of loss but rather their function was to act as a deterrent, and that, therefore, both clauses were unenforceable penalties. The claimant appealed, contending that the clauses were not penal and that, in any event, the common law rule that contractual penalty clauses were unenforceable should be abolished or at least restricted so as not to apply to commercial transactions where the parties were of equal bargaining power and each acted on skilled legal advice.

In the second case, the defendant parked his car in the privately-owned shopping centre car park which was managed by the claimant. Notices prominently displayed at the entrance and throughout the car park stipulated that the maximum permitted stay was two hours, that parking was free up to that time but that £85 would be charged to those who stayed longer, reducible to £50 if paid within 14 days. The defendant drove out of the car park nearly an hour after the permitted time and was charged £85 by the claimant, which he did not pay. The claimant brought proceedings in the county court to recover the charge. The judge gave judgment for the claimant, rejecting the defendant's argument that he should not have to pay the charge because (i) it was unenforceable at common law because it was a penalty, and/or (ii) it was unfair and, therefore, unenforceable by virtue of regulation 8 of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999. The Court of Appeal dismissed the defendant's appeal. The defendant appealed.

The extract above uses a freely available serif typeface called Lora. The line height is set to 1.6em to give each line a bit of room to breath and, since the font is being displayed on a screen,  it's been set to smooth by antialiasing. To my eye, at least, it's ten times more readable than the extracts on WestlawUK and LexisLibrary. 

Note: the "futuristic" typeface further up is VT323, designed by Peter Hull, and is available on Google Fonts.