Legal Writing for Screen Readers

Vicki Lowery

Article by Vicki Lowery Featured Author


In the not-so-distant future, Theodore Forrence predicts that more than a few judges will be reading briefs on portable electronic devices with hyperlinks to interactive timelines, videotaped trial testimony, and other evidence. 1 Changes in the way we read legal briefs are changing how lawyers draft them.

Robert Dubose, author of Legal Writing for the Rewired Brain: Persuading Readers in a Paperless World,2 warns that our brains are “being rewired” by technological advances such as personal computers and electronic tablets. And this “rewiring” is changing how we read documents.

When reading text on paper, our eyes move from left to right, moving line by line from top to bottom. But usability studies focused on eye-tracking patterns indicate that when we read text on a screen, we read in an “F-pattern.”

The “heat patterns” visible in the photos below depict where screen readers most frequently look at certain parts of the page (red areas) — a few horizontal lines across the top of the main text, the headings, the first sentences of some paragraphs, and a line running down the left side of the main text. With slightly less frequency, screen readers also read some of the surrounding areas (shown in yellow) located toward the top and left sides of the main text. In contrast, some words on the page were not viewed by any screen readers who were subjects of the study. These words were located toward the bottom right of the page.

In an environment of multitasking, frequent interruptions, and fast communication like e-mail, legal readers are now “skimming” more than we are “studying.” And what’s more, screen reading is literally changing how we read documents including appellate and trial briefs.

In order to cope with the changes in how briefs are being read, Dubose offers ten tips for appealing to the rewired reader: 3

  1. Help readers work less (connect the dots for readers, make the logical structure obvious and intuitive).
  2. Use effective headings (frequent headings aid in skimming, need headings typically every one to three pages).
  3. Use numbered lists and bullet points.
  4. Use outlines (visual structure is critical).
  5. Use effective summaries (write summaries of documents; summaries of a section of a larger document, paragraphs, etc.)
  6. Omit words (shorter reading time).
  7. Keep it simple (simplicity in document design, language, and logic).
  8. Use white space effectively (white space helps readers).
  9. Use visuals (text, charts, photographs, etc.).
  10. Focus on readers: testing and editing (e.g., edit from the reader’s perspective).

  1. Theodore C. Forrence, Using Timelines, Dispute Charts and Pictures to Enhance Statements of Facts, APPELLATE ISSUES (Spring 2012), at 20,
  2. Robert Dubose, Legal Writing for the Rewired Brain: Persuading Readers in a Paperless World 37–40 (Texas Lawyer: An ALM Publication 2010).
  3. Id.