When you are crafting a complicated legal argument, the line spacing on your brief probably isn’t at the top of your list. But ignoring the court rules about brief formatting could become an expensive mistake.

A federal district court judge in New York recently sanctioned a law firm representing Amazon Web Services, Inc., for cheating on its line spacing. Susman Godfrey was fined $1,048.09, the cost of preparing a revised brief, for deliberately selecting 24-point spacing rather than the double spacing required by the court briefs. The narrower spacing allowed the defendant to submit a substantially longer brief than the court’s 25-page limit.

A Brief Explanation of Line Spacing

For the judge’s ruling to makes sense, lawyers need to understand the difference between line spacing options. Spacing and typography are measured in “points”, each of which are 1/72 of an inch. In the age of typewriters, all text was 6 lines per inch, which meant each letter was 12 points high. The only way to add extra space between the text was to add an extra carriage return, taking the line spacing from 12 points to 24 points per line.

But modern word processing software doesn’t make line spacing calculations so easy. For example, Microsoft Word builds an extra 2 points of white space into the font itself. That makes single spacing 14 points per line and double spacing 28 points per line. The line spacing options built into the software allow writers to choose between multiple and exact line spacing. “Multiple” options multiply whatever points the text use. “Exact” options allow writers to set the specific number of points between lines. It also shifts the text down on the page because the space is added evenly to the top and bottom of the text.

Brief Sanctioned for Line Spacing Error

The federal district court’s “individual rules of practice” require all memoranda to be “double-spaced and in 12-point font with 1-inch margins.” Instead, Susman Godfrey chose an exact 24-point line spacing. If spacing were still as simple as it used to be on typewriters, these two choices would be identical. But because of that extra, built-in space, a 24 point exact line spacing saved Amazon a lot of space on the page.

In 2014, BP suffered a similar fate as the result of ambiguous line spacing. After the court had already extended page limits from 25 to 35 pages. By adjusting its line spacing, BP squeezed in another 6 pages of text. The U.S. District Court Judge said:

“The court should not have to waste its time policing such simple rules—particularly in a case as massive and complex as this,” Barbier wrote. “Counsel are expected to follow the court’s orders both in letter and in spirit. The court should not have to resort to imposing character limits, etc., to ensure compliance. Counsel’s tactic would not be appropriate for a college term paper. It certainly is not appropriate here.

“Any future briefs using similar tactics will be struck.”

The judge in Amazon’s case was similarly upset by the attorneys’ choice of line spacing.

“The flouting of this Court’s Individual Rules was a deliberate choice by counsel for Amazon to gain some slight advantage in this litigation.”

With more courts converting to e-filing, appellate page limits are giving way to word counts. But litigators in state and trial court systems continue to be vexed by ambiguous court rules regarding formatting. Don’t get stuck paying sanctions or having a brief struck because of a poor choice. Carefully review your court’s local court rules to ensure your briefs meet the judges’ expectations.

Lisa Schmidt is a writer for Legal Linguist in Ferndale, Michigan. She provides legal research and writing services for law firms. If your firm is struggling to meet its briefing deadlines, contact Legal Linguist today to schedule a meeting.