Markdown for Lawyers, II

From the Readme.txt at

Most people who find this page will, by now, be familiar with markdown syntax.

Created by John Gruber, and extended as “multimarkdown” by Fletcher Penney, markdown allows writing for the web without unreadable code. Headings are indicated by a number sign (#), and asterisks turn on and off emphasis. A simpler parser spits out the text in HTML format (or Latex, or ODF). The size of the font, the weight of the emphasis, the layout of the text. All of those things are handled separately. Markdown forces you to structure your text and focus on writing. It prevents you from fiddling with the fonts and margins. If you use three number signs, the text will be in the third layer of the outline.

This comes as a relief after using Microsoft Word for the better part of 25 years. Today, cutting and pasting outlines into Word is still an adventure. I am fairly sure text will appear at the cursor, but I have no idea what font or weight will result. I can carefully delete every sanserif style in my document, only to see 48 point blue Arial appear, and be applied to the next three paragraphs. It can take 30 minutes to untangle the outline, which controls the table of contents and other authorities.

The frustration of outlining in Word, I suspect, is the reason few lawyers use “stylesheets.” In theory, so long as the style is applied correctly, the author could ignore the grotesque default suggestions. But lawyers, who are trained to focus on details, can hardly put off that kind of fiddling. I can count on one hand the number of true outlines I’ve received in 8 years of collaborating with other lawyers, and the same goes for paralegals using stylesheets. I have *never* seen a lawyer in private practice use styles correctly in a Word document.

This means lawyers spend an inordinate amount of time adjusting the format of word processing documents, or reviewing an assistant’s formatting. For now, lawyers are forced to spend much of their time in formatting. Courts have formatting rules, and cases can be won or lost on formatting minutiae. If bad editing can lead to a malpractice claim, lawyers can’t avoid the task.

I suspect that, in the future, computers will enforce formatting, so that it appears on a judge’s tablet the way the judge likes it.

But today, markdown helps me write now and format later. I can brief in markdown, in plain text, on any platform (desktop, laptop, even iPad or iPhone) confident that my simple formatting and structure choices will survive. I can automate some of the court imposed formatting rules with markdown, and handle the others at the end.

This little project is beginning with three documents: This README, a style sheet, and a markdown template for a “motion” or “brief.” The html output can be transferred to Word or WordPerfect. It’s released under GPL v. 3, so others are free to add or tinker. I hope it starts a conversation about the way lawyers write and publish to courts.