The Fundamentals of Word Styles That All Lawyers Should Learn

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Formatting documents is an inescapable reality of the legal profession.  But if you still manually format Word documents as you go, you are wasting valuable time and have likely not learned the benefits of using Word Styles.  In essence, Word Styles, once set, automatically control the appearance of the text they are applied to for the entirety of the document. 

If you have spent hours editing a document, the last thing you want is a partner to tell you to go back and change the formatting throughout…unless you have already implemented Word Styles.  A document organized with Word Styles makes formatting and revision simple and quick. 

Microsoft Word Styles allows for consistent and easy formatting throughout a Word document without the tedious task of manually adjusting each time.  Using Styles is one approach firms can take to streamline the document-editing process to increase efficiency and, in turn, increase the quality of the billable hour. 

With just a few simple steps, Word Styles allows you to predetermine formatting for paragraphs, headings, tables, lists (bulleted/numbered), and maintain those formatting settings as you progress throughout your document.  Understanding the basics of Styles is an incredible time-saving advantage you will wish you had learned years ago.

To implement a new style into the document you can either use Word’s built-in styles, modify a built-in style, or create an entirely new style. 

Creating or Modifying a Style

Styles are located in the Styles Gallery and can be accessed on the “Home” ribbon by clicking the “Styles” icon.  Using the Styles Pane is the most efficient way to work with Styles, especially when editing longer documents.  To create a style, simply click “Styles Pane” and then “New Style” at the bottom.  To apply any formatting in the Styles Pane to text, simply highlight the text and click the desired style in the Styles Pane.  By highlighting formatted text in your document, you can also create a new style based on the format of the highlighted text.

To modify a style, you can either update a style to match the formatting in your document or manually modify the style by right-clicking the style, then selecting "Modify."  To create an entirely new style based on text in the document, simply right-click the text to access the toolbar and then click “Styles” and “Create a Style.”  Any text can be selected and easily updated to match any style chosen in the Styles Pane. All new Styles will be stored in the Styles Gallery.

Word Styles: The Basics

In any basic word document, standard Microsoft Word styles are automatically in place.  Of these default styles, “Normal” is what most of the body text of your document should be tagged as.  Text and images in your word document should be tagged as “Normal” to ensure the text is formatted consistently and clearly throughout the document. 

Formatting Headings

For documents that require headings, Styles allow the editor to easily break up text in sections by header to organize and navigate through longer documents.  What is especially helpful for longer documents is Word’s automatic creation of a table of contents.  By going to the “References” tab, a user can click on “Table of Contents” to quickly generate a table which automatically populates the headers and subheaders from Styles, thus eliminating the need to manually create and repeatedly edit a table of contents. 

Lists (Bullets and Numbers)

The Lists Styles option easily formats bulleted and numbered lists in word documents.  A list style has several levels of formatting that when applied adjusts the level of indentation and text/font automatically.  Levels of formatting (i.e. Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.) can be applied to text to organize the document.  When levels are created, the formatted text will correspond to the set level in the Multilevel List.  Defining a Multilevel List allows you to adjust the indentation and implement consistent numbered, lettered, or bulleted formatting throughout the document. 

Multilevel List Styles can be edited by going to the “Home” ribbon, clicking on the “Multilevel List” dropdown (to the right of the “Numbering” dropdown), and selecting “Define New List Style.”


If you work at a law firm, you are most likely familiar with Microsoft Word templates.  Many firms use templates to keep branding consistent; however, attorneys can also use templates to increase productivity and eliminate tedious and unnecessary document editing.  Any document can be formatted with Styles and saved as a template for later use.  Since most attorneys work with virtually the same documentation on a regular basis, there is no sense in creating new documents for each instance.  Word templates are an easy way to eliminate monotonous editing of typical documents and minimize the clerical burden on attorneys. 

Learning these simple Microsoft Style tricks is an easy way for attorneys to spend less time formatting documents and redirect their attention to more substantive client needs.  Implementing Word Styles is a simple way attorneys can leverage technology to efficiently process documents and improve the overall quality of their billable hours.

Tara Pimentel is a rising 2L at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, MA.

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