Business & Corporate Articles

Microsoft Word Tips for Attorneys

Skilled word processing staff, particularly for smaller practices and transactional attorneys, are all but gone. Attorneys must increasingly handle their own documents, generally using the not-always-friendly Microsoft WordTM. Battling with automatic numbering is not the highest and best use of your time nor your client’s wallet. With that in mind, I offer a collection of some of my most often used techniques in Microsoft Word.

The instructions in this article relate to MS Word 2010, which I will clutch to my grave, not because it is perfect, but because I find later versions even more aggravating. I am sure an online search will yield comparable instructions in other versions.

  1. Custom Views. Let’s begin with a few tips for seeing under the hood, essential for efficiently using Word. Standard document views are found on the View tab at the left side of the ribbon toolbar. Normally, I work in Print Layout, but I use Draft in order to see (and more easily manipulate) things like page and section breaks. Very occasionally, only Outline view will reveal a formatting problem. Another critical viewing option is the show/hide button. It is found on the Home tab and is the button with the paragraph symbol or pilcrow (¶). When turned on, it reveals non-printing formatting symbols allowing you troubleshoot and manipulate them. While we’re here, occasionally you may have a document in which one line mysteriously has a random hard return that you can’t seem to get rid of, such that the line refuses to reach the right margin. If you click on the show/hide button, you will likely find a symbol of an arrow pointing down and to the left at the end of that line that looks like this: “↵”. It’s a line break. Delete it and you will solve the hard return problem. Another useful viewing option is to make field codes show as gray. Field codes are areas of text with some variable data that might change like a page number, section cross reference, or a date. Go to the File tab, click on Options and then Advanced. Under “show document content,” set field shading to “always.” This will allow you to easily spot field codes to keep an eye on their variable content. Finally, if you really need to analyze formatting in a document, use the “Reveal Formatting” pane. Click the Home tab and in the Styles section of the ribbon, click the small arrow in the lower right corner. On the dialogue box that opens, click the middle of the three buttons at the bottom to open the Style Inspector and click the left button on the bottom to open the Reveal Formatting pane. Highlight any text and its formatting attributes will be displayed.
  2. The Paragraph is a Key. This is a conceptual thing to be aware of about Word. If you click on the show/hide button to show formatting marks, you will see a pilcrow (¶) at the end of each paragraph. This symbol has embedded in it all the paragraph formatting information for that paragraph (line spacing, indents, etc.). This is why sometimes when you backspace delete at the end of a paragraph, the formatting of that paragraph abruptly changes. You have accidentally deleted the hidden pilcrow and all of its formatting information thereby applying formatting of the area after your cursor.  The paragraph formatting attributes are found in the paragraph dialogue box. Click on the Home tab and in the Paragraph section of the ribbon – you can see some of the attributes such as line spacing. Click on the small arrow in the lower right of this section and the paragraph dialogue box opens up. There is a key feature here that is critical for easy and consistent spacing of paragraphs. In the Spacing section, there are options for spacing before and after each paragraph. Don’t make the mistake of creating spaces between paragraphs using hard returns. Instead, simply highlight the text (in a contract, I generally highlight everything below the title to the concluding clause), open this dialogue box and set “before” to zero points, after to 6 points, or 12 if you prefer more spacing, and uncheck the box below saying, “Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style.”  If you like this format, you can open a blank document, make these settings and click “Set as Default” at the bottom of the paragraph dialogue box and, when prompted, select for all documents thereby updating your basic template. You can also use this line spacing technique to create space after the title of the document. I even use it when composing an Outlook email to spread out an issue list I’m composing for a client for easier reading.  If you have a particular line that has space before or after it that you don’t want, highlight the line to see if the space is before or after, then in the Paragraph section of the ribbon bar mentioned above, you can click on the line spacing button (the one with the lines and up and down arrows) and on the drop down, select remove (or add) space before paragraph. Another important feature of the paragraph dialogue box is the Line and Page Breaks tab. If you have unexpected page breaks around paragraphs, headings or titles, it may be that Widow/Orphan control or “Keep with Next” boxes are checked. Highlight across the problem area and uncheck these boxes.
  3. Removing Hard Returns. Occasionally, when pasting a block of text into a Word document from another source, the text will have hard returns on each line such that each line ends before reaching the right hand margin. One can manually delete each hard return, but a faster way is to use the Find and Replace tool. It can be found on the Home tab at the extreme right of the ribbon. Click on “Replace” and in the “Find what:” field put “^p” (without the quotes). The ^ symbol is created using Shift 6. “^p” is a hidden formatting mark for a hard return. In the “Replace with:” field just put a space using the space bar. Click “replace all” or if you have other text you don’t want to modify, just click “replace” in that area. You will quickly replace all hard returns with a space and fix the problem. Careful – “replace all” can wreak havoc on a document if not used carefully. One more thing on the Find and Replace tool – click on “more” at the bottom and you will find many useful tools such as “Match case” (indispensable for distinguishing capitalized defined terms from non-capitalized terms) and “Find whole words only” which prevents you from finding and replacing a word string existing inside of other words, such as “our” within “hour.” Just be aware that the check boxes on these settings do not unclick themselves after you’re done, which can cause the tool to simply ignore words in a later search (e.g. due to different capitalization). Another handy tool is the “clear formatting tool.” On the Home tab in the upper right corner of the Font section, you’ll see a button with a small box with “Aa” and what looks like an eraser diagonally across its lower right corner. Highlight text and click this button and all the formatting will be stripped out of the highlighted text, which can help get rid of unwanted, but unknown attributes.
  4. Section Breaks. Most of us are familiar with a page break. Word adds automatic page breaks as needed and one can insert a hard page break on the “Insert” tab. The less well known break is the section break. Click on the Page Layout tab and you will find a button called “Breaks” with a drop down menu. Various types of page and section breaks may be inserted using this menu. The only two section breaks I use are “continuous” and “next page.” Conceptually, the section break allows you to have completely different page set up, margins, headers and footers, and other formatting within each “section” of the document separated by a section break. A next page section break also serves as a hard page break while a continuous section break does not. In a document with exhibits, I always insert a next page section break rather than a simple page break before the title of each exhibit. This allows me to, for example, have a special footer only in the exhibit, different page numbering or no page numbering. I also can use a next page section break at the top and bottom of the signature page to prevent a page number from appearing on the signature page. Just note that, when you open up the header or footer within a section (other than the first section), Word will automatically link (i.e. copy) the content you add to the footer to the footers in the sections above it. When you double click on a header/footer to open it, the Design tab will appear. Unclick the button that says “Link to Previous” to prevent this and allow yourself to put unique content in that section’s footer without it spreading to higher sections. Note, this is also where you can click “Different First Page” while in the first section to keep a page number off your first page.

    Continuous section breaks I use less often. This type of section break would allow me, for example, to have a set of terms and conditions where the preamble is in single column and the rest (after the continuous section break) in double columns.
  5. Format Painter. This is a nifty tool on the left side of the ribbon bar on the Home tab. If you have text that is, for example, in the wrong font and font size because you just pasted it there, you can highlight text that has the correct formatting attributes, click on the Format Painter, and highlight the offending text, which will “paint” many of the formatting attributes of the correctly formatted text onto the problem text.
  6. A Couple of Points of Style and Etiquette. When you paste text into a document, quotation marks will often show as straight marks like this ""This is a bit of a giveaway that you’ve pasted text into the document from somewhere else. You can replace straight quotes with curly ones by simply doing a find and replace with a quotation mark in both the find and replace fields and clicking replace all. A quick note on pasting text – when pasting, put the cursor where you want to make the insertion and right-click. On the contextual menu, there are special paste options one of which, “Keep Text Only,” will (usually) avoid infecting your document with random formatting from the source. As you hover over each of these special paste options, the text will preview what you’re going to get. Experiment with each.

    Another tip is a matter of redlining etiquette. I really do not like to review a markup that has a thousand balloons down the right side letting me know of formatting changes the other attorney made. When you use the track changes feature, be sure to go to the Review tab, click and hold on the Track Changes button and select Change Tracking Options in the drop down. A dialogue box will appear. In the Formatting section, unclick the check box to prevent Word from tracking formatting changes. If confronted with a document with such balloons, click on the “Show Markup” button to the right of the Track Changes button and in the drop down, uncheck formatting and all the format change balloons will disappear.
  7. Page Numbers.  Some people use themes and other techniques to insert page numbers. I think the best method is to place the cursor in the footer of any page in the section where the page numbers are to appear (whether centered, tabbed right, etc.), go to the Insert tab and click and hold on “Quick Parts.” On the drop down, select “Field.” On the dialogue box that appears, scroll in Field Names to “Page” and click on it. Some options will appear to the right allowing you to select page number style, etc.  Make your selection and click “Ok.” The page number appears through the whole document (or just that section depending on footer settings) automatically increasing and decreasing in the pages above and below. You can also insert a field for the number of pages in the document next to it by going through the same process, but selecting “NumPages” instead. This will allow you to create the “Page X of Y” style of numbering and the total number of pages should update as the page count changes. On exhibits, you can place section breaks around the exhibit as mentioned above and create page numbers isolated to that exhibit. For example, put “A-“ before the page number to create special page numbers on an Exhibit A (A-1, A-2, etc.). While we are on field codes, to create an updatable section cross reference, put the cursor where you want the section reference, click on Cross-Reference in the References tab, select the section of the agreement you wish to reference (this requires that the document have automatic numbering), and click insert. As section numbers change, you can update the cross references by selecting all text on the Home tab at the far right of the ribbon, right-clicking in the document and selecting “Update Field.”
  8. Capitalization Tool.  On the Home page in the Font section of the ribbon, the second button from the right on the upper level has a button with this – “Aa”. Click and hold to get a drop down showing various capitalization options. Have a disclaimer in all caps that you want in lower case, but with the first word of each sentence capitalized? Highlight the text and select “Sentence case.” Just be advised that it will make any defined terms in the middle of the sentence lower case as well. You can also of course change from all caps to lower case generally or vice versa. If you’re struggling with some capitalization of text, highlight and right-click on the text and select Font from the contextual menu that comes up. In the dialogue box, there are various options for capitalization and other attributes.
  9. Automatic Numbering Issues. This is probably one of the greatest sources of frustration in Word and is known to have persistent bugs, yet it is an important feature for attorneys. A book could be written on this topic alone. Properly setting up automatic numbering from the ground up using Styles is beyond the scope of this article, but I do have a pointer for fixing discrete problems in a set of automatic numbering. Highlight the text where the numbering is not behaving. Go to the Paragraph section of the Home tab and click and hold the third button from the left on the upper portion. It has a series of indented lines and is called “Multilevel List” when hovered over. On the drop down, go to the bottom and select “Define New Multilevel List.” On the dialogue box, click on “more” in the lower left to expand the dialogue box. This is control central for the automatic numbering, at least within the numbering scheme going on where your cursor is. Note, you can have different numbering schemes in the same document without realizing it causing many problems, so beware. In the upper right, find “Apply changes” and select “Whole list.” If you forget to choose “Whole list” instead of “Selected text” you will only change the attributes in the text you’ve highlighted. Then select the list level you want to modify on the upper left if not already selected, and tinker with the options in the Number format and Position sections to dial in the indention, alignment, font, or other errant behavior and formatting in the automatic numbering. Experiment. “Aligned at” is where your number is positioned in terms of the ruler at the top of the viewing pane. “Follow number with” dictates where the text starts after that number. There can be a tab after the number, often set at the fixed point indicated, or just a space. “Text indent at” is where the text returns to on the left side when it automatically returns at the right margin. Text indent at zero would make the text wrap all the way to the left margin.  Normally, I work in .25” increments. So the number might be aligned at .25” followed by a tab character set at .5” and the text indented at the same .5” so it aligns with the text in the first line. Then the next level might have the number aligned at .5” followed by a tab character and text indent both set at .75” and so on. It takes a bit to understand what each option does, but once you understand it, this tool is invaluable. Keep in mind, if you select “Whole List.” that means if you highlight and dial in a small bit of level 2 text, it will update all level 2 content in that numbering scheme in the document. If it does not, it may be that you have multiple numbering schemes going on. You can highlight the entire numbered area (i.e. most of the agreement), pick a single standard number scheme to get everything on the same scheme and then use the above techniques to modify the scheme to your preferences.

    One other tip on automatic numbering is to use the Increase and Decrease Indent buttons in the Paragraph section of the Home tab. They are to the left of the button with the A over the Z. Place your cursor in a paragraph (i.e. agreement section) and use these buttons to force that paragraph to higher or lower levels in your automatic numbers scheme.

I hope at least one of these tips will save you time in your practice. If you have a question about them, feel free to email me directly at

-- Will Marshall, UBM Law Group LLP

**This article is for information purposes only and does not contain or convey legal advice.  The information herein should not be relied upon in regard to any particular facts or circumstances without first consulting an attorney. Any views expressed are those of the author only and not of the SDCBA or its Business & Corporate Law Section.**