Hyperlinks in Legal Documents

I’d like to open a discussion about best practices for formatting hyperlinks in legal documents. Microsoft Word formats hyperlinks by default in bright blue text with the same bright blue underline. Westlaw formats them in bright blue without the underline. I have used the latter in my own litigation documents, and I rarely see anything else.

But I find the bright blue a bit distracting to read alongside normal black text. Recently, I have taken to formatting my hyperlinks in normal black text with a gray dotted underline. I’m not entirely satisfied, but I think it’s an improvement over the standard usages.

I’d love to hear how others have formatted hyperlinks in legal or other documents. Perhaps this could be the start of an entry for the third edition of Typography for Lawyers?

This is, to me, the first tiny wrinkle in the more significant issue of electronic vs paper documents.

In this case, no matter how you format your hyperlink, unless you also spell out the full URL, that information is lost in a printed copy. So if a court will accept this most minimal of interactive documents, what’s next? Hopefully good taste will set some obvious limits, but I think we can safely assume not. But just as a thought experiment, what about an interactive timeline? What about audio/video clips?

I write psychiatric expert witness reports, and would love to include some recorded interview snippets here and there to supplement a transcription excerpt. I’ve been reluctant to push it, but in principle this is very similar issue.

Apologies for this somewhat off-topic ramble. For my part, have been spelling out the URL either directly or in a footnote.

I don’t like the bright blue either. I always change the hyperlink style in word to have no underlining and to be a deeper blue. It makes it obvious to people who will take advantage of it but isn’t distracting for readers who won’t use them.

I like the idea of black text with a gray dotted underline. I think any choice other than black text will make the hyperlink unnecessarily prominent.

Whether gray dotted underline suffices, I’m not sure. Normally it would be a bit light. But: to phren0logy’s point, I think in this era the substance of the message should survive printing, which requires that the full URL be visible in on the printed page (i.e., it’s not enough to present text with a hyperlink embedded). Given that, gray underline should be fine, since what is being shown would obviously be a URL. Someday, when there’s high confidence the document will be viewed digitally and not on paper, we might revert to “hiding” the URL underneath the text, at which point we might need a more obvious indication that the text is clickable.

Good news—it already appears in the second edition.

The real bugaboo with URLs in legal documents is that they’re all subject to long-term link rot (aka Butterick’s First Law of Cloud Computing: every server will eventually be unplugged). IMO any jurisdiction with electronic filing should also offer a document upload service with short URLs, to ensure the long-term integrity of the material cited.

This topic has gone a bit sideways. Perhaps I was unclear in my original post. My concern here is with formatting hyperlinks (color, style, etc) and not with the separate question of whether to include the full or shortened URL in the text or a footnote.

Let me try to paste some screenshots to illustrate what I’m talking about. These are shots from a page of a brief (which has already been filed and is a matter of public record), with three different style options applied.

I will take the blame for getting us off track. I like the grey dotted underline, it’s the least jarring/distracting/Netscape 4.0

If the document is intended for printing, or if there is a likelihood it will be printed (unlike the average web page), then you need to consider:

  1. How will the link stand up to being printed (in b&w), photocopied, rescanned and generally abused? A light grey dotted line will probably not survive. A solid underline is the most common and well understood convention, so I tend to favour a robust variation of this. If you need something to differentiate between “normal” underlined text, perhaps consider a different means of emphasis for those purposes and preserve underlines for links only.

  2. If printed, how will you convey the link’s URL to the reader? I usually use a system of footnotes. E.g., a superscript number after to the link with the full URL printed at the bottom of the page. I usually go for URLs at the bottom of each page in the footer rather than at the end of the document to preserve utility if a page is taken out of context (e.g., a single page extracted from the full document).

  3. Matthew’s point about link rot is a good one. I usually use the Wayback Machine browser extension to quickly take a snapshot of the page at the time of access. This gives you a stable URL you can include as well as – or instead of – the canonical URL. There are other archive services available; easiest way to discover them probably the Web Archives extension (or see this related wiki page). Some pages are blocked from being archived by these services, so your next best option there is to use something like the SingleFile extension to take a snapshot of the page as a single bundled HTML file that you can upload to your own server and link to. Note, the extensions I have linked to here are all the Firefox versions, but they are available for Chromium browsers too (Chrome, Edge, Brave, etc). Not sure about Safari.

  4. Additional: using short-links is also a good idea, as Matthew says. At my place of work, we use Rebrandly’s free account, which allows you to use your own custom domain. You can create custom links using most link shortening services, including Rebrandly. This can be systematised, like publisher A Book Apart does. Here is an example I extracted from one of their books:

But beware of link shortening services. If it goes offline, your link is dead. So consider using a shortened link in addition to the canonical and/or archive link. This might seem over the top, but the objective here is link resilience coupled with ease-of-use for someone typing in the URL by hand.