Legal Documents the LyX Way

It’s probably the most popular discussion among Mac-using law students when it comes to software: what’s the best application for legal writing? We have plenty of options, that’s for sure. MLS already mentioned Pages, Word for Mac, Scrivener, Nisus Writer, and many others. Today I’d like to present you a free alternative you might not have heard of: LyX.

LyX is a so-called What You See Is What You Mean editor. This means the software urges you to write by separating form and content: you write and tell LyX how your document has to be structured; when you typeset your text, LyX spits out a professionally formatted document. LyX is nothing more than a graphical user interface for LaTeX, which is a document preparation system that lets you do the same thing by using code. Let’s show this with a few screenshots.

Screenshot of LyX

Screenshot of PDF created with LyX

Screenshot of TeXshop and Preview

As you can see, the LaTeX working environment (the screenshot shows the TeXShop-editor, which won an Apple Design Award) doesn’t show you how your final document will look. Neither does LyX. But LyX has the advantage that is shows you a basic layout structure to allow you to find your way in your own writing. This is an essential characteristic of LaTeX (and therefore of LyX): you take care of the writing, the application takes care of the layout. The reason for this is that typesetting is an art; it’s a profession you must (can) learn. With the introduction of WYSIWYG word processors like MS Word, people started to think that when a document “looked nice” it would also be a pleasure to read. Alas, the opposite is often true. Luckily, the TeX macro package which lies at the heart of LyX and LaTeX, knows the art of typesetting. The user simply has to select a so-called “document class” (e.g. ‘book’, ‘report’, ‘article’, ‘brief’, and many other document classes, which are often distributed by publishers as the standard form in which articles have to be turned in). The macros will then process your text in a consistent, graceful and often stunningly elegant way.

LyX also comes with a practical, non-disruptive user interface for some important features which are of vital importance in legal writing: an outline of your text, in which you can easily rearrange all paragraphs; a nomenclature; in-line footnotes which can be minimized. LyX can also be extended with BibTeX, a free piece of software that allows you to create your own permanent library of articles, books, webpages. With one single click, you can send your reference from this virtual library to your LyX document. Furthermore, LyX has a Review feature.

So, how can LyX be of any meaning for law students? Let me put it this way. Last week, when I was preparing to get to bed, iCal reminded me that I had to turn in a six-page summary about a Moot Court team’s arguments the next day. I completely forgot and cursed iCal for this unpleasant reminder – but hey, don’t shoot the piano player. In a hurry, I did the best I could to finish the task quickly. Using LyX, it took me seconds to create a true piece of eye candy. The next day, all team members deposited their obnoxious MS Word-documents on the desk of the responable professor. He swiftly browsed through it, and – you guessed it – his eyes fell on my summary. “Nice work, Timothy!”, he said, and wrote down some positive comments on my evaluation form.

This little story shows how important a good layout can be. In a world full of .doc, .lyx can really make a difference. But of course, that’s not everything. LyX is also an excellent tool for writing large documents. It’s extremely stable (ever tried scrolling down in a 100+ page Word or Pages document?) and only has the vital features for legal writing; no further interface clutter, as Merlin Mann would put it.

I suggest you give it a try. LyX can be installed following the instructions at wiki.lyx.org. Note that you will also have to install the MacTeX-package, as is mentioned on the site.

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