The Essential Guide to Using Visuals in Legal Writing

Aug 13 / Joe Regalia
As bad as we are at remembering names ... we have really exceptional visual and spatial memories.

– Joshua Foer
I've been hanging around with two (quite) different but excellent crowds: Judges and legal-tech folks. Of course, I talk about legal writing with both (because what else can I talk about?). And a fascinating question keeps popping up:

Why don't lawyers use more visuals in their legal writing?

We all know that people love consuming information graphically. Studies show that the average person today spends about half their waking hours looking at some sort of media. So why haven't lawyers caught up?

Many judges want more visuals. The judges I talked to say they would love to see lawyers submit graphs, tables, and other handy visuals that break down the facts or arguments in the brief. One judge said: “For Pete's sake, give me tables if there's data!” 

When lawyers smartly use visuals, judges say it helps them understand the points in a way writing can't. Judge Posner is outspoken on this, repeatedly calling out judges and lawyers alike for ignoring the communicative power of visuals.

Creating visuals is easier than ever with new tools. Back in the day, perhaps lawyers could justify avoiding this topic because making graphics was expensive and cumbersome. Who is going to spend six hours creating a chart for a motion that took four hours to write?

But there is no excuse anymore. Because making spiffy flow charts, infographics, timelines, tables, and even simulated pictures is now as easy as a few clicks. Tons of tools have flooded the market—with many aimed straight at lawyers.

Should you use visuals?

Consider that a simple chart, graph, or table can drive home your key points in a way writing can't. We spend hours crafting prose that highlights our key facts and arguments so that our readers notice them. Imagine what a visual or two can do?

Many folks suggest that visuals can be used for four goals in legal writing: to organize, to interpret, to highlight, and to quantify.

Organize

Use a table or chart to explain how different pieces of information (say, companies or cases) fit together. 

Interpret

Use a graphic to explain how the reader should view some information through a lens. 

Highlight

Use a graphic to represent written information, but it in a way that's more memorable or digestible.

Quantify

Use a visual to display abstract information or data that readers would otherwise struggle to grasp.

Visuals for lawyers: An overview

To make it even easier to jump on the visuals train, this guide will explore visuals that you might consider in your next brief or motion.

Timelines

Nearly every case has a litany of important events, and the chronology is often muddled. Timelines give your reader a unique view of how developments unfolded—a view that, in some detailed cases, may be impossible to do well in prose. 

Tables

Consider using a table whenever you have information to compare or contrast, side by side. Examples include juxtaposing evidence, juxtaposing allegations, juxtaposing cases, juxtaposing arguments—or any other information that you can compare for effect. Tables are also great for presenting large amounts of data and sorting it into categories. 

Visualize Contradictions in Testimony

This example comes from a lawyer who used a table right in his brief to show the contradictions between what the plaintiff alleged in his complaint and what he said in a declaration:
The Complaint Witness's Declaration
Dr. Neal Schultz. Crushed walnut shell powder in St. Ives Apricot Scrubs are too abrasive for the face's skin. (Compl. ¶ 6 n.2) He does "not routinely warn" consumers against using St. Ives and similar products containing crushed walnut shell. (Choi Decl., Ex. K (Declaration of Neal B. Schultz, M.D.) ¶ 2.)

Visualize Imbalances

Tables can be effective at demonstrating imbalances. Here's a modified example that uses a table to show an imbalance between policy interests (credit to professors Steve Johansen and Ruth Anne Robbins and their fabulous article): 
driver's license suspension hearing
  • Suspension or loss of driver's license
  • Fines
civil restraining order hearing
  • Order of restraint from contacting victim in any way
  • Limitation or suspension of parenting time
  • Fingerprinting and registry in statewide batterer database
  • Mandated batterer counseling
  • Restraint from specified place where victim might live or work
  • Payment of mortgage or rent even if not living in home
  • Loss of personal property including animals or pets
  • Police supervised removal of belongings from home
  • Prohibition on purchase or use of firearms
  • Mandated psychiatric or drug testing evaluations

Textual Call-Outs

Textual call-outs are powerful emphasis tools that will force your reader to remember something. Simply create a snippet of the most powerful phrases or sentences in your document, and set it off on the page. You can also use them instead of bullets. (Example based on original from Professors Johansen and Robbins.)
Duty of Loyalty
A general partner cannot:
  • Engage in self-dealing
  • Usurp partner opportunities
  • Compete with partnership
duty of care
A general partner must act:
  • On an informed basis
  • In good faith
  • In best interest of partnership

Charts and Graphs

Charts and graphs are useful whenever you have data or information to compare, contrast, or plot out over time or space.

Line Graphs

Line graphs are useful for displaying how information or data changes over time. In this case, average temperatures over a one-year period.

Bar Charts

Bar charts can be great for displaying imbalances or spikes in data. For example, in this completely made up bar chart for cases filed in the 9th Circuit, we can see a large spike for filed cases in Q3 of 2019.

Maps

Maps are great for making any sort of spatial or location points. You can annotate a map to show where a company’s offices are or where important events unfolded.

Images and Recreations

There are many reasons why you might want to include an image in your brief.

Trademark Disputes

Good IP attorneys, for example, often use pictures to make points about how products or logos compare. Take this example from a trademark dispute between Apple and another company.

Emphasizing Key Points

Consider the below image and how an attorney might use it to emphasize the damages their client, a landlord, suffered: 

Reconstruct and Visualize Important Events

You can also use images to reconstruct important events, like this truck accident reconstruction below. 

Org Charts and Cast of Characters

If your case has a lot of people or you need to explain the relationships between different key players, then a cast of characters or org chart can do wonders.

Organizational Charts

This pretty fancy org chart shows the relationship between the COO and other employees. It could really help a judge or decision-maker understand a company's organizational structure.

Cast of Characters

When your case has a cast of characters, and it will be tricky for your reader to keep track of who is who, consider creating a legend at the outset of your brief (or as an appendix). The below is a fairly fancy made-up example for a case involving a single plaintiff and a host of employees from Acme, Inc.

Visual Lists

If you have a list of points, reasons, or related facts, consider using bullets or icons to summarize them. These are powerful emphasizing tools, making it easy for your reader to take stock of the size of the list. 

Bullet Points

Bullets are perhaps the simplest visual you can add to your legal documents. Judge Diane Wood uses this device in one of her opinions, using bullets to make her readers notice the many reasons supporting her argument: 

Columns

Columns can be a great way to visually break up information—when done sparingly. It's most useful for summarizing more complex information that you plan to explain in more detail later.
Element 1

Intent

The defendant intends to cause contact with the victim. 
Element 2

Contact

The defendant actually makes contact with the victim.
Element 3

Harmful or Offensive

The defendant's contact is harmful or offensive to the victim.

Flow Charts

Flowcharts are amazing at showing how processes work. Use them to show steps or any other procedure being carried out. For example, say your case hinges on your client's customer service process or workflow. Displaying that visually can help make the process crystal clear.

Five Final Tips to Make Visuals Work

Here are some additional thoughts on how to make sure you're getting the most out of visuals in your legal writing.
Explain upfront
Always explain the visual beforehand (like a block quote). And do so thoughtfully. Let your reader skip the visual if they like. You should never force your reader to use a visual, lest they resent you for it.
move it to the back
Consider whether it will be less risky, and easier, to include a visual as an attachment or appendix rather than inserting it into your brief. Usually, if it’s important, it can be inserted into your brief and formatted smoothly. But if you have any sense that your reader will balk at the visual, put it in the back.
color matters
Use colors when you can—especially to show contrasts, similarities, and groupings.
label
Label everything thoughtfully and concisely. Use legends that are as simple and stylistic as your prose.
Keep it simple
Keep it simple: Complex visuals can become harder to decipher than writing. If you are getting to that point, cut it. Otherwise your visual will become a distraction. 
Above all, as federal judges Jennifer Dorsey and Andrew Gordon pointed out in reviewing this guide: Visuals are no replacement for good writing. Visuals can be a helpful supplement, but you can easily overdo it and shirk your writing. So lead with good writing and use thoughtful visuals if helpful.  

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