Visual Law for Lawyers | The end of dense legal writing?

Visual law means using visual elements in legal content. It opens up a whole new world for you to communicate legal information more clearly and effectively.

People are overloaded with information every day and need support in this overwhelm. They consume information quickly and when they find themselves in stressful situations, experiencing grief, or feeling under pressure, making big legal decisions without years and years of study and experience in the law is challenging.

How can you help them to navigate the legal system?

There are better ways to communicate complex legal information than dense legal papers.

What is visual law?

Visual law takes complicated legal information and conveys it in clear, understandable, bite-sized graphics rather than lots of words. The aim of visual law, just like legal design, is to make the law more engaging and empowering for the user.

Visual law includes many alternatives for you to make complex legal topics understandable, relevant and human:

  • You can highlight important information using visual cues, like colors, shapes, sizes, orientations and positions
  • You can turn your words into infographics, flow charts and tables
  • You can improve how the legal information is presented visually, like using white space, page layout and typography
  • You can use new genres like comics or videos

The goal is to present information in a way the users’ brains can consume and understand it most effectively.

You can apply visual elements to all kinds of legal documents such as contracts, briefs, letters, instructions, petitions, claims and other documents. You can even flow chart rulings and implications. It complements, rather than replaces legal writing.

When we present our user with a wordy, jargon-filled legal document with the advice and options buried on page 29 of 37, the user typically struggles to understand what your legal document is saying (not to mention being a bit annoyed.)

Newsflash. Your user wants:

  • to understand what you are saying
  • what it means for them
  • what their options are

without the need to read a big legal document. It’s time to make room for other ways of presenting your advice.

How can visualization help your user experience?

Researcher and information designer Pat Wright researched how visual design features affect our brain function. She looked at how visual design assists with achieving goals like answering questions, taking action, making decisions or following instructions.

 With visual elements you can:

  • Help the user notice the information by drawing their attention to important parts of the content
  • Facilitate communication so that people understand and interpret the information correctly
  • Encourage action: the document must include something that suggests what the user must do.

And fundamentally

Visual law can help those with low adult literacy, which is a huge issue worldwide.

According to OECD, one quarter to over one half of the adult population fail to reach what is considered a minimum skill level of literacy.

The need for better design is urgent, it is a human rights and access to justice issue. The more people struggle with literacy (let alone) legal information, the crisis in the law grows bigger and the urgency for change increases. It represents a huge opportunity to make a social impact. 

Visual law can help the people most vulnerable: the elderly, children, the illiterate, people under stress and in difficult situations (where decision making is more difficult, literate or otherwise).

BUT visual law is not just for people with special needs, we all are different in the way we process and understand information. Visuals are a great addition to your toolbox to make your law impactful, relevant and human.

Is visual law another fad coming from the hipster legal design lawyers?

Visual law has existed since the beginning of the codification of law. In some sense, it even feels that we are returning to the roots of humankind where communication was signs and pictures.

As an academic discipline in law, it is fairly new, borrowing from information and graphic design.

One of the pioneers in visual law is Colette R. Brunschwig, who wrote her PhD thesis on visual law and legal design in 2001.

Her PhD looked at the rapid digitization in society and the increase in everyday visualization. Similarly, improvements in technology now offer new sensory experiences, like virtual reality, and humanoid robots. She argued visual law and design law were relatively new areas of research but should be further researched and form part of the law to fully explore visualization and its role. 

So 20+ years is not an overnight fad and digitization and technology aren’t going anywhere.

This is it, the end. Lawyers as visualizers

Some lawyers fear using visual law will mean they need to become professional graphic designers. Please calm down.

It’s time to challenge the siloed thinking that lawyers should only use certain skills and tools in their work. Visual law is a very effective addition to your toolbox and builds on your existing skills.

You can be a better lawyer when using visual elements in your work. Visuals can help you to convey your message more powerfully and most importantly help your clients to understand what you’re saying.

As a legal expert, we need you to translate complex legal concepts, analysis, thinking and cause and effect implications to your clients. This is the kind of knowledge and wisdom that for example data visualizers or information designers do not have. You are the one who can crack the code of law.

How can you start creating visuals?

As always, start with your user, and ask what’s in it for them. Visual law isn’t about shoving pictures, flowcharts and graphics on a document for the sake of it. If it’s not helpful, it’s a waste of time.

Go back to your user, define them and what they are trying to achieve with your document.

Follow the cooperative principle

Your readers are your friends as their brains are wired to try to make sense of what you are saying. It’s called a cooperative principle in information design.  Isn’t that comforting? People operate to understand each other.

The philosopher HP Grice drilled down the cooperative principle with four rules that we can follow when implementing visual law:

  • Quantity

Give your user the information they need to know to make an informed decision. It’s tempting to say everything, but if it’s not relevant to gaining an understanding and making a decision, it’s fluff.

  • Quality

Always tell the truth – always. If there are variables, give those too.

  • Relation

Ensure your information is relevant to the user.

  • Manner

Be clear and exact about what you are communicating.

Seek inspiration in your environment and the internet. Comic contracts, graphic justice projects, and visualized contracts.

Visual Law Example

So let’s walk the talk instead of talking the talk.

Here’s something I created:

It’s a contract clause in a subcontractor agreement a company uses with its freelancers.

I wanted to explain to the freelancers how different liabilities (confidentiality obligations and competition restrictions) still apply even though one party terminates the contract.

I started with an intimidating, block text, complicated subcontracting agreement. (I bet it looks familiar.)

Excerpt from subcontracting agreement

Next I used a pen and paper to doodle and draft.

Timeline prototype made with pen and paper

Next up, creating a timeline using PowerPoint.

As a result, the freelancers could easily see their obligations throughout the contract and after it ends.

Timeline created with PowerPoint

Can you think of an example in your own contract where you could do this kind of an exercise?

But what about my beautiful legal writing?

It’s not a question of either writing or visuals because you can use both. Remember, it is about what will help your user.

It’s a rare occasion when visuals alone will work, so you need words to explain. So rather than using visuals instead of words, use visuals to clarify them.

The word/visual combination can be powerful: you have the legal text and then add the visual element to highlight sections or explain what is typically a difficult concept to understand.

Powerful stuff, right?

Lawyers Design School Visual Law Workshops

Aren’t you tired of talking about change in the legal system. Let’s start the change.

 Visual law is part of our practical legal design training in Lawyer’s Design School.

In the workshops we practice visualizations, get step-by-step instructions and make prototypes with colleagues.

It’s great to see the aha moments when people begin to understand each other and have fun while doing a team visualization exercise.

I want you to experience this as well. Fun exploration with your team, using your creativity and simple tools to work on your content.

Ready to get going? Book a discovery call and figure out the best option for your team.

Don’t miss out.

 

References:

Wright, Pat: Using Graphics Effectively in Text in Writing Educational and Persuasive Text edited by Charles Abraham and Marieke Kools. 2012

OECD: Literacy in the Information Age

Brunschwig, Colette R: Visual Law and Legal Design: Questions and Tentative Answers. 2021

Grice HP. Logic and Conversation in Studies in Syntax and Semantics III: Speech Arts edited by Peter Cole and Jerry L. Morgan. 1975

Grab a virtual coffee with me and let’s figure out the next step!

Image of Hannele Korhonen Legal Designer

Who’s writing?

Hi, I’m Hannele. I am an ex-corporate lawyer, legal designer, pioneer in legal tech, serial entrepreneur and blogger.  I am the founder and teacher in Lawyer’s Design School.

I’m here to teach you new skills and mindset of legal design to thrive in the future of law.

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