The first question people usually ask me when they find out I am a lawyer is: “What kind of lawyer are you?” My response is usually: “I am a story teller.” A good deal of my practice involves helping lawyers tell stories, because no juror ever said, “Well… I’m not really sure that I understand the plaintiff’s point of view completely. Let’s give him $10 million.” I usually advocate for the cyborg approach: part human and part machine. I think you can tell an effective story without a computer, but from my experience, jurors are a reflective part of the population that consciously moved out of the radio era and into CGI-laden-movies era.
I use neat hardware (sometimes cheap hardware), I use neat software, and I almost always use a whole lot of custom graphics. Talking about how to make a great graphic is almost impossible. Most of the good ones are good for unique reasons. Most of the bad ones are bad because they fall into a few general categories. Here are a couple of those categories:
A Graphic Is Perfect, Not When There Is Nothing Left to Add, But When There Is Nothing Left to Take Away.
As lawyers, it is our instinct to cram as much information into things as possible. Don’t do this with graphics. This graphic is a good example of a “Don’t”:
A good way to keep it simple is to avoid focusing on what you are trying to convey, and focus on what you want the jury to take away from the graphic. For example, I was consulting with an attorney on a minor-impact case and he wanted a chart for opening showing the plaintiff’s pre-accident diagnoses (L5-S1 disc bulge with accompanying radiculopathy, canal stenosis, stiffening of the joints, etc.) in one column and another column with the exact same things for post-accident diagnoses. Apparently, filling up the page with text that matches in both columns was going to prove that there was no causation. But, what you’ve actually done is given the jury about 8 new vocab words to memorize with no real context to understand their meaning. So, now, they are either less focused on what you say next, or they completely forget about that slide because it does not digest easily in their minds and cannot be stored in long-term memory.
Our revision to the chart was to scrap it and just have a single line of text that highlighted what we wanted the take away from that slide to be: “All post-accident complaints were from injuries that existed before the accident.”
Now, I’m not saying that the concept of five to six injuries in column A, with the same injuries in column B, is always a bad idea. In openings, it certainly is a bad idea because getting into that level of detail so soon will detract from your theme. Depending on how the testimony comes out in trial, it might be a very effective chart for closing. The key is to understand what will be the clearest way of getting your point across at each stage of the trial.
Don’t Confuse Plain with Simple.
If you are designing a timeline of Crate & Barrel logos, feel free to keep it black and white. But, in almost every other circumstance, black and white graphics will convey that you either have no creativity or were too rushed to do a good job. I’m a fan of pastel colors because they are subtle and don’t detract from the overall image.
Colors can also convey concepts quickly. Here is a graphic for a mock trial case that shows how an employee’s job performance was slipping into the red danger zone well before the time that she felt she was forced to quit:
Important Tips for Graphics:
- You can create charts in Word. Use the Insert Shapes command to place the elements of a timeline and text boxes to place events. Save your file as a PDF and it will look crisp and clean, even when you blow it up to a 4’x6’ board or project it onto a 10’ screen.
- Avoid at all costs programs that make automated timelines. All those programs do is take all of the information you input, sort it by chronological order, and then jam it all into the page. Timelines need to be carefully handcrafted to avoid looking busy. Move the text boxes around, change their size, and vary their height on the page. Do whatever it takes to create a simple visual path for the information to follow.
- Timelines and charts are like résumés. There is no black and white rule that they need to be on one page, but if they do go over onto another page, you better make sure that it is absolutely necessary. It is more difficult for the brain to digest a timeline that spans five pages, understanding the temporal relations between the events, than a timeline that you can see beginning and end on one page.
Ed. note: This column has been brought to you by our friends at MyCase, web-based practice management software for lawyers. Please note, however, that the views expressed in the column are those of the writer alone.
Jeff Bennion is a solo practitioner from San Diego. When not handling his own cases, he’s consulting lawyers on how to use technology to not be boring in trial or managing e-discovery projects in mass torts/complex litigation cases. If you want to be disappointed in a lack of posts, you can follow him on twitter or on Facebook. If you have any ideas of things you want him to cover, email Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org.