Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Draw your case

originally published in Lawyers Weekly

Want to get your message through to a jury? Considering that jurors are 65 percent more likely to retain information when you use visual exhibits to complement your oral presentation, the choice seems obvious – use graphical displays in the courtroom.

That statistic, attributed to the American Bar Association, was quoted in a white paper prepared by, purveyor of SmartDraw 2008 Legal Edition. SmartDraw created Legal Edition based on both the notion that lawyers need easy-to-use graphics tools and SmartDraw’s opinion that currently available software makes illustration too onerous for most lawyers. (On its website, SmartDraw aims its marketing guns squarely at Microsoft Visio.)

During my review, I created both a traffic intersection near my home and mind maps that I easily converted to Gantt charts. SmartTemplates, themes featuring appropriate tools and attractive combinations of colours, get style-challenged users (like me) off to a quick start.

SmartTemplates place commonly used tools for the chosen type of illustration in SmartPanels to the left of the illustration. (Full disclosure: While I found SmartDraw straightforward, I cut my professional writing teeth in dot-com start-up environments.)

SmartDraw claims the software especially helps lawyers who practice in: personal injury, litigation, criminal, family, estate planning and patent/IP law. Attorneys typically use it to create timelines, flow charts, org charts, crime and accident scene “sketches” and medical illustrations.

The last two graphics types listed above might concern DIY illustrator/litigators. While visuals like an accident timeline don’t feature the type of graphic precision that an expert would challenge, the same can’t be said for an accident scene reconstruction or illustrations of injuries resulting from said accident.

In both cases, SmartDraw’s simplicity may work against it. Sid Nassar, an engineer with Walters Forensic Engineering Inc., has contributed technical expertise, including both drawings and 3D animations, to more than 50 legal cases over the past ten years – all of which had settled prior to going to court, he said. For one case, Nassar reconstructed what the driver would have seen in the rear-view mirror. “That’s difficult to show in a drawing or to write in a report,” he said. It’s more effective if you do it in 3D.”

Medical drawings may be trickier still. “Lawyers need good knowledge of medicine to create their own graphics properly,” said Stephen Mader, president of medical illustration firm Artery Studios Inc.

Although SmartDraw and similar packages cost far less than a typical Artery Studios panel (average cost: over $1,000), lawyers who are unsure of medical data that could decide the fate of a case might want to consider the services of a medical illustration specialist.

Mader has a graduate degree in medical illustration. Like Nassar, a professional engineer, he uses his advanced education to provide value-added services. “We review information like radiology reports and hospital operative reports, “Mader explained.”We reference medical literature to make sure we depict nerves, ligaments, soft tissue and so on accurately. We facilitate conversation between medical experts and lawyers.”

And, like Nassar, “We advise the law firm about how best to communicate its case.”

Mader also challenged SmartDraw’s cost-benefit argument. “What is the cost per hour of a lawyer’s time?” he asked. “Maybe it’s more cost-effective to outsource illustrations.”

Both SmartDraw reps and Mader agreed on several tips for DIY illustrators, like limiting the amount of text used in a graphic and otherwise keeping it from getting too complex.

Mader warned against putting anything controversial in a courtroom visual. “Don’t include depictions of pain, blood, indications of suffering, things that can evoke emotional responses, things that defence counsel can charge push the boundaries.”

He also recommends simplifying graphics as much as possible for the benefit of nonprofessionals like insurance adjustors and jurors. “Will viewers understand an image if it isn’t put into context?” Mader asked.

“We often use inset orientation illustrations so viewers understand what part of the anatomy they’re looking at. Consider an internal organ like the liver – where does it sit in a person’s body? Viewers need to know this.”

Following the simplification theme, an icon can represent a specific aspect across different illustrations, while callouts can pinpoint details like lines of text in a document.

Want to subtly indicate how a party failed to live up to a contract? When using callouts on a contract, SmartDraw reps advise using red for contraventions of a contract and green to imply the innocence of your client’s actions.

Even though it might seem to take business away from him, Mader doesn’t put SmartDraw down. “I’m all for anything that fosters better visual communication,” he said.