Visuals in Briefs, part 2

In my survey of practicing lawyers, 30% said they rarely or never use visuals in briefs. Here are the top three reasons for not using visuals:

  1. My practice area doesn’t lend itself to visuals.
  2. I’ve never heard a judge recommend visuals.
  3. Creating visuals is time-consuming and difficult.

Let’s take these one at a time.

(1) If your practice doesn’t lend itself to visuals, then you’re not avoiding them because they don’t work at all; you’re avoiding them because they don’t work for the cases and issues you handle. Declining to use visuals is therefore an exercise of editorial judgment. That’s what legal writers should be doing.

The individual comments in the survey reflect the reality that good writers know their content, context, and audience and make decisions about visuals accordingly:

  • “I cannot see how visuals would meaningfully improve briefing in my case area (debt collection and debt defense).”
  • Most of my work involves day-to-day motion practice (e.g., motions to compel) that does not call for visuals.”
  • “The issues in my cases rarely lend themselves to persuasive visual display.”

I’m inclined to trust these lawyers and their judgments about their own cases.

(2) Actually, a few judges are recommending the use of visuals in briefs. The legal-writing expert Ross Guberman offers the following unattributed quotations from judges:

  • “Sometimes a timeline is clearer than an essay format.”
  • “The use of pictures, maps, and diagrams not only breaks up what can be dry legal analysis; it also helps us better understand the case ….”
  • “When a case involves analysis of a map, graph, or picture, I would like to see attorneys include a copy of the picture within the analysis section of the brief.”[1]

Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan, of the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, offers the following advice on his website:

  • Use visual devices and tools to make things easier on your reader. … [Use] charts and graphics and timelines. For example, in a case where the timing of events is critical or convoluted, consider creating a timeline in the fact section.”[2]

In addition to the supportive statements quoted here, after posting my survey about visuals, I received two email messages from judges, saying that they appreciate the use of visuals in briefs and pointing out that they use them in their own opinions and orders.

Still, there’s no large, loud chorus of judges calling for more visuals. Yet 46% of those who rarely or never use visuals said that they would be persuaded to use them if judges recommended the practice. So if you’re a judge reading this, and you appreciate visuals, say so—publicly.

Besides judges’ recommendations, at least one other factor would encourage more writers to use visuals in briefs. One third of the survey respondents said they would be persuaded to use them if colleagues or leading practitioners recommended the practice. So if you’re a visuals-using writer reading this article, recommend the practice to others.

(3) Finally, 9% of survey respondents who rarely or never use visuals in briefs gave as a reason that using them was difficult and time-consuming. Here are some of the individual comments:

  • “Limited software skills.”
  • “Need software training.”
  • “Software to make it easier for me to design the graphics.”
  • “A quicker way to get them done.”
  • “Need to be easy to create, format, and insert.”
  • “Greater technological ease-of-use.”

This post can do little to remedy these problems, but I have some suggestions: assign visuals creation to others with the expertise, seek out training and education on creating and using visuals, and invest in newer or better software.

Besides, some of us might be thinking too grandly about “visuals.” In part 3, I’ll discuss some practical tips for using visuals in briefs, offer some simple ideas for creating visuals, and recommend additional resources.


[1] Ross Guberman, Judges Speaking Softly, 44 Litigation 48, 49-50 (Summer 2018).

[2] Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan, Judge Ranjan’s Brief-Writing Preferences, at 2, https:/​/​​sites/​pawd/​files/​Ranjan_writing_tips.pdf.