Five Lessons Learned Going From Litigator to Visual Communication Specialist

People often ask why I stopped litigating cases and created a litigation graphics firm specializing in visual communication for attorneys in mediation and trial. The answer is simple: the work is creative, fun and very satisfying. There is no better feeling than taking a great deal of complex information from an attorney or expert and figuring out how to effectively and simply present that evidence in charts, graphs, diagrams, timelines or animations.

With this thought in mind, I realized a post discussing the five biggest lessons I learned making this transition from one who litigates cases to running a company that supports litigators would be useful.

1. Creating Good Visuals Is Not Easy

As an attorney, I grabbed ahold of any chance I got to create my own exhibits or presentations. However, as I look back at what I created myself, before starting Cogent Legal, it’s honestly almost embarrassing (if not outright embarrassing). My embarrassment arises from: (1) I only had limited opportunities to do these tasks; (2) I never had time to learn the various programs beyond an intermediate level; (3) I was always smack dab in the middle of the case myself as the attorney, and it was hard, if not impossible, to think how best to explain the concepts to people who knew nothing about the case.

Since staring Cogent Legal, my learning curve went almost straight upwards in developing skills in the various design programs, but more importantly, I also hired lots of other designers with much better skills than I will ever have. Our team’s collective level of in-depth experience allows us to bring to life almost any idea that may best show some facet of a case.

(Check out samples of animations developed by Cogent Legal, which bring cases to life.) 

Now, a litigator reading this lesson could easily conclude that it’s nothing more than a sales pitch saying you should hire us rather than try it yourself, and on some level it obviously is. However, that does not take away from the true and honest point, that people who do things all the time can generally do them faster and better than those who do not. Litigators are absolutely experts at what they do, but getting help from experts on the visual and technological end will only help the impact of their case.

Since I was too embarrassed to show my own ugly examples from a decade ago, I dug up this more recent example of a poorly designed graphic, courtesy of the NSA. Look at the clutter, the contrasting colors, the lack of focus—it’s just awful!

NSA ugly graphic

(A brilliant designer re-did the NSA slides, writing, “As a citizen, I have been shocked by the NSA scandal. But as a presentation designer, I felt even more offended by the revealed slides. So I decided to revamp their hideous deck.” You can check out her before-and-after slides here—a great lesson for anyone use uses PowerPoint. Which brings us to the point below.)

2. PowerPoint is Both a Great and Awful Tool

PowerPoint or Keynote for Mac are great tools that are often used very, very badly. Most every attorney falls into the trap of wanting too much text-based information on slides. When you know your case so very well, there is a tendency to try to prove everything with every slide. This leads to text-heavy slides that often come across as nothing more than an attorney putting his or her speaking notes up on a screen for everyone to see.

For a great discussion on how to avoid this particular trap, I highly recommend Cliff Atkinson’s book or online course, Beyond Bullet Points. My past blog post, “Five Essential PowerPoint Tips for Attorneys,” is another good starting point for attorneys to improve their slide-based presentations. When PowerPoint is thought of creatively as a means to support your argument visually, then it becomes a great tool.

(See here for samples of slide-based presentations designed by Cogent Legal, which may give you ideas for how to create visually effective and interactive slides with less text.)

3. You Cannot Completely Outsource Your Presentation

While I wholeheartedly support bringing in professionals—such as litigation graphic designers, animators and trial technicians—to help with your presentations, they cannot do it all for you.

Every attorney I know has a different style and manner of connecting with an audience. Some use humor, some use logic, some use emotion and some use all of them. Having the best presentation in the world will do you no good until you have personally gone over it and over it yourself to make it your own. This does not necessarily mean getting in and changing the charts and graphs yourself, but going through the presentations many times to figure out what you will be saying while showing each slide; when you will pause for effect; the order of the slides; when you will hit the audience hard with a strong point and the like.

Having good visual aids is half the battle, but then effectively incorporating everything being shown into your style is crucial. Otherwise, there is little or no connection between the speaker and the screen, and often the attorney is talking about subjects that are different than what is shown on the screen. This can create a big disconnect and look like the presenter is simply unprepared. In shortly, no matter who helps create your presentation, you must own it when you give it.

4. Do Not Wait Until the Last Minute

I cannot overemphasize the importance of preparing early. Attorneys may think they are trying to save money or their own time by waiting to put together a visual presentation for a case, but the effect of waiting can actually be more costly and time consuming. When everything is done at a mad rush shortly before trial, then the prior lessons inevitably will get violated.

Well done-animations, diagrams, charts or storyboards often take a good deal of back-and-forth with the experts or witnesses or both before attaining accuracy. On a rush project, this generally cannot occur, so your visuals suffer. Also, a rushed project likely will not be as neat, clean or precise as one that benefited from the luxury of time. Arguments are honed with thoughtful reflection, and entire sections become condensed or removed altogether. Presentations rarely get longer over time, but rather shorter and more efficient and effective. Finally, you need ample time to go over the presentation in a manner necessary to “own” that presentation before having to stand up and deliver it.

5. Be Excited and Have Fun

This last lesson many not seem obvious, but it’s really important. I have found that the people who are the best at communicating to and convincing others are those who are excited about what they are saying and enjoy what they are doing. An expert witness who shows a love of figuring things out and explaining them to others is wildly more effective than a well-credentialed expert who acts as if he or she would rather be somewhere else. An attorney who is excited to share his or her case using great visuals to support their points is also much more effective than one who does not.

Don’t worry about whether some form of a visual, such as an animation, is too “fancy”; the question is, do you believe it’s the best way to show that point? If so, then the audience will understand why you are using that tool. If you are excited to share your visual presentation, because you know it is well done, concise, informative and you genuinely care about your case, then your audience will be much more engaged and you will have a higher likelihood of persuading them.

Speaking of having fun, I hope you enjoy the slide-based presentation below, which my partner and I put together last year mostly just for fun and because we were excited to communicate the changes shaping our industry.

Please contact me if you would like Cogent Legal to help with your litigation presentations and preparation for trial. If you’d like to receive updates from this blog, please click to subscribe by email.