It’s happened to all of us. You’re at a CLE, looking forward to learning about an interesting topic from a dynamic speaker. Maybe you’ll even get some written materials that you can take back to the office to help you review the key points. Then the lights dim, the speaker is obscured in shadow, the PowerPoint slides packed with text begin to march by … and you’re fast asleep. That’s OK, you figure. “I’ll just read the written materials to get the overview.” But the “written materials” turn out to just be a black-and-white printout of those PowerPoint slides. You couldn’t make them out on the screen, and you certainly aren’t motivated to read them in even smaller type in varying shades of grey. Another epic PowerPoint fail.
I was interviewed recently for the Plain Language Academy’s PlainView interview series. In the video, I chat with Kate Harrison Whiteside about the similarities between plain language and legal design.
Last month a federal judge fined a law firm $1,048.09 for filing a document with the wrong line spacing. The story made the legal-news circuit, but was not covered widely. I imagine that if people on the street were told about it, their reactions might range from What on earth? to Lawyers will be lawyers ....
Stories like this disappoint me because everyone takes away the wrong message. In this case, the rule that the law firm broke is outdated and silly. And the law firm’s skirting of the rule was inappropriate and foolish. But what worries me most is that other lawyers who hear this story will be afraid to experiment with the formatting of their own briefs for fear of a similar rebuke. And if lawyers aren’t willing to push back on these silly formatting rules (in a principled way, unlike the firm in this story), then it will be even harder to improve the typography and readability of court documents, which I believe is crucial for our society.
The emergence of a “post-fact world” is a complex problem with multiple causes. And the fight against alternative facts must be fought on multiple fronts with a variety of tools. Part of the solution involves making primary sources more accessible to more people. Accessibility means not only making the documents available to the public, but writing them and formatting them in a way that promotes reading and comprehension. (The idea being that if more people can understand the primary source, they will be less likely to believe the misstatements spouted by biased outlets purporting to summarize the primary source.)
Ideally all three branches of government would commit to using plain language and good document design. But the law is complex and fulfilling such a commitment would be a challenge even for the well intentioned. And, at the present moment, it seems that many in our government are not well intentioned.
I recently gave a presentation on how lawyers can use design thinking to make their practice more client friendly. Design thinking is a practical methodology that helps us better understand complex issues and develop creative solutions—often with the goal of improving the experience of the end user.
The presentation covers why lawyers should care about the client experience in the first place, and it also emphasizes that using design thinking is as much about cultivating the right mindset as it is about following a specific process.