On first blush, flowcharts seem an ideal tool for explaining to a client the order, time and cost of process driven practice areas such as litigation, migration and M&A. But flowcharts are not often used in advice delivery. That is unfortunate, as written advice cannot be absorbed by the reader as intuitively or quickly as a visual. I am confident that there are visual design solutions which satiate the lawyers concern about the complexity and permutations of a particular process, whilst still presenting advice which is clear and intuitive. I set out my ideas for a few such solutions at the end of this post. I think there is an opportunity for practitioners, firms and other advice bodies to differentiate themselves by adopting these alternative methods of advice provision.
Flowcharts in the legal industry
Flowcharts are diagrams that represents a process. They have a start, decision points and an end goal. Flowcharts are used across different industries, from engineering, education, software design, business and media. However in my experience they are under-utilised in the legal industry.
On first blush it seems unusual that the legal industry has been reticent to adopt such a seemingly useful tool in procedural driven practice areas. Litigation, M&A and immigration, for instance, are all heavily process driven. Clients buy legal services in these industries just as much to get advice on the process than on the legalese of their case: How long will this take? How many bills will I receive? When will I get my money? When will I get my green card? Most of the processes are sequential – a judgement follows a trial, which follows disclosure, which follows a defence, which follows a claim. Most of the processes have decision points: Accept offer of settlement, or not? Invest in an expert witness, or not?
I suspect flowcharts are under-utilised in legal advice because of a conception that visuals are unable to capture all of the complexity of legal procedure. After all, unlike a chemical plant or a computer algorithm, most legal procedures are not entirely fixed, but rather the duration, sequence and complexity of each step may vary in unexpected ways as a case progresses. For instance, a lawyer’s experience has told her that many different things can happen at a pre-trial mediation. A case might settle, bringing the case to an end there and then. New evidence or allegations might come to light, spawning a fresh round of discovery and amended pleadings. A partial agreement on some issues might be reached, dramatically reducing the scope of the balance of the case.
Distilling all of those options into a flowchart can feel burdensome and impractical. A lawyer may think that if they don’t mention every possible option they are doing a disservice to their client, or might later have to face an angry client’s allegations that they were never informed. A lawyer knows that language matters, and if their description of a legal concept on a diagram differs much from the textbooks or the civil procedure rules, however verbose that definition may be, then its meaning changes with it.
As a result, often no flowchart, or any visual at all, is prepared for the client’s benefit. Lawyers revert to what they know best – words. There are different ways to structure written advice to make it clear and concise. We can have executive summaries in our memos, and put the clarifications and caveats in footnotes and appendices. Good drafting is indeed an art form and it is wonderful to read a master lawyer’s note.
But solutions limited to text aren’t ideal. For clients who think visually, the advice cannot be absorbed as intuitively or quickly as a visual. Clients spend longer than necessary trying to understand the text and may make important decisions without full comprehension of the time, cost and risks in their case. The effect is particularly pronounced with non-professional consumers of legal advice who are less familiar with verbose legal documents, but I have little doubt also that there are a time-poor CEOs who would prefer advice distilled into a clear diagram.
I think that there are visual design solutions which satiate the lawyers concern about the complexity and permutations of a particular process, whilst still presenting advice which is clear and intuitive.
These solutions must not ignore lawyer’s existing concerns. The traditional reasons a lawyer has acted prudently when providing procedural advice remain very real. The art of the right visual design solution lies in striking a balance between simple aesthetics and the maintenance of any necessary complexity.
My design ideas
I have been considering a few such design solutions, which I set out below. In addition to some features which use only static, 2D visual elements, there are others which would take advantage of the additional features in the digital realm, such as hyperlinking, zooming and movement. In practice, such flowcharts might be interactive web pages accessible to the general public, or available behind password protection if they contain confidential advice.
(1) Flowcharts with hyperlinks to text with details of each step.
This type of flowchart balances complexity against simplicity by first presenting a high-level procedural summary visually, but also providing hyperlinks to detailed text advice. Such a flowchart would be the client’s starting point. By using this visual method instead of a traditional, solely text based document, the client is more easily able to place the details they subsequently read about into the broader procedural context. In addition, if the user is only concerned with the high level procedure, or advice in relation to one particular step, they can intuitively and quickly navigate to that information without being swamped by the balance of the advice.
An example of a flowchart showing a procedural overview. It is based on a hypothetical set of rules about how to legally build or repair a dividing fence on your property. The boxes with blue border styles will indicate to the user that they are hyperlinked to text with further details about that step. Those details might include more complex scenarios which can’t easily fit into the overall flowchart, such as: What happens if you can’t find your neighbour to serve the notice on? Or, on what basis will the Court make a decision about how the costs of the repair works are divided? This flowchart might be consumer facing, providing general legal advice on a government or community legal centre website.
(2) Summary flowcharts with hyperlinks to more detailed flowcharts.
This type of flowchart balances complexity against simplicity by first presenting a high-level procedural summary and also providing hyperlinks to further detailed flowcharts. The benefit is that whilst there is no overall loss of procedural information, the original flowchart is not cluttered. If a client wishes to drill down into the details they can easily do so, and will be able to place that detailed procedure in a broader context.
An example of a flowchart showing the procedure for making a claim for payment under a commercial contract which has an adjudication mechanism for payment disputes. By clicking on the “Adjudication” box, the client would be taken to another detailed flowchart which lays out the detailed steps in that part of the broader procedure, including a breakdown of the “$15,000” price and “6-8 weeks” time estimates. This example could be used for one-to-one legal advice from a lawyer to a particular client.
(3) Flowcharts with standard design cues, symbols or colouring.
On these flowcharts, a lawyer would convert what was once conveyed only in words, into other design language. For example:
- Colour: Risk and probability could be converted into colour, such as a traffic light code. For example if the expert evidence in the client’s case is a major risk, that section might be coloured red, or if the lawyer is confident about the scope, timing and costs involved in the discovery process, then that might be coloured green;
- Symbols: Symbols could be added to visuals to convey attributes of each step. For example, a symbol such as a [?] on the flowcharts, might indicate that the lawyer is unclear about particular instructions, or has follow up queries;
- Border and shape: Different bordering (such as thick, coloured or double edged) might indicate to the user that a particular step is compulsory, a priority or optional.
An example of flowchart showing a cost estimate for a client’s litigation, using simple border selection to indicate uncertainty in particular stages of the litigation.
(4) Dynamic flowcharts.
Because they need to be interacted with, these dynamic flowcharts are entirely digital. In addition to basic interaction such as hyperlinking (described above), I can envisage flowcharts which have highlighted or moving paths. A client could choose a particular path through an otherwise complex flowchart. That path would then be highlighted and the client would be presented with the cost, duration and risks of that particular route. The client would be able to ‘play around’ with the flowchart, exploring different hypothetical scenarios in their own time after the advice had been provided, rather than requiring that they had asked all these specific questions before the advice was prepared.
There is opportunity for lawyers and firms to adopt visual design methods, such as flowcharts, into their client advice. Clients, I am confident, will be thrilled to receive advice that is simpler, more intuitive and easier to consume than pure text. Those practitioners who are good at producing these visual design solutions will be able to differentiate themselves and capture much of the advice and other case work from firms that stick to the old delivery methods. This will be especially so if those producers can make those solutions scalable and applicable over different legal circumstances.