Legal text does not belong to everyone

Blogs October 14, 2016

When I applied to the Faculty of Law in 2004 and through reading the entrance exam books, I realised that studying law (had I been accepted) would have meant total information overload, writing detailed lists, and an absurd amount of text packed into as small a space as possible and printed in between the covers of thick law books.

Okay, my recollection may be caricatured; the world and curriculums change in a decade, and in the end I decided to change fields and leave the law reading to others. I still find traditional contractual and legal texts difficult to understand. However, I come into contact with various texts requiring legal understanding on a daily basis. Part of the reason may be the fact that I work in law firm, but most of the texts I encounter are ‘everyday’ contracts. For example, I might accept the terms of use or the terms and conditions of an online store without reading them. I agree to the changing privacy practices of Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, banks etc. without too much worry. This is despite the fact that these may contain something very important, which, if unnoticed, can lead to unpleasant surprises for me in the future.

You’ve probably heard the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”. When the content is complex, the reader must understand both the whole and the details. Clarity can be improved by including shapes, colours, graphs, charts, and illustrations that complement and support the complex text. This is rarely done in legal texts. It's been painful to realise that I don't understand the traditional language of law and that I have to work hard to make sure that I don’t misunderstand a clause in, for example, house sale documents. It’s because of misunderstandings that lawyers are needed – to translate legal text and resolve misunderstandings resulting from reading such texts.

For decades, words have been an important tool for lawyers. Lawyers are communication professionals. They give advice and produce content and documents in which a certain message, agreement, or instruction needs to be communicated on behalf of the client. Why, then, doesn’t legal training prepare future lawyers to think about and explore ways in which they could enhance their own communication in their careers? Technical and financial information is presented in charts and graphs. Instructions for use, installation instructions and marketing materials guide readers using diagrams and pictures. Processes and logistics chains are shown in flow charts. No one could get by in engineering or medicine without modelling or imaging.

Vast amounts of information would be easier to understand if the data was outlined in a visual format that is easy to interpret. We are living in an era of rising data visualisation. Visualisation means making something visible to the eye. Weather maps are a good example of this. Meteorologists deal with large data sets and numerical predictions of future weather conditions, which then need to be plotted onto a map using a system of symbols to create an easy-to-read weather map. A single statistic that summarises ten thousand data points into a single number or image is decidedly easier to understand than all of those points separately.

Legal texts and sections could also be made easier to understand through visualisation techniques. In addition to the previously mentioned techniques, these could include games and animations. Visualisation could be used to improve the delivery of the message and the interaction between the message and the reader, as well as to build common understanding when drafting contracts and regulations. I can’t imagine that the complexity of legal texts serves anyone’s interests. I think the main aim of visualising legal information should be to ensure that lawyers know how to speak the same language as their clients. Then the client could really understand legal contracts. What kind of legal matters would you like to see in a more visual format?