Three Rules of Time and SpaceA lawyer’s time is limited—and, consequently, highly valuable—at trial because he only has so much of it before the judge tells him to move on or the jury becomes bored and stops paying attention. Eventually (usually sooner versus later), the time available to present evidence and make a compelling case runs out. The lawyer who has not carefully prepared, rehearsed and timed his presentation will be at a great disadvantage when up against counsel who entered the trial with a keen understanding of time as a finite resource.

Another valuable yet limited commodity during trial is space. There are only so many available square feet inside the courtroom that can be used for display boards and screens, flip charts and the like. Further, there are only so many square inches on these visual displays that can be used before the information on the graphics becomes illegible and unusable.

The following Three Rules of Time and Space were developed to assist trial lawyers in managing these resources more effectively, efficiently and consciously when preparing for trial.

The First Rule: Not All Information Is of Equal Value; Pass Up the Good for the Great

It is obvious that some of the facts in a case will be more important and carry more weight than others. Between the important and “weighty” facts, some will be good, others will be better, and, hopefully, one or two bits of information will be out-of-the-ballpark-and-into-the-stratosphere fantastic. The choice is clear: When given the option of presenting a good fact or a great fact, the great fact should be used. Additionally, lawyers should keep in mind that a great fact is weakened (as opposed to strengthened) when surrounded by mounds of mediocre material.

The Second Rule: Time and Space Should be Allocated in Direct Proportion to the Value of the Information

Once the facts and evidence of a case have been categorized as Good, Better and Great, it is easier to determine how much valuable time and space should be spent presenting them to the jury. There should be a direct relationship between the value of the information and how much time and space is allocated to it. Wasting resources on information that is of only marginal value is just that–a waste.

The Third Rule: When Important Information Requires It, the Most Important Matters Should Be Allocated as Much Space as Necessary to Make the Point

 For issues that really matter, a lawyer should not hesitate to allocate the time and space necessary to make his point. Good trial graphics do not always minimize time and space; sometimes they actually maximize their usage of resources. Once counsel has carefully ranked the case information in order of importance, he should allow himself to use as much time and space as he reasonably needs to present it effectively.

Considering how important it is to use time and space efficiently in the courtroom, it comes as no surprise that there are tried-and-true techniques for creating graphics that maximize these resources. By crafting effective titles, using symbols and avoiding “chartjunk,” the message will be conveyed to the jurors with the least amount of wasted time and space.

Creating Meaningful Titles

It’s amazing how often lawyers will create perfectly good–sometimes exceptionally good–graphics for trial but will ruin the effect with a poorly conceived title across the top (or no title at all). A well-crafted title added to a slide, chart or poster can “make or break” that particular display. Effective title lines can amplify the impact of an exhibit by providing important clues to the jurors about what the case is really about, highlighting why a particular piece of evidence is (or is not) incriminating (besides the benefit of giving the jurors something to read and concentrate their efforts on during the trial). Poorly crafted title lines, by contrast, have the effect of causing jurors to become bored, overwhelmed or uninterested.

For example, a slide with pictures of several pages of a report with the heading, “Trial Exhibit 113.A. Acme Building, Inc. v. High-Rise Enterprises: Engineering Report by G.B. Goodman & Co.” has a title that is wordy but meaningless. The same graphic with no title at all would be less “busy,” but would lack context. By contrast, the same graphic with the quote, “This Material Could Eventually Leak” pulled from the report and used as the slide’s title would add meaning, context and direction to the evidence. Clearly, the quote from the report creates the most compelling title for the slide. Given the choice between no title and “Trial Exhibit 113.A…” it would be better to display no title at all in lieu of a meaningless one.

Using Symbols

One of the most powerful elements a trial lawyer can incorporate into his visual presentation is symbols. Symbols can evoke both conscious and subconscious associations within the jurors–associations that can provide a profound advantage to the lawyer who skillfully uses them. The psychological impact of such commonplace images as the skull and crossbones “poison” warning label or the round, yellow happy face made famous in the 1960s, for example, is undeniable.

Speaking and writing take time. Using symbols and pictures in trial graphics enables the jurors to understand key points without the need for excessive spoken or written words. Additionally, images allow the conveyance of nuances that would otherwise require too many words (and, therefore, time) to explain. Similarly, a picture of a telephone on a chart can be a more economical use of space than displaying the actual words, “telephone call.”

Avoiding ’Chartjunk’

The term “chartjunk” was coined by Edward Tufte, an information architect, who insightfully insisted that every line, every illustration and every element of a graphic must serve a purpose. According to Tufte, anything in a graphic that is not essential to that graphic is a detractor and should be considered to be chartjunk.

The occurrence of chartjunk in trial graphics has increased significantly as more and more attorneys rely on PowerPoint and clip art and extensive color palates. Most trial lawyers have undoubtedly witnessed horrific examples of chartjunk–it’s easy to spot. Suffice it to say that if a single graphic contains a pie chart, clip art, rainbow colors, textured borders and four styles of fonts, an example of Tufte’s pet peeve has occurred once again.

By following the Three Rules of Time and Space and using proven techniques to create graphics that maximize these precious commodities, trial lawyers can help their jurors remain mentally engaged, interested and focused on the most important elements of the case. While there are guidelines and rules to help put together the presentation, there is no substitute for preparation.

This article is reprinted with permission from the July 22, 2009 issue of The Recorder. © The Recorder,  ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.  All rights reserved. 

Three Rules of Time and Space

Appeared in The Recorder

July 22, 2009


G. Christopher Ritter

Chris Ritter is a Senior Strategy Advisor and Jury Consultant at IMS | The Focal Point and has nearly twenty years of experience working as a trial lawyer. An accomplished author, Chris has written three books, published by the American Bar Association.

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