By Tim Follett
Have you noticed how symbols are so prominent in society today? Or how frequent our use of the humble “:-)” is in digital communication? No doubt you’ve heard the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words”...
The reason for this is simple: As humans, we are hard-wired to process visuals rapidly - from the plains of Africa to the jungles of 21st century cities. MIT neuroscientists have found our brain is able to process images within timeframes as short as 13 milliseconds [1}.
As the amount of information and data we are processing grows exponentially, both in our everyday tasks and working lives, we are struggling to process information and our attention spans are reducing. This makes visualising complex information for rapid neuro processing ever more important.
The communication trends are clear when you look at booming social media platforms that are primarily image-based, such as Instagram, Pinterest or Snapchat. Even Facebook and Twitter, which were originally text-based, have transitioned to favour visuals.
These trends are no less important when it comes to complex traditionally text-based, legal information... and legal teams are starting to take notice.
The evolution of legal communications
As a profession that has been text-driven for hundreds of years, and becoming increasingly complex in nature, the need to communicate complex ideas quickly via visualisation is pressing.
While a doctor can use an anatomical diagram to make a point, or architects and engineers have computer aided design (CAD) software tools to represent vast amounts of information relating to a building’s structure, legal teams have been slow to adopt visualisation into their workflows to understand and explain the intricacies of a transaction or dispute.
In the last 30 years, we've seen some steps taken to incorporate visuals into legal work:
The use of tables in contracts to improve readability
Flow charts to illustrate a piece of analysis
Structure charts and timelines to plan a transaction or map assets to be acquired or sold
Infographics to explain legal rights
Example of a basic legal structure diagram
Example of an early organisational chart
As innovation in legal practice continues to gather pace, the use of visualisation techniques is increasing and evolving, helping legal teams solve their most complex day-to-day challenges.
Making complex ideas easier to understand
Legal structures and transactions have always been complex and difficult to understand, but it is an area where understanding is critical.
For example, a typical M&A transaction may involve 40-50 individuals across multiple organisations, so there is a fundamental need to ensure that everyone is on the same page as quickly as possible to promote efficient working and reduce the risk of misunderstanding.
Relevant information is often fragmented and stored across a variety of sources and systems, and held by different parties, which makes it extremely hard to present a holistic view and therefore a comprehensive understanding of the project.
By integrating innovative visualisation techniques and tools, lawyers can promote communication and understanding and address the challenges of complexity - “visually mapping” concepts and structures - whether a corporate structure, a M&A transaction, a dispute, or the connections in a complex piece of legislation.
There are clear benefits to be gained:
Simplifying highly complex issues to speed up communication and understanding
Getting a holistic view to improve analysis and identify potential roadblocks or areas of opportunity
Ensuring everyone has the same understanding of the most up-to-date, accurate, information
By making information visual, it becomes more tangible, easier to work with, and understand. Like an engineer’s CAD software, bespoke tools enable lawyers to create detailed, interactive visual models of legal structures and transactions, setting out the different elements such as interconnected companies, contractual relationships and funding arrangements.
Junior lawyers and paralegals no longer need spend hours excruciatingly drawing diagrams in legacy drawing tools - manually moving shapes and lines around to make a structure chart look comprehensible (and well designed). Instead, they can now turn to legal visual modelling technology.
Connecting visuals with information
Not only are legal teams able to shorten the path to a clear visualisation, but deep connections can then be made to the information underlying the visual. After all, a diagram is fundamentally a visualisation of data.
Again, drawing the comparison to CAD, modelling enables the visual to be enriched, providing a broader and more detailed view of the legal subject matter as a whole – full details of the entities, individuals, contracts, and assets involved. Rather than a static visual, the visual model allows all parties - lawyers, their clients, and other stakeholders - to see the whole picture, as a “single source of truth”, all at once.
This combination of visualisation tied to underlying information is what can really take legal teams to the next level as they strive to achieve clarity and understanding of complex issues.
A real estate development finance project created in StructureFlow
The client advantage
As the trends of adopting visual ways of working accelerate, clients of law firms are increasingly expecting complex legal information to be provided in easier, more digestible, ways.
The real-time, collaborative nature of sophisticated legal diagramming tools helps to build and maintain client relationships. With remote working expected to continue, using digital tools to communicate with clients regularly can be a strong driver for differentiation. In some recent legal trends reports, 68% of legal professionals say technology has helped their firms deliver better client experiences during the pandemic. 
In a global legal services industry that is only going to become ever more competitive, digital tools for visualisation can help law firms and in-house teams communicate complex ideas to their clients in ways that make them “stand out from the crowd”, enabling them to win more business and trust.
Words will always be important for lawyers – they are integral to defining rights and obligations in legislation and contracts. But they are not the only tool in the toolkit. Visuals have a hugely important role to play. It is time to challenge orthodoxy and realise that text is - not always - best.
About the Author
Tim Follett is CEO & Founder of StructureFlow. An ex-corporate lawyer, Tim started his career at Slaughter and May where he trained and qualified in 2011 and then joined Farrer & Co in 2014. He set up StructureFlow in 2017 to address the frustrations he felt trying to visually model complex legal structures and transactions using tools that were not up to the task.
StructureFlow is an intelligent visual modelling tool for lawyers & finance professionals. Its mission is to help its users think, communicate, and collaborate more visually, and therefore more efficiently. Founded in 2017, StructureFlow is now being used by some of the world’s largest and most prestigious professional services firms and in-house teams.
To learn more about StructureFlow and demo their software, please visit https://www.structureflow.co/