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A Healthy Injection for Visual Law: An Informative Posting at VoxPopuLII (Cornell University Law School) on Visual Law

Colette R. Brunschwig

2013-06-06 14:51

I. Introduction

1. How Much Do You Know?

How much do you know about multisensory law and its various branches, such as visual law and audio-visual law? All there is, or some significant or minor details, or nothing at all? Did you know that there is a rich, creative, and controversial debate in these fields of law. Scholarly publications referred to in various postings of this Community (see, e.g., and international conferences (see, e.g., bear witness to this phenomenon. Particularly legal scholars and practitioners but also members of other disciplines and areas of practice are contributing to this new legal discourse. I would call it a legal discourse because it explores the sensory phenomena of the law, be they visual (unisensory) on the one hand, or audiovisual, tactile-kinesthetic, and so forth (multisensory) on the other.

2. Problems regarding Multisensory Law and its Branches

Indeed, the number of persons actively participating in the discourse on multisensory law and its various branches is still not very large, whereas the number of passive, that is, merely insight-adopting or questioning participants is somewhat larger. Multisensory law has not (yet) gained the status of an institutionalized legal discipline. This is quite astonishing, because the problems and questions it tackles are or rather would be highly relevant to lawyers, other experts, and laypersons (i.e., the general public). With a few exceptions, pertinent publications still do not receive the attention they deserve.

3. How and Which?

As a consequence, the following questions need to be raised: How might the active and passive discursive community of multisensory law and its various branches be enlarged? Which steps need to be taken so that multisensory law will gradually be institutionalized? How is it or would it be practicable to demonstrate to lawyers, other experts, and laypersons that the problems and questions tackled by multisensory law and its various branches are highly relevant? How might the lacking acknowledgement and reception of multisensory law and its various branches be dealt with and perhaps even be overcome?

4. Purpose of this Posting

The purpose of this posting is to answer these questions indirectly. I shall do so by pointing out another posting, co-authored by HELENA HAAPIO (see and STEFANIA PASSERA (see Entitled Visual Law: What Lawyers Need to Learn from Information Designers, their contribution was posted at VoxPopuLII on May 15, 2013 (see VoxPopuLII, which is run by the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University Law School (see, is a blog that addresses a broad international audience. Given its illustrious and formidable context, Visual Law: What Lawyers Need to Learn from Information Designers represents a further stepping stone towards solving the problems and questions outlined at the outset of this posting.

Rather than merely reiterating HAAPIO’s & PASSERA’s main points (see, instead,, I intend to highlight and take issue with some of their views, adding my own where necessary.

II. Comments on Vox-PopuLII’s Posting of May 15, 2013, by Helena Haapio and Stefania Passera

1. Justifiable Invitation to Think outside the Legal Text-Only Box

HAAPIO & PASSERA invite lawyers to think outside the legal text-only box. They give plausible reasons for their invitation. I agree with their claim that we should not allow legal tradition to restrict us to verbocentric legal scholarship and practice. This would require strongly questioning the verbocentric paradigm that (still) dominates the legal context. It would even entail questioning the traditional textual practices that lead to what the co-authors refer to as “legalese,” that is, a professional jargon that laypeople have difficulty understanding. I would posit that lawyers sometimes also struggle with “legalese,” at least the “legalese” of legal areas they are not familiar with.

2. Law and Communication

2.1 Law Is or Would Be about Communication

In any case, law is or would be about communication. This cannot be highlighted enough. In The Electronic Media and the Transformation of Law, KATSH observes “that broad changes are occurring to the law, to what it is and how it works, and that these changes are linked to the appearance of new methods of storing, processing, and communicating information” (M. Ethan Katsh, The Electronic Media and the Transformation of Law, New York, Oxford 1989, p. 3). He further writes, ”We are the first society in history to have the ability to communicate electronically. […] This will have considerable impact on an institution, such as the law, whose foundation is the processing of information but whose goals, values, capabilities, and modes of operation are tied to older methods of communicating” (ibid.). These older or traditional methods are verbocentric, relying “greatly on print, writing, and the spoken word” (Katsh, loc. cit., p. 4). KATSH predicts that “Law’s appearance today will not be law’s appearance tomorrow. The law’s resistance to the persuasive charms of the new media is nearing an end” (Katsh, loc.cit., p. 5). Consequently, law’s appearance is already or will become increasingly visual or verbo-visual (that is, unisensory) in written legal communication, and audio-visual and/or tactile-kinesthetic (that is, multisensory or multimodal) in oral legal communication.

2.2 Practicing Law Should Be about Efficient and Effective Communication that Promotes the Well-Being of Lawyers and Laypersons

It is safe to break down KATSH’s legal theoretical reflections into legal practice. There, lawyers simply cannot get around communicating with laypersons. Since most law schools do not teach future lawyers how to communicate with colleagues, other experts, and laypersons in particular, HAAPIO & PASSERA recommend implementing a user- or client-centered approach. In so doing, lawyers would, the co-authors claim, have to learn and apply information design (on information design, see, e.g., HAAPIO & PASSERA convincingly explain how this approach would impact on both the textual and visual design of legal information. I welcome the adoption of such an approach. It is, however, indispensable to draw the audience’s attention to other useful approaches. Since HAAPIO & PASSERA mainly refer to written legal communication, it is necessary to distinguish between verbal and visual legal communication (see Eva Maria Jakobs, Multimodale Fachkommunikation [Multimodal Expert Communication], in: Klaus-Dieter Baumann (ed.), Fach – Translat – Kultur: Interdisziplinäre Aspekte der vernetzten Vielfalt [Discipline – Translat – Culture: Interdisciplinary Aspects of Interconnected Diversity], Vol. 1, Berlin 2011, p. 106).

As regards verbal legal communication, communication psychology explores how to communicate intelligibly (see, e.g., Inghard Langer, Friedemann Schulz von Thun, & Reinhard Tausch, Sich verständlich ausdrücken [Making Yourself Understood], 9th ed., Munich, Basel 2013). The same applies to linguistics. For example, EVA-MARIA JAKOBS, a professor of text linguistics (see, has published a series of relevant books and articles on how to make oneself understood (see Thus, communication psychology and text linguistics would offer legal scholars and practitioners relevant communication know-how. As far as I know, this expertise is neither taught at most law schools, nor is it sufficiently adopted by legal scholarship and practice. I am only aware that and how law and psychology and therapeutic jurisprudence in particular explore verbal legal communication strategies with a view of promoting both client and lawyer well-being (see, e.g., Bruce J. Winick, Client Denial and Resistance in the Advance Directive Context: Reflections on How Attorneys Can Identify and Deal With a Psycholegal Soft Spot, in Practicing Therapeutic Jurisprudence: Law as a Helping Profession 327, 340 (Dennis P. Stelle et al. eds., 2000); see also David A. Binder et al., Lawyers as Counselors: A Client-Centered Approach 40–62 (3rd rev. ed. 2012).

Besides information design, the field of visual communication examines visual communication (see, e.g., Ralph E. Wileman, Visual Communicating, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1993). Cognitive psychology also studies visual communication (see, e.g., E. Bruce Goldstein, Cognitive Psychology, 3rd ed., Belmont, CA, 2011). Visual law adopts insights from these and other disciplines. It would go beyond the scope of these comments to refer to further disciplines. Here, I would only mention semiotics and visual legal semiotics in particular ( Restricting visual law to “merely” adopting information design, as HAAPIO’s & PASSERA’s posting title runs the risk of implying, would be fatal to this new legal field. Moreover, visual law mainly takes up insights that promote visual legal communication. Visual law embraces verbal legal communication only insofar as visual legal communication is supplemented by and illustrated with verbal elements, and vice versa.

3. Examples of Visual Legal Communication: Methods, Media, and Systematization?

HAAPIO & PASSERA provide plausible and excellent examples of how written legal communication can be visualized or verbo-visualized. These examples are or might no doubt be useful to their target audience. Since the co-authors are promoting the adoption of information design, it would be interesting to know even more about the verbal and visual methods and media that this discipline offers legal information designers. Given that they also mention knowledge visualization, a branch of communications management (see, e.g.,, it would be interesting to know what this field has in common with information design and how it is different, especially as regards its methods and media. I would encourage the co-authors to provide more detailed information in a further posting. In addition, it is one thing to enumerate and describe visual or verbo-visual legal communication practices, but another to systematize them. I have tried to do this in my articles Multisensory Law and Legal Informatics – A Comparison of How these Legal Disciplines Relate to Visual Law (see and On Visual Law: Visual Legal Communication Practices and Their Schlolarly Exploration (forthcoming). I would be curious to know according to which criteria the co-authors would systematize these legal communication practices. The need for systematization is becoming more pressing because various visual legal communication practices are proliferating and gaining increasing influence.

4. Further Sources of Information

As the moderator of the Community on Multisensory Law at C. H. Beck Publishers, I feel it is my duty to draw the audience’s attention to its proper name. The posting at VoxPopuLII refers to the community and myself as “She is the leader of the Multisensory Law & Visual Law Community at beck-community.” However, its name is Community on Multisensory Law at C. H. Beck Publishers, and my role is to moderate rather than “lead” a community consisting at present of more than a hundred persons. The number of members is growing.

HAAPIO & PASSERA offer many valuable references to other legal actors studying, teaching, exploring, and/or practicing visual law. It is quite amazing to see that an international visual law community is steadily evolving also thanks to national and international conferences. As the chair of the International Conference on Multisensory Law (see, I would like to draw the audience’s attention to the next conference. Taking place on January 27 & 28, 2014, at the University of Zurich (Switzerland), this conference will also cover topics relevant to visual law. For further information, please contact me ( A conference website will be available within the next months.

III. Results, Conclusions, Outlook

Visual law is certainly about what lawyers need to learn from information designers or rather from information design as a discipline. But visual law is certainly also about what lawyers need to know from many other legal and extra-legal disciplines dealing with the visual and/or verbo-visual design of written legal information. In this respect, the second part of the title Visual law: What Lawyers Need to Know from Information Designers seems too narrow. But then, the title’s first part seems too large, if not—and I apologize to the authors—presumptuous. Their posting is rather on visual law instead of covering visual law as a whole. Many books would need to be written to encompass visual law.

JUDITH PRATT, the editor (see, STEPHANIE DAVIDSON (see, and CHRISTINE KIRCHBERGER (see, the two co-editors-in-chief of VoxPopuLII, are to be congratulated on fostering visual law by allowing two members of the current debate to raise their voices verbo-visually. For this reason, I would encourage the VoxPopuLII editors to use “visual law” as a keyword in their blog. For “visualization,” the keyword chosen to tag HAAPIO’s & PASSERA’s posting, is somewhat too general and does not indicate that the law or legal information as a visual phenomena are at stake. Such a terminological move would be both a sign of courage and a step into the right scholarly and practical direction. Despite my critical arguments here and there, I would also like to compliment HAAPIO & PASSERA for their first posting at VoxPopuLII and their unwavering dedication to promoting visual law, especially in the field of contract visualization.

The authors are quite right to observe that the visual and verbo-visual steps both they and other scholars and practitioners have already taken will be followed by many more steps. Let’s hope that VoxPopuLII, as well as other blogs and national and international journals, will host many other publications on visual law, audio-visual law, and of course multisensory law. May those who share this strong hope not be underwhelmed by this prospect because it might overwhelm traditionally-minded lawyers, who largely prefer to cling to verbocentric “legalese.”

(Please note: all websites were last accessed on June 6, 2013.)

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