Lawyers, designers and access to text

docsascomprojsI recently stumbled upon what I feel is a groundbreaking paper by Jay A. Mitchell from Stanford Law School, Putting some product into work-product: corporate lawyers learning from designers.

Jay’s paper suggests that corporate lawyers pay too little attention to how other professions approach communication, and fail to seek new ways of presenting content. He likens traditionalism in form in the field of law to the ‘stickiness’ of contract terminology. However, his focus is not only on form, but also how the text is written, what should be included and what could be omitted.

To explore his hypotheses, Jay studied not-for-profit governance documents such as bylaws, board committee charters, board resolutions, and conflict of interest, whistleblower, compensation review, and other policies, as well as additional documents, including annual conflicts disclosure questionnaires, descriptions of board member duties, and board self-assessment questionnaires.

Following his study, he asks whether the readership is sufficiently taken into account, and raises the repercussions of the level of support needed in order to access document content. He suggests changes in content, form and organization, and typographical choices.

visualrepresentIn arguing for advances in this area, he cites Frankel and DePace – “[The process of making a visual representation] often leads to new insights into your work; when you make decisions about how to depict your data and underlying concepts, you must often clarify your basic assumptions“.

The parallels with translation here must be obvious to you by now – to use one of Jay’s citations “design, law [and we can insert translation here] share a fundamental purpose – to shape how humans act and interact with each other” (Hagen).

…a stance toward the work focused on the reader and actual user experience, and an attention to typography, to facilitating communicative effectiveness through careful attention to the presentation of text.

The last section of the paper outlines how these ideas could be implemented – document types, action by legal institutions and service providers, as well as within academia.

352665957_97dab0b188_zLet me close with this evocative citation from the paper: “Narrow row houses flush with the street are found not only in urban slums but in the loveliest of the old Italian hill towns and Mediterranean villages. A page of full of letters presents the same possibilities. It can lapse into a typographic slum, or grow into a model of architectural grace, skilled engineering, and simple economy.“.

(Non-)incidentally, Jay practices what he preaches and his article is a great example of how academia as a whole, not just law faculties, could improve access through typography.

I strongly encourage you to read the paper. I am positively sure you’ll find it stimulating and exciting.


Mitchell, Jay A., Putting Some Product into Work-Product: Corporate Lawyers Learning from Designers (September 22, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Credit: Many thanks to Ken Adams for the heads-up.

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