In the past few years, the strangest things have started appearing in appellate decisions: images. That has been seen as so revolutionary that it has been widely covered in the legal press, with 7th Circuit opinions authored by Judge Richard Posner (as is often the case) drawing the most attention. The question is: why are judges now inserting images into their opinions?

The answer may be that astute judges are responding to the changing environment in which their opinions are being read. Appellate court opinions have been accessible online for years, and they are now more commonly read on “screens” — computers, iPads/tablets, and smartphones — than in books. And studies have shown that we read differently when looking at a screen than when looking at printed text on paper.

For example, here’s how scientists say our eyes track the data on a webpage:

Notice the concentration of red on the left hand border of the page created by the eye searching down the page for its structure. Note also how the eye tends to skip around.

Astute legal writers — especially appellate lawyers — would be wise to take note of how different the reading experience is on a screen, and to take it into account when drafting court submissions. That point was persuasively made during a presentation at the Florida Conference of District Court of Appeal Judges last fall (which I and other members of the Florida Bar’s Appellate Practice Section were fortunate enough to attend).

Judges (and their clerks) are increasingly reading appellate briefs and other court submissions on computer screens, and when travelling, on iPads, Kindles and other e-readers, or on smartphones. (An informal survey during another presentation at the conference revealed Florida appellate judges to be tech-savvy and partial to iPhones and iPads, although Android phones were also represented).

The trend toward screen-reading will only increase now that e-filing is replacing paper filing.

In order for an appellate brief or any piece of legal writing to be persuasive, it must command the reader’s attention. And to get and keep a reader’s attention when he or she is reading on a screen, attorneys need to adopt the format of their documents to fit the environment.

How? In much the same way as one makes a webpage easy to read and engaging. Here are some suggestions:

  • Add spacing — Text is easier to read when it is surrounded by white space. Increase margins.  Large block paragraphs extending from margin to margin are a relic of book reading. They are difficult to digest when read on a screen, particularly when read on a Kindle or similar e-reader.
  • Shorten the paragraphs. Not only do shorter paragraphs make the document more palatable to the eye (and increase white space), but they also account for the attention span issues that have been engendered by the digital age.
  • Use headings more liberally. Effective headings are alot like soundbites — they grab the reader’s attention and drive home the point quickly before that attention is lost. Hopefully, they also encourage the reader to continue to read and pay attention.
  • Insert document bookmarks. If you’ve opened a .pdf of a recent Florida Supreme Court opinion, you may have noticed a menu bar on the left hand side mapping out the sections of the opinion. Document bookmarks help the reader to get a feel for the overall structure of the document. They also help the reader to easily navigate between sections and arguments. When the reader must scroll up and down the screen to find sections, a traditional table of contents is a much less helpful roadmap than a bookmarks bar, where the reader can click right on the section he or she is looking for.

And finally there’s the most radical idea: illustration with images. This practice is the most obvious concession to the effect the internet and it remains relatively unorthodox and somewhat controversial. So a fair amount of tact and judgment is needed.

But when used appropriately, tactfully, and sparingly, images can be highly effective. (If the picture is worth 1000 words, it can also help to make the brief shorter, which judges always appreciate). If nothing else, images command attention. Just ask Judge Posner. 

  • Alan

    As a lay person and businessman who occasionally finds it necessary to read legal documents which I often find mind numbing, I hope the practice takes hold.