Ethical considerations in using visual rhetorical techniques in legal writing

Available on SSRN, Michigan Law School prof Michael D. Murray’s The Ethics of Visual Legal Rhetoric is a timely contribution to the legal writing literature. Here’s the abstract:

This Article discusses the application of visual rhetorical techniques in legal writing and the ethical questions that are raised regarding the use of these techniques. It is likely that visual rhetoric will be used in brief writing and general legal communications at an increasing rate because the research and scholarship of a wide range of disciplines — law and popular culture, cognitive studies and brain science, data visualization studies, and modern argument theory in rhetoric — indicate the communicative power of visual techniques. This fact coincides with the development of technology in the production of legal documents, and technology in the reading and reception of legal documents, that allow judges and attorneys to access full-color graphics, imbedded video, and multimedia content, and follow hyperlinks in the normal course of reading legal briefs and memoranda.

The recognition in the literature that visual rhetoric is rapid, efficient, constructive, and persuasive reveals the potential of visual rhetorical devices to serve as topics and tropes in legal discourse to construct meaning and to inform and persuade legal audiences. The visual rhetorical topics and tropes inspire inventive thinking about the law that constructs meaning, for the author and the audience. For many members of the legal writing discourse community — judges, practitioners, government agencies, and academics — the modes of persuasion of visual rhetoric can construct meaning and improve the persuasiveness of legal discourse generally in content, arrangement, and style.

Attorneys should fulfill their professional responsibility to use the best practices to represent the interests of their clients in law practice. However, the cautions of scholars as to the dangerous power of visuals to deceive or to overpower more deliberative forms of rational thought and analysis are not lightly to be dismissed. The speed and power of visuals is seductive. Visual topics and tropes are subject to abuse, and must be used ethically and with careful regard to their propriety as a tool to create meaning and inspire imagination, and not used as a tool of deception or obfuscation within the rhetorical situation at hand. I conclude that visual rhetorical devices are a proper form of legal rhetoric if they are used to construct knowledge and understanding of the meaning and message of the communication and do not mislead or prejudice the audience’s reception or understanding of the communication.

Recommended. — Joe

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