Now you see it – why it is time for data visualisation to take centre stage in client reporting

Costs lawyers encounter a degree of numerophobia within the legal profession – often readily admitted. Added to this, the impenetrable form of most bills of costs causes aversion to the process of costs litigation. Disputes over costs arise all the time of course. The problem is that resolving those disputes through formal court procedure is cumbersome.

We needed to find inspiration for ways to encourage engagement and allow our clients to make better informed decisions.

For a while we thought improvement would come naturally from electronic bills. Whizzy spreadsheets enabled us to model outcomes and calculate results very quickly. But the presentation of data and reports was still a turn-off.

The inspiration

When the spark eventually came we had cause to thank the law of unintended consequences. A year or so ago I moderated a panel discussion at a glitzy in-house counsel event. I enjoyed meeting the people who have the difficult task of obtaining board level sign-off for litigation budgets and ‘fold or fight’ mandates within costs litigation.

What they told me – outside the ambit of the formal sessions – turned out to be the lightbulb moment. They usually had very little time to consider and re-present complex costs information. It was imperative to condense the key numbers and options – always if possible into one sheet. That required creative forms of presentation, often pictorial. They mentioned tools like heat maps and I tried to nod sagely. I hid my ignorance by suggesting they might try the medium of dance if the pictures didn’t work – but I took home the serious message.

What followed was a crash course in data visualisation from the team who produce it for The Guardian and a trawl through the published works of the leaders in this field. Nothing about what we do is simple but summaries and reports need to be. When we tried it out the response was universally well-received and now our goal is to put data visualisation centre stage in our client reporting and make best use of it in written advocacy.

Three golden rules

Over the next few months we will be testing what works most effectively and building it into our standard processes. What we know already are three golden rules:

  1. Less is more – the less clutter the more impact. Minimal use of colour used for emphasis is far more effective than colour for its own sake.
  2. Don’t mislead – some graphics give a false impression of trends if not presented neutrally.
  3. Nine times out of ten, the best graphic is a bar chart.

Here is an example to show why we need those rules. I have set out the same simple data in two forms.

The pie chart is often seen but I find it is rarely effective. I usually hate them. Here, the 3D effect distorts the relationship between the amounts, e.g.  Janet’s 38,480 looks less than Sally’s 31,975.  Relative amounts can’t be judged and the use of colour might be necessary but is too busy.

Now look at the same data in a simple 2D bar chart.

Instantly the numbers themselves, the ranking and comparisons are clear. There is no clutter, no need for a vertical axis or gridlines and the use of colour is classic and not a distraction.

Here for example is a simple but powerful way of showing the true result of a costs assessment. This style of chart is also useful for modelling best case vs worst case scenarios.

Data vis at the core of our work

Whenever we have deployed data visualisation following best practice, the feedback from clients has been extremely positive. Hence, we believe that ‘data vis’ should be at the core of our work rather than an embellishment. While it is primarily an effective reporting tool, it helps also with data analysis, making sure we concentrate on the big-ticket items, and it adds impact to written advocacy.

Andy Ellis is a commercial costs lawyer and Managing Director of Practico