No Dumping: Data should be shaped for lawyers, not shoveled at them

Saturday, September 26, 2015 - 16:07

Data, for managers of lawyers, is only as good as someone can grasp it and learn from it. A graphic plot is not the only choice. When you present data to lawyers, you can choose among five primary modes: text, lists, tables, charts or infographics.

The message of this article is not at all that these means of presenting data are better or worse than each other. Rather it is that each serves a different purpose and demands different skills from those who use them. Descriptive statistics such as medians or averages can be handled with all five modes. Everyone who types can create prose and numbers in it, and most can conjure up a list, or even create a table. It does take additional training and time, however, to create graphs and often requires some preprocessing of the data. An infographic calls on visual and technical skills that are beyond most ordinary people.

Each mode has its strengths and weaknesses. In this article we will discuss them in order of their difficulty to use.

Text has the obvious advantages of being easy to produce and readily understood. With word-processing of text you can use bold, underline, italics and size to emphasize different numbers, but mostly it is a strung-along verbal description of numbers. Here is a tiny example of data presented as text (which we will use for other modes later in the article):

“The six general counsel received base compensation of $200,000; $300,000; $500,000; $220,000; and $450,000. Their deputy general counsel made $150,000; $175,000, $230,000, $190,000, and $275,000.”

As you may have just experienced, among the drawbacks of text is that it takes a long time to wade through the numbers and a reader is quickly bored or exhausted if the data is of even moderate size (imagine slogging through data on 100-plus general counsel and their deputy general counsel). Then too, you must to read from left to right, unlike tables and plots where the eye can settle on any part and move anywhere. Text is rigid. Note also that the reader can for the most part only glean what the writer includes. Trends and anomalies prove difficult to ferret out.

Lists create a visual order to numbers that are still presented as text. Most people can absorb the data a bit better from a list than from sentences and keep the numbers in mind and even draw some conclusions about them. At least lists align numbers, which makes them easier to absorb than left-to-right text. Here is the same data for general counsel in a list:

  • GC $200,000
  • GC $300,000
  • GC $500,000
  • GC $220,000
  • GC $450,000

Lists are not as easy to create with word-processing software as plain text, but almost.

A list takes up more space than text and it requires a little bit of facility with word-processing techniques. That you can choose different bullets hardly makes a list into a graphic!

Tables go farther than lists to structure data and can include multiple columns, whereas a text list usually does not. Some of the complementary options with a table are to shade certain cells or put secondary titles on top. It is also straightforward to add more columns, such as in the table below, to add the practice of the lawyer or the lawyer’s office location. Tables can also readily include totals of columns or rows. Finally, you can copy data from a spreadsheet and create a table in a text document (or paste the spreadsheet selection directly). Take a look at the table below and compare it to the preceding versions of text and list.
 

GC

 $200,000

DGC

$150,000

GC

 $300,000

DGC

$175,000

GC

 $500,000

DGC

$230,000

GC

 $220,000

DGC

$190,000

GC

 $450,000

DGC

$275,000

 

The table puts a little more strain on the reader to make sense out of the data that it presents. Tables make it hard for some readers to interpret the data beyond simply recording it. They are generally speaking visually highly structured and can be boring.

Charts can present all the data so that someone can conclude what they derive from it as compared to relying on what a writer offers them. Scatter plots excel in showing all the data. In other words, a chart can be visually rich with data right down to a point for each datum. Charts introduce possibilities to choose from a huge range of plot types, add a table, use icons, choose colors and shapes, add annotations, show median or trend lines, overlay confidence intervals or error bars – a huge array of visualization tools. A world of charting software is available. People use Excel quite often, but other choices include Mathematica, OriginLab, Matlab, Python, the R programming language, SPSS, SAS, Tableau and others.

The plot below shows the same data as the text, list and table above; take into account that it is as simple as a bar plot can be and lacks all the embellishments that when used adeptly can dazzle and amaze.

On the other hand, charts can be misunderstood by those who are not familiar with them, and to do a good job, the graph creator should use software other than word processing to prepare the graphs. As a note, we should not forget the wide range of graphical powers, and the limitations, of the ubiquitous PowerPoint.

Infographics take another big step. They extract what is important from a data set and put it in context while also being enticing to look at and learn from. Infographics require aggregation of data and they try to present the story where text and aggregated data are combined along with visual effects such as icons, size or color. To produce infographics there are a variety of software packages to use including some open-source choices. Infographics can be much more creative and free-form than the other modes of data presentation.

For example, an infographic might put bags of money in proportion to the differential between General Counsel compensation and deputy general counsel compensation and then have text woven around it that explains the reasons for the gap or changes over time. It will include a picture or image, for example, to show the gap in extremes between the two levels. If you want to see a basic infographic, try this link: http://www.exterro.com/resources/biggest-e-discovery-challenge/

As compared to the other four methods described above, however, infographics demand special software and a designer’s sensibility. Infographics go beyond simply regurgitating numbers; done well, they require experience, imagination and capable software tools.
So, a picture (graph) is worth a thousand words, and an infographic even more, but words, lists and tables play their roles when you offer data to managing lawyers.

Rees Morrison, a principal at Altman Weil, has for more than two decades been a preeminent management advisor to general counsel. Morrison also leads General Counsel Metrics, which offers the largest benchmark report of law departments ever done, averaging more than 900 participants a year for the past five years. He can be reached at rwmorrison@altmanweil.com.