The Sharpest Tool in the Toolbox: Visual Legal Rhetoric

13 Pages Posted: 22 Sep 2017 Last revised: 23 Jan 2018

Michael D. Murray

University of Kentucky College of Law

Date Written: January 22, 2018


Visual briefs and other forms of visual rhetoric in legal communication may eventually become the norm in legal practice because of the enormous communicative and rhetorical power of visual media. Brain science demonstrates that visual devices work rapidly, almost immediately, to communicate ideas and attain the audience’s adherence to the meaning and truth of the ideas communicated, and thus to persuade the audience of the truth and propriety of the speaker’s communication. Visual representation is also associated with greater perception, comprehension, and retention of information. Visual imagery is not only faster than words, it is better than words.

Law students and lawyers should be aware that the tool of visual rhetoric is very sharp, and because of the audience’s pre-cognitive and cognitive brain functions in interpreting and understanding the message of visual works, which often process and draw meaning, reactions, and motivations from images without active “thinking,” the sharpness cuts in multiple directions. These attributes require special attention so as to avoid intentional or inadvertent misleading of the audience when using visual rhetorical devices.

This Article offers guidance with regard to:

(A) the analysis of when to use or not use a visual rhetorical device;

(B) the concept of mise en scène and the manipulation of visual devices;

(C) the decision to use color or not to use color; and

(D) the advisability of focus groups, and testing a visual device before a wider and more diverse test audience.

Keywords: Visual briefs, visual rhetoric, legal communication, advocacy, legal writing, mise en scène, visual rhetorical device, brain science, cognitive science

JEL Classification: K00, K1, K10, K19, K3, K30, K39, K4, K40, K41

Suggested Citation

Murray, Michael D., The Sharpest Tool in the Toolbox: Visual Legal Rhetoric (January 22, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Michael D. Murray (Contact Author)

University of Kentucky College of Law ( email )

620 S. Limestone Street
Lexington, KY 40506-0048
United States
219-299-9777 (Phone)
859-323-1061 (Fax)


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