Cupcakes & Litigation Graphics

Interview with Anthony Valerio, Cupcake King and Graphics Consultant at Magna Legal Services

If the pen is mightier than the sword, is the litigation graphic mightier than the pen? “No, graphics and courtroom arguments should work hand in hand,” says Magna graphics consultant and – believe it or not – Food Network “Cupcake Wars” winner Anthony Valerio.

And although Valerio has yet to use a cupcake in the courtroom, he can draw some similarities between a winning courtroom graphic and a show-stopping cupcake.

Valerio grew up in Philadelphia and has a Bachelor of Arts degree cum laude in Communications, Film/Media Arts from Temple University. After graduation 12 years ago, he set out to Los Angeles interested in producing or directing films. He points to Alfred Hitchcock as an inspiration – namely his suspense and creativity.

But when Valerio landed a job in litigation graphics instead, he found a new career off-camera and a side gig on camera dishing up television-worthy cupcakes.

So, the graphic isn’t mightier than the courtroom argument?

Graphics are helpful in winning a case, but it’s how the attorneys use them in support of their argument. It’s not just the graphics; it’s never just a drawing. That is one of the misconceptions. They are visual aids supported using oral communications. So, you use them together.

What is one of the first graphics you did that stands out for you?

For a class-action lawsuit. The first of its kind to go to trial. I was on the plaintiffs’ side and we argued that a hospital was cutting the pay of its nurses in a deceitful way and they were having nurses sign contracts allowing the pay cuts to go on, so the hospital argued that what they were doing was OK. The plaintiffs argued that the contract was illegal.

The graphics went through the employment agreements and pointed out the allegedly illegal aspects. I also had lots of charts and graphs with the nurses’ pay stubs and codes, which we argued were intentionally confusing. We had to visualize the information to make it easily understood; it was not clear from just looking at it. I worked with the attorneys on the case for three months. We did mock trials, focus groups, etc. In the end, the case was in front of a judge, who said he found the graphics poignant and helpful in helping him render a landmark, $65 million verdict.

How do you form a good graphic?

Meet with the attorney. Learn the case. Who are the players, what are the facts and issues? We try to break down the complex parts and distill them into pieces whether the audience is a judge, jury or mediator. We go through the basic elements of storytelling. All the important things someone needs to know. Lawyers sometimes forget that.

If they have lived with a case for five years, they think everyone knows it. In light of the approach we take as graphic consultants, we often end up helping craft an opening statement.

The cases you have worked on comprise different genres: Plaintiff and defendant; criminal and civil; pharmaceutical and labor; entertainment and intellectual property. But do all good courtroom graphics have some of the same things in common?

All cases are different. But a lot of the fundamentals are the same. I often recommend timelines to attorneys: How and when events happened and put them in a particular order – usually by date.

Do different types of cases have different types of graphics? In other words, is a medical malpractice graphic different from a criminal case graphic?

On a medical malpractice, you maybe list the doctors, their positions and what they have done. A players chart. Or maybe you have a timeline of a heart attack, a misdiagnosis, and a death. I worked on the late John Ritter’s wrongful death suit and we did a timeline on how doctors allegedly misdiagnosed him.

In a medical malpractice case, if you’re the defense, you may utilize a type of chart that illustrates the lack of or gaps in medical treatments a plaintiff had for a major injury they’re claiming. Another example would be using something like a surveillance video that secretly monitors a plaintiff and can be used to impeach their injury claims, effectively destroying their credibility.

On a criminal case, you might utilize a lot of photos; or in the case of a murder, a map. I worked for the prosecution in the Phil Spector murder trial and did transcriptions of the 911 calls to tell the story of how we argued that Spector was essentially admitting he killed someone. The 911 call was otherwise hard to understand but the graphic made it simple and effective. On another criminal case, a wiretapping, I worked for the defense. We wanted to show how audio recording equipment – like a computer with audio recording software – works, how the software can be manipulated and changed after the fact which makes recordings unreliable. We did that through a series of evidence photos and screen shots and diagrams to show that anyone could basically easily photoshop a .wav file to make it sound like whatever they wanted it to.

Do you sketch or paint your graphics? Or is a lot of it done on the computer?

I’m bad at drawing. I do the majority of work on a computer.

Would you ever use the same graphic twice?

I don’t recall ever doing that. But in theory you could. Or use parts of one, for sure.

You ended up baking your way into the entertainment business. It started when you bought yourself a three-tier topsy turvey cake for your birthday about 10 years ago and thought you could learn to do it yourself. You did that, then got onto “Cupcake Wars.” Tell me about your winning Comic-Con cupcake flavors.

First round, they give you surprise ingredients. Ours was jalapenos and cheddar cheese. So, I developed a jalapeno carrot cake with cheddar cheese frosting. Then we had themes like the villain. Think the Joker. For that I made a margarita cake with key lime filling and tequila lime frosting in green and purple with rock candy. The vixen was red hot red velvet cake with cayenne pepper and Cinnamon Schnapps frosting. Picture eating a Red Hots, although your mouth would not be on fire. (I actually don’t like spicy food.)

The hero was the Dark Knight: Chocolate brownie cupcake with toffee frosting and bits of homemade toffee.

“Cupcake Wars” also had a Saluting the USO show you were on. Tell me about some of those flavors.

The idea was all-American flavors and they gave us flavors to pick from first round. I picked sugar beet, which is like molasses, and added ginger.

Another one was peanut butter chocolate chip cake with peanut butter caramel frosting and Cracker Jack on top.

Have you ever used a cupcake as a courtroom graphic?

No, but I did have a case where we talked about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts and we used the example of items such as flour, eggs, milk, etc. being put together to form a cake.

What do good cupcakes and good courtroom graphics have in common? They have me doing them.

Both also need to be visually appealing but if they are just pretty, they are not going to sell. In the case of cupcakes, you also need a good recipe. In the case of graphics, you need good information.

For example, my cupcakes are visually stunning. But they taste good too. Graphics can be visually appealing, but the information has to convey your point to the audience.

In the end, if the cupcake is visually appealing but tastes crappy, it’s useless. If you have a beautiful graphic but the information is cluttered or doesn’t make your point, it’s useless.