Director’s Cut: Magna Acquires Creative Counsel

A conversation with Creative Counsel President Denise Montiel

It’s Oscar time for winning cases through photo, animation and video. Don’t forget the Djembe drum.

Q. So you’re sitting in a conference room in Kuwait, knowing you may end up in international arbitration in London, and you’re thinking, “I need a picture of myself being stood up for a billion-dollar-plus failed acquisition.” Take a selfie, or call Creative Counsel?

A. This may be a bit biased, but professionally speaking, call Creative Counsel.

Q. Why?Denise Montiel

A. We provide visual presentation services for all types of cases, from large commercial and financial litigation such as breach of contract to smaller personal injury. To break it down a bit more, we translate data, facts and ideas into photos, video, animation and other mediums as necessary. In a products case for example we might do a technical tutorial: how a product works; how it was supposed to work; how it failed.

Q. But I have a selfie stick and I know PowerPoint. Can’t I illustrate my own case?

A. Legal teams might think to throw a photo on the screen with PowerPoint. What we bring to the table is the information design expertise to know how to most effectively communicate the issue at hand. Photos, a more low-tech approach, could work in the right context; but we might suggest a collage to convey a downhome or family-owned company. Or we might suggest a zoom or pan, for example, to emphasize the size of facility. We know the best way to use the many tools in the visual design toolbox for maximum effectiveness.

Q. OK. I think I need an animation for my case.

A. Not so quickly. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Our success is tied to focusing on the idea first and the graphics second.

Step one: We focus on what the client needs to communicate and the key thing they need people to know to side with them so that they can win their case. The first step is the conceptual development. Do we need a tutorial on how these loans are made? On a chemical process? What does an accountant do – the rules or responsibilities – if we need to explain how they fell down on their job. The visuals fall easily out of that.

Step two: The actual graphic design. Clients and other firms may skip right to that step without defining the message, and that’s the problem. Or competitors try to make three points with one graphic, which is overwhelming and people want to look away rather than get absorbed.

Step three: Easy. Now we decide the medium for the message. Maybe PowerPoint or animation or illustration on a board.

Clients usually go backward and start by saying they want an animation. I gently take them back to step one, and turns out animation may not be the solution.

Q. How did you do the Kuwaiti deal – or I guess, lack of a deal?

A. We illustrated the deal room with all these manila folders and thousands of documents and no one in the chairs. But we also showed how the deal was structured, how it was supposed to happen, the timeline, how the other party bailed at the last minute, and what the damages should be.

Q. Are you saying a long legal brief isn’t effective communication?

A. Not necessarily. Unless you are a lawyer, have the time, and know the subject matter.

Q. Is all your work presented during trials?

A. No. Our work is also used for arbitration, settlement and mediation. We will also illustrate expert reports or briefs for issues that may not come through with words.

Q. Do you ever get stumped?

A. You need to boil it down. At the end, if we can’t explain it simply, then our clients are not going to win. An attorney or expert may live with a case so long, they know what it means, but everyone else is lost. The solution is to go back to the basics. Sit down and write an outline.

Q. Do illustrators, animators, etc. ever have to testify to their work?

A. I remember one time early in my career in 2002, which was also the early days of legal visuals. I was deposed over a 3D computer model of a warehouse that had burned to the ground given that I had used a number of different drawings as sources.

Now that visuals are used more frequently, it’s adequate for the expert or witness to say “this is an accurate representation based on my testimony.” Then it usually gets admitted. If you do a re-creation, however, you have a higher basis for admission vs. something demonstrative.

Q. How did you get into this business?

A. I have a master’s in materials engineering from Johns Hopkins University. I started out working in a government lab as a civilian employee designing things for the Army and Navy and figuring out why some materials failed, so they would not fail again. I had a knack for translating complex topics so people could understand them. It was a natural fit for visual communication.

Q. How did you get hooked up with Magna?

A. Magna was already an end-to-end litigation company. As litigation graphic specialists, they saw that we could greatly expand their current graphics capability. Magna, in turn, has far greater resources like jury consulting, trial technology, video editing, translation services and court reporting that we could capitalize on to bring more value to our existing clients. I’m not going to lie: Magna having an office in New York City was pretty cool too.

Q. When you’re not beating down the opposition in the courtroom, you’re banging the djembe drum?

A. My hobby is Latin, African, Japanese and classical percussion. I especially like to play the Djembe, which is an African hand drum.

Q. What’s the connection between courtroom graphics and percussion?

A. They are both creative endeavors, and you have to be clear on what you endeavor to communicate. If you just blare on a trumpet or bang on a drum, it won’t be great. You need to plan the notes and sequence , and you need to make sure that what you create is consistent with your message. You might want to make something energetic, reflective or “cry yo