The Legal Advocate

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Asked and Answered—John Cleaves

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There’s a reason “a picture’s worth a thousand words,” and John Cleaves knows it. He’s a Trial Technology Attorney and the Manager of the Trial Technology Consulting team at Latham & Watkins in Los Angeles—and the author of Demonstratives: Making Effective Graphics for Trial, a hands-on how-to that teaches readers how they too can put those “thousand words” into a memorable image or GIF that jurors will recall in the deliberation room and beyond. If all you’ve ever seen from PowerPoint are endless bullet point lists devoid of intrigue and context, you may be surprised by this video, which John created to show such cool animations as the articulated movement of an artificial knee joint in a patent blueprint, a definition being torn from the page of a dictionary to form a callout, and a 911 call scrolling across the screen in real time—all created in PowerPoint. We caught up with John to learn more about his interests and background, and how we can all learn to put the power in PowerPoint.

Your academic background is in history, economics, and law, yet your work is primarily in technology. How did your interest in computing and its intersection with the law come about?
I actually have always been in technology. I got my first computer, a TRS-80 from Radio Shack, a very long time ago. All through high school, I did my own coding—well, back then we called it “programming.” In college, my first major was in IT, but I found it very constrictive. So, I decided I would follow other interests, which were economics and history, perfect undergrad degrees for someone headed to law school—though I didn’t know it at the time. Getting back to technology, my first job after college was as an IS specialist, where I wrote custom software for a manufacturing company. I enjoyed it, but when the company was bought out I decided to go to law school. Yet, as much as I tried to avoid it, I just couldn’t leave my interests in technology behind. So here I am now, an attorney who uses technology to help other attorneys in trial.

When most of us think of PowerPoint, we think of boring slideshows full of bulleted lists that have no context when you look at them after the presentation. When did you start using PowerPoint to create dynamic demonstratives?
When I started in demonstrative graphics, Adobe Illustrator was the go-to choice. Only once a graphic was completed in Illustrator would I load it into PowerPoint for display in court. I definitely viewed PowerPoint as a static presentation device, almost like one of those old slide projectors. But when I arrived at FTI Consulting back in 2003, I discovered they were using the software in a very different way. The artists were creating graphics right in PowerPoint. I was amazed to learn PowerPoint had so many features built in. As an example, by using the built-in gradient and transparency features, we could create shadows of any object. Now, of course, the shadow tool is included in the ribbon, but back then it was a time-consuming, multi-step process that added an extra bit of “gee-whiz” to our graphics.

So, it was this informal competition among the team to figure out new techniques for creating graphics that inspired me to really delve into PowerPoint and figure out how to make pretty much anything.

What’s been the most memorable case you’ve developed demonstrative evidence for?

Hmmm—I’ve worked on so many cases! I put a number of them into the book as anecdotes to help explain how certain types of graphics were used effectively. But without going into names or other identifying details, the case I usually use to explain what I do was one where I billed an average of over twenty hours per day for six days. Some of those days were all-nighters, and some were “only” eighteen hours or so. I must have created hundreds of PowerPoint slides during that time. There were stacks of printed PowerPoint decks strewn everywhere around the war room. Graphics were taped to the walls. Dozens of boards were printed and wrapped in brown paper, ready to go to court. And then, just before the opening statements were to be given, the case settled.

Tell us about your iPad app, JuryTracker. What compelled you to create it?
JuryTracker is a result of my time both as an attorney and trial consultant. In the courtroom, I would keep an eye on the jurors and note how they reacted to various witnesses and testimony. Typically, I would write the notes on Post-Its and then review them at the end of the day with the rest of the trial team. When the iPad came out, I saw that it could be used in much the same way, so I sat down and designed the app pretty quickly. The key was to take many of the typical observations and make them into icons and emoticons the user could simply tap, reducing the need to take long series of notes.

How did you find your way to NITA?
Latham & Watkins brings NITA professors in to teach trial advocacy classes to the associates. I participate in the classes, giving a presentation on demonstrative graphics and how they have been used in court. Through those classes, I became friends with Frank Rothschild, one of the NITA instructors, who also creates demonstrative graphics. When I had an early draft of the book, I shared it with Frank to get his feedback and insight. Frank was kind enough to give me a detailed set of notes that I used to make revisions, and then to introduce me to the editorial team at NITA. The rest, as they say, is history!

When was the last time you traveled somewhere new, and what did you do?
For my most recent birthday, my family and I traveled to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to see the Packers play the Chicago Bears. We were on the 25-yard line, 17 rows from the field—great seats! We also saw the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee. I highly recommend both!

What is your guilty pleasure?
See’s Candies—milk chocolate only, please!

People are surprised that I . . .
. . . am a lawyer. It catches a lot of people off guard—though after they get to know me they typically say, “Yeah, ok, I can see that now.”

What’s a simple habit you have that makes you consistently happier?
I work diligently to try to remain calm, and to encourage others to remain calm too.

What’s your motto?
Don’t panic!

Enjoy this interview? Find more of our Asked and Answered interviews with NITA personalities here on The Legal Advocate.

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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system. NITA's Goals are to:
  • Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy.
  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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