I’m in the middle of putting up a large website for an organization and am confronting again all of the organizational difficulties that entails. I started out using an outliner to create the menu structure (architecture) of the site, so that I could get main pages, sub pages and so forth. (Somewhat surprisingly, MS Word has a decent outlining capability, though there are many beautiful small programs that do as well or better — TreePad under Windows and OmniOutliner under Mac OS X, for instance. One neat thing about Word outlines, though, is that they can be “sent” via a Word menu to PowerPoint, where, with minimal messing with the master slide, they become — hey presto! — a decent presentation.)

The beauty and the beastliness of outlines, of course, is that they are relentlessly hierarchical, whereas a web site, properly constructed, is not — or not only that. It is, after all, a web, and one in which, unlike an orderly spider, we delight in leaps and bounds, time-warps and wormholes, as it were. Which means that although an outliner works to describe aspects of a menu structure, it fails like any straight taxonomy to capture those hotlinked saccades.

So I turned to mind mapping software. This would let me diagram that heirarchical structure that users expect and that makes sense for most of a web site, and also let me draw those interlinkages that cut across the main “rational” structure. There’s a ton of this stuff out there — but I’ve chosen an open source, free, cross-platform, Java product called FreeMind. And I have to say I’m impressed. Sure, if you’re prepared to lay out the bucks, which law firms may be, you can do better in the marketplace. But for free, which might be the right price for some lawyers, it’d be hard to improve on this. It’s easy to create “nodes,” to link them, to expand or collapse a branch, to add notes or to colour them…and when you’re done, you can export to PDF as an exploded diagram (see my silly sample) or to HTML as a JavaScript outline version of the real thing (same silly sample in html).One crazy (i.e. good) feature of Freemind is its ability to construct a clickable map of your hard drive. There’s also a capacity to use a Java applet on your website to render the mind map perfectly, but I haven’t got that working yet.

What does this have to do with legal research? Well, not much, perhaps, if it’s a case of rushing the baby straight from the computer to paper. But where there’s a need to lay out a body of work and its interdependencies and linkages such that it becomes easy for someone else to understand and make it work, this might be the tool for you.


  1. I just downloaded FreeMind a few days ago. I’m thinking it would be a good brainstorming tool for when I teach strategic planning in my Law Library Administration course.

  2. Sometimes I sketch diagrams for myself to help me understand the relationships between parties and the issues when I am given client research. This is especially the case, it seems, when there are large corporations involved. As companies become increasingly multi-national, multi-branched, and multi-subsidiaried, the relationships between them and between other companies is not always intuitive.

    I think this would be a great tool for getting this figured out in a more professional manner than my circles-and-lines-on-lined-paper. I could then actually share something like this to confirm my thinking is correct.

  3. I’ve used Freemind for a year now. I keep coming back to MindManager however for the ability to export / import connecting to Word and PowerPoint. But it is $300 plus and Freemind is more widely available.