Wings for the Mind

Interest is returning to the potential of expert systems or knowledge-based systems in law. This is in part due to the increased capabilities of machines at a time when the business of law is undergoing dramatic change. It comes with the obligatory “us vs them” talk of lawyers work being taken over by machines that learn. While I have always found the binary thinking of computers attractive compared to some legal reasoning, in this case, an either/or approach is too blinkered.

Hence, I recently tweeted rather cryptically for the sake of brevity: Tools, like lawyers, imperfect alone, hence need each other.

My tweet was in the context of a discussion on software to help busy lawyers avoid basic mistakes when drafting contracts, a mundane but nevertheless important capability to have in one’s kit. Another type of tool can come into play much earlier in the legal solution delivery process. It is what was once called a thought processor, or more commonly an outliner. By adding graphical capabilities they are also known as mind maps. Over the almost 3 decades since MORE was dubbed the perfect outlining program, and in no need of further development, bells and whistles, and even amplifiers have been added to these types of programs.

Such visual noise can be distracting when you need to be creative. Outliners and in particular, mind mapping software programs have become so feature-rich, that it could be argued that their complexity can start to work against creativity. Bloatware can result from trying to do too much for too many different needs.

The better of these programs have evolved in different directions for particular niches. Scrivener, which is my favourite writing tool, is very good at what it does in protecting authors from the complexity of their work. OmniOutliner is another class act which has columns, and therefore helps with structured data that could end up as a database. However, sometimes you just need something simpler, particularly when capturing your initial ideas. The horizontal outliner Tree is designed to be a lightweight application that lets you concentrate on your ideas. The fact that it can operate in a horizontal style means that it is useful when using the Enright Method in litigation.

You can go even lighter so that you are not confronted with the structure of an outline before you know what’s what. Hence, I have come to love the simplicity of Scapple, which was written by the people behind Scrivener.

At first blush, Scapple could be mistaken for mind mapping software, but the developers call it a freeform text editor. I instantly thought of a white board, an analog tool I’ve personally found easier to use than mind mapping software, which is why I’m excited about Scapple. “Scapple’s nonlinear approach to the process of creative thinking is similar to what Gabriele Rico calls ‘clustering’ in her popular book, Writing the Natural Way,” Literature and Latte said on Scapple’s webpage. The app doesn’t force you make connections, and there are no rules about where to start.

Like outlining software, you throw down your ideas as they come to you, but wherever you like on the page. Scapple is still text-based without being distractingly graphical. Having text anywhere on a page is adequately visual to be helpful. To link ideas, simply drag the word/phrase/note onto another. It was intended to replace the napkin-based plan to map out rough ideas – those starting points before a proper plan. It does an admirable job of replicating that process – except with one major weakness: it is not yet available on an iPad – “only” a Mac and Windows. If it was on a more convenient platform in terms of portability, it would be closer to fulfilling its developers’ vision in matching the napkin analogy.

As it has the ability to send data to Scrivener and other outliners/editors, there is less reason for the developers to erode its simple elegance by adding features. It is good to have a range of instruments that we reach for, knowing that in skilled hands, each is optimised for the task. The more creative aspects of legal services are under less threat from the “machines that learn”, than process-driven services, particularly if the lawyer strategically uses a full kit of silicon-based tools.

For each task you could have a preferred tool. In a category such as timelines, you might have a timeline program for analysing data, and a different one for presenting the data. Of course, you could use Numbers or Excel to lay out the dates, and Keypoint or Powerpoint to present, but if you have a serious amount of data, you could use Aeon Timeline on the Mac for analysing and organising it, and probably Bee Docs Timeline for presenting it.

Software such as Scapple and Scrivener can do nothing without being driven by a creative person such as a lawyer. A lawyer with these tools will be more capable that a lawyer without them. There are free trials of these packages so you can test if they suit you. But give yourself some time, and seek guidance if unsure how they can extend your capabilities. It took me about a year to realise what a gem Scapple was as I initially dismissed it as something that was too basic for me. How wrong I was.


  1. Mac users might want to take a look at Growly Notes, a free and powerful notetaking tool similar in some respects to Scapple:

  2. If you are looking for a Scapple equivalent on the iPad, I recommend you try the app SimpleMind+ This is a mind-map editor that supports multiple trees of nodes in a single document, and permits links between any pair of nodes, even those in distinct trees.

    If you create nothing but root nodes, and link them as and when you see fit, you are in effect working with Scapple. I find this app very easy to use, and have got a good deal of value from it.