Can Visualizations Make It Easier to Understand Defined Terms?

Via @bradleybclark and this post on Legal Informatics Blog, I learned of a paper entitled “Software Tools for the Visualization of Definition Networks in Legal Contracts.” It’s by Michael Curtotti and Eric McCreath, both of Australian National University, and Srinivas Sridharan of the University of California, San Diego. Here’s the abstract:

This paper describes the development of prototype software-based tools for visualizing definitions within legal contracts. The tools demonstrate visualization techniques for enhancing the readability and comprehension of definitions and their associated characteristics. This contributes to more accurate and efficient drafting or reading of contracts through the exploration of the meaning and use of definitions including via word clouds, multilayer navigation, adjacency matrix and graph tree representations.

I quickly skimmed the article, and one idea that caught my eye was the notion that by clicking on a defined term (or, presumably, hovering over it) you could open a pop-up window with the definition of that defined term, which would spare you having to refer constantly to the definition section.

But I see one problem and a couple of alternatives.

The problem: it would be awkward to capture an integrated definition, as opposed to an autonomous definition, in a pop-up window, and the benefits of the pop-up arrangement wouldn’t seem compelling enough to warrant forgoing integrated definitions.

The alternatives: If you’re reading an electronic version of a contract, you could open two windows on your screen (or use two monitors), with one showing the definition section and the other showing whatever part of the remainder of the contract that you happen to be reading. But more fundamentally, if you do as I recommend and define the important stuff “on site,” readers won’t have to keep flipping to the definition section and back again, thereby reducing the need for a pop-up arrangement.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

7 thoughts on “Can Visualizations Make It Easier to Understand Defined Terms?”

  1. Even if you do an integrated definition, the defined term may come up again later in the agreement, so a pop-up (or something else) showing definitions of defined terms could still be useful.

    Our contract review software should soon have a feature that will show users definitions of defined terms. Will be interested in your (and others’) feedback once it’s ready!

    • You might understandably be mixing integrated definitions with my notion of “on site” definitions. The problem with reflecting integrated definitions in pop-up windows is that integrated definitions are woven into the text of the contract.

      • Agree that integrated definitions do not fit into pop-up windows as neatly as, say, those from a definitions section. That said, it is possible to give a pop-up window showing the entire sentence where an integrated definition occurs.

        Our current thinking for our system is to give users a combination of (i) pop-up windows showing the entire sentence where the term is defined and (ii) a link to the text where the term is defined. There are a few problems with this approach: it will include superfluous text with integrated definitions, it may be tricky to get the system to correctly identify which definition to present when choosing from among multiple options (e.g., an integrated definition that is also included in the list of defined terms), it’s hard to get a computer to recognize definitions that stretch across multiple sentences, and defined terms within defined terms will be tricky to present.

  2. Ken,

    I’ve given this some thought outside the context of definitions and I think there it has the most utility. For example, internal cross references, references to exhibits, and, in multi-agreement transactions, references to another agreement make the most sense to me. I’m still a proponent of “on-sight” definitions.

    As for drafting, I believe it would be useful if, while drafting (bespoke) text, certain key words and phrases would open a scrollable pop-up with suggested definitions based on the type of agreement one is drafting and the case law interpreting that text in the relevant jurisdiction (i.e., “smart drafting”).



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