Covers: photos or images and decorative elements

Our third foray into report covers and their patterns of information, layout and design takes up the use of photos and decorative elements. We return to the eleven reports discussed earlier  as well as the second visit where we pored over eleven surveys by U.S. law firms in 2017. 1 Our methodology assigned photos and decorative elements on covers to a primary location on a nine-cell grid.

All but one of the reports sport a photo or image on the cover (Baker McKenzie being the sole exception). Five of the photos or images tie closely to the topic of the survey (Foley Lardner shows a car’s dashboard, Haynes Boone an oil field pumpjack, Ropes Gray a stylized map of the world, Seyfarth Shaw a cityscape, and White Case a striking shot of a giant mining truck). Four others selected something not evidently related to the survey’s topic: Carlton Fields’ skyscraper, KL Gates’ metallic bars, Littler Mendelson’s colorful swirls, and Proskauer Rose’s radiating blue star.

The snippet hereafter clipped part of Morrison Foerster’s cover. Is it an image or a decorative element or both?

In the reports of White Case, Littler Mendelson, and KL Gates, the entire background consists of a photo. The other reports filled various portions of the cover.

The next snippet gives an example of decorative elements from Baker McKenzie. Along with the bit of circuit board there are four colored rectangles. This decorative array appears in the top-middle of the cover and to the left of the title and date.

Other decorative elements from this set of covers include a row of six small rectangles over five small rectangles in Carlton Fields, a diagonal slash of color in Haynes Boone, and a heavy black line under the title in Ropes Gray. Finally, Littler Mendelson and Seyfarth Shaw partition their covers into two rectangles.


  1. The reports are Baker McKenzie Cloud 2017, Carlton Fields CA 2017, Foley Lardner Cars 2017, Haynes Boone Borrowing 2017, KL Gates GCDisruption 2017, Morrison Foerster GCsup 2017, Littler Mendelson Employer 2017, Proskauer Rose Empl 2017, Ropes Gray Risk 2017, Seyfarth Shaw RE 2017, and White Case Mining 2017.

Covers and their placement of years and subtitles

We can dig deeper into report covers and patterns in their information and layout. Consider the eleven reports discussed earlier  where we selected eleven surveys sponsored by U.S. law firms that published reports in 2017. 1  Here we used the same methodology of assigning year of publication and subtitles — if part of the cover — to a primary location on a nine-cell grid. For this research, subtitles are any additional text after the main title, often preceded by a colon or a new line.

Three of the firms did not put on the cover the year of the survey (KL Gates, Proskauer Rose, and Ropes Gray). In fact, KL Gates offers neither the year nor a subtitle. Therefore it does not appear on the plot below. The green dot in the middle is Foley Lardner that had the publication date but no subtitle. Three firms had both a subtitle and the date: Baker McKenzie, Carlton Fields and White Case.

As with the location of the law firm’s names and report titles, which we found before are clustered in the lower left or upper right, subtitles and years of publication also cluster in those same areas. Whether this is coincidence, group-think, or based on cognitive perception studies of how people scan pages (saccade, if you want to get technical) can’t be known.

As to co-sponsors, three of these eleven covers identify one: KL Gates (Forbesinsights), Morrison Foerster (ALM Intelligence), and Ropes Gray (FT Remark). The covers place the co-sponsors names on the left side in either the top or the bottom portion of the grid.


  1. The survey reports are Baker McKenzie Cloud 2017, Carlton Fields CA 2017, Foley Lardner Cars 2017, Haynes Boone Borrowing 2017, KLGates GCDisruption 2017, Morrison Foerster GCsup 2017, Littler Mendelson Employer 2017, Proskauer Rose Empl 2017, Ropes Gray Risk 2017, Seyfarth Shaw RE 2017, and White Case Mining 2017.

Covers of reports, location of firm names and report titles

Covers of reports may seem at first to vary so idiosyncratically that they reject analysis. But, some common practices and patterns can be discerned. To start the analysis, we selected eleven surveys sponsored by U.S. law firms that published reports in 2017. 1 We looked for several components of covers and when we found one, we assigned it a location on a three-by-three grid in which the largest portion of the component appeared.

Translated into the plot below, the research shows the distribution of report titles, with circles colored to identify the firm in the legend below the plot, and the names of the firms in matching-color squares. If a firm placed all or most of its name in the lower left of the cover, its square appears in the lower left of the nine cells. To prevent over-plotting, where one point or square would otherwise be directly on top of another, we used a technique called \textit{jitter}\index{jitter} to separate the positions by just a little bit. The separation does not describe with precision where the title or firm name actually are on the cover.

An example will help interpret the plot. Haynes Boone’s name appears in the lower left (the green square) and its title in the same cell (the green circle). In the middle cell, three firms have placed their report’s title (Foley Lardner, Seyfarth Shaw, and White Case).

One pattern emerges immediately: the names of these 11 firms appear either in the upper right or the lower left of their respective covers. Titles were distributed more evenly with three of them appearing in the middle of the cover, four in the lower right and four in the upper right.

Eight of the reports state the title on the cover, with no design elements, whereas three of them place a colored rectangle of various sizes around the title (KL Gates, Littler Mendelson, and Seyfarth Shaw). Two of them (Littler Mendelson and White Case) actually stretch the title across much or all of the cover, their position is plotted in the cell that contains the largest portion.

As to the name of the law firm, two of the firms have small icons associated with their names (Proskauer Rose and Foley Lardner) while Littler Mendelson adds a small tagline below its firm name.

Regarding the backgrounds of the covers, six are white, three a color for the entire background (Haynes Boone, Proskauer Rose, and Ropes Gray), and two of them insert a photograph as the entire background (White Case and KL Gates).


  1. The survey reports are Baker McKenzie Cloud 2017, Carlton Fields CA 2017, Foley Lardner Cars 2017, Haynes Boone Borrowing 2017, KLGates GCDisruption 2017, Morrison Foerster GCsup 2017, Littler Mendelson Employer 2017, Proskauer Rose Empl 2017, Ropes Gray Risk 2017, Seyfarth Shaw RE 2017, and White Case Mining 2017.

Executive summaries and key findings

Many reports pull together their principal findings into a brief (one page or less) “Executive Summary.” Typically that is the exact header of the section and it sits within the first three pages of the report. Every now and then a report’s summary runs more than one page, e.g., DLA Piper Compliance 2016 [pgs. 3-6].

These efforts to consolidate, digest and highlight the contents of the report provide readers with the most important findings. Examples of a single-page executive summary can be found in Clifford Chance Cross-border 2012 [pg. 4], Foley Lardner Telemedicine 2017 [pg. 2], HoganLovells MPsSurgeries 2014 [pg. 7], and Norton Rose Lit 2016 [pg. 3]. The snippet below, from Norton Rose’s study of litigation, is somewhat more complex than the others because it includes plots.

Almost as commonly as executive summaries, many reports assemble the most important empirical results. Often called “Key Findings” or a close variation, examples appear in Berwin Leighton ArbDiversity 2016 [pg. 5], Berwin Leighton Arbvenue 2014 [pg. 7], Freshfields Bruckhaus IP 2009 [pg. 3], and Freshfields Bruckhaus Crisis 2013 — extending over three pages [pgs. 4, 5, and 7]. Clifford Chance AsiaMA 2017 [pg. 4] not only has “Key Findings” but also offers “Key Drivers and Challenges” [pg. 11].

The snippet below from Berwin Leighton’s research into diversity on international arbitration panels shows off a dramatic black background and bold yellow type.

Speaking generally, the executive summaries distill for busy readers the most significant points from the survey research, whereas key findings pick out the data and implications of that data that have the most significance. The distinction will remain loose until more surveys are incorporated into an analysis.

Tables in survey reports

Plots outnumber tables greatly in law firm survey reports. Designers of reports appear to believe that plots look better than tables, even if they are only reporting small amounts of information. Nevertheless, tables do appear and we have collected five of them.

Berwin Leighton ArbAppointees 2017 [pg. 6] colored its header row with a light blue and used a different color for the text. It outlined the header with a blue-colored line and did not continue in the header the vertical divider between the two columns. In the table itself, the firm added green cell borders and shaded every other row (a technique known as zebra striping). The type is somewhat smaller than the type in the main text. In the data column, the percentages are centered in that column whereas the left column is left-justified. As with the remaining tables, this one has two columns.

Morrison Foerster Consumer 2015 [pg. 7] produced a straightforward table of numbered text. Unlike many tables, it presents no data. The header portion uses two different colors, perhaps to highlight the two years. Lines encompass the entire table. Effectively, this is two numbered lists side-by-side. It is doubtful the numbers contribute any additional information.

Under a dark green quadrilateral, HoganLovells Brexometer 2017 [pg. 9] placed its table with whimsical smiley faces. Note that this table has no prominent header row nor does it have any lines around it.

What’s interesting about Berger Singerman SFRE 2017 [pg. 2] is that a bar chart to the left of the table (not shown in the snippet) conveys exactly the same information. The spartan table is relieved only with the light blue shading of the left column. In the “Responses” column neither the percentages nor the header label are centered.

Purists might not call the object of Morrison Foerster GCsup 2017 [pg. 20] a table, but at the least it presents an interesting design decision. The role at the left has five responsibilities shown in the three-dimensional, blue rectangles on the right. The blue divider is not needed as what is below is so obvious.

Horizontal dividers

The term divider covers elements of a page that separate text sections and plots, other than blank space. Consider below several horizontal dividers. For all of them one might understandably ask how they improve the clarity, message, or appeal of the page.

Winston Strawn Risk 2013 [pg. 2] immediately below adds a red, dotted, horizontal line in the black box under “CONTENTS.” [On the far left, the vertical line marks the edge of the page; it is not a divider.]

Sometimes you have to look closely to spot a divider. On the image above, from Berwin Leighton ArbAppointees 2017 [pg. 8] a green line precedes the percentage. Does it help the reader?

Another divider appears on the right below, from Morrison Foerster Consumer 2015 [pg. 3]. The faded gray circles add nothing. Perhaps that is why the firm did not return to this demarcation method elsewhere in the report.

Below, appearing at the top of three icons in Paul Hastings China 2013 [pg. 21], the firm placed a solid red horizontal bar in the same color as elsewhere on the page. Several pages of the report have the same column-spanning bar, although not always of the same color.

Dykema Gosset MA 2016 [pg. 4], above, inserts a solid, grey-blue line after the plot (truncated at the axis label for years) and before the following two columns of text.

Variations in treatment of the table of contents

Somewhat surprisingly, quite a few reports do not have a table of contents. Those that do not may be short reports where the guidance adds little value or the sponsor firm may feel that its other techniques for organizing the report suffice.

At some point I hope to calculate what percentage of the 160-plus reports I have collected include a table of contents. Meanwhile, my impression is that when law firms do create a table of contents, they almost always place it immediately after the cover of the report. Aside from that standard, as the three examples below show, all bets are off on other common treatments.

Morrison Foerster GCsup 2016 adheres to the conservative tradition: the only item on the page is the “Contents”. It fills the page and the page numbers are right aligned with periods between the section names and the corresponding page number. Note also that this variation indent section names to three levels.

Winston Strawn Risk 2013 puts its “CONTENTS” on the second page of the report but locates it on the far right side, occupying less than one-third of the horizontal page. It has a black background with a red horizontal line under “CONTENTS.” No trail of periods clutter the space between the section names and their page number. The style is aesthetic and suggests that the table of contents has usefulness for some readers but does not deserve a solo page.

As the third example, Proskauer Rose Empl 2017 downplays its table of contents. On page 2 of the report, the table of contents in the lower right takes up about one-eighth of the page. Most of the page has the same background color, so the “Contents” does not stand out. The page numbers follow the section immediately, in a blue hue used elsewhere on the page, so the table is unobtrusive, almost an after-thought or a tolerated irrelevance.

Icons strengthen understanding and remembering

Here we use the term icon for a visual element in a survey report that is intended to convey a concept. By this definition, an icon serves more than a decorative purpose; it should link to and strengthen a discussion, plot or topic and add to the reader’s understanding and recall.

In Paul Hastings China 2013 [pg. 21], the firm chose icons to represent regulatory approval, the work done to integrate companies after an acquisition, and the due-diligence diving that precedes a potential acquisition. The visual representations of these three concepts, which are made clearer by the explanatory terms to the left, complement the text, a method that appeals to different cognitive styles of readers. Some people absorb information better by reading, others absorb information better through pictures. 1 Additionally, people store concepts in memory differently depending on the style of presentation.

HoganLovells Brexometer 2017 [pg. 9] turns to the well-known images of happiness and sadness. They stand atop a small table of survey results. Ever since the movie, Forest Gump, these stylized faces have become ubiquitous.

On page 9 of Pinsent Mason Infratech 2017, a closed-circuit TV camera films the lower right-hand corner of the page. It is not clear what that icon conveys, but a careful examination of the report shows that it is dappled with meaningful icons. You see a helicopter and an airplane on page 7, a stylized column chart with a trend arrow on page 14, light bulbs throughout the report that signify insights, a trio of humanoids on page 22, eight pages later four coins in a stack, an arrow in a target on page 34, and a trophy on page 38. Icon count no more.


  1. The day will come when reports include audio material for those who are aurally inclined.

Page outlines (border lines) vary significantly

Morrison Foerster Consumer 2015 [pg. 12] outlines its pages with a wash of blue extending the whole page on both sides. As with all the page outlines shown here, you could do away with the gradient blue shading and lose nothing — except a dash of color that pleases the eye.

The top of each page in the Paul Hastings China 2013 report sports a thin, colored bar. The longer left segment appears looks to be brick-red and it extends well beyond the gap between the two columns of the page. The right segment has a khaki hue. No other side of a page has any border decoration.

With Pinsent Mason Infratech 2017 [pg. 31] (the top image below), each chapter in this 48-page report has a different color scheme. The subtle grey shading at the top of the page serves to highlight on the right side the firm’s name in one type font, the title of the report in another font, and then a rectangular splash of red background for the chapter (with a small call-out pyramid appended on the bottom).

The final image, from Fulbright Jaworski Lit 2008, illustrates an outline border on all sides of the page. Centered inside the border at the top can be seen the name of the firm, a vertical divider and the name of the report. Interestingly, the page number is located in the top left border bracketed by horizontal bars.


Case studies appear infrequently, and with much variation in layout

Reports add texture, reality and detail to a topic when they include a mini-profile of a company that has dealt with it. These vignettes are “case studies,” and one might think of them as extended quotations.

Here are some other characteristics of case studies that we have observed from our collection of law-firm research surveys.

  • By means of layout, color, location, and design, reports with case studies prominently feature them.
  • We suspect there is jockeying and firm politics behind the decision of which client (and therefore which lead partner) will be rewarded with the publicity of a case study.
  • Even more than quotations, case studies require careful vetting and approval by the client.
  • Case studies typically take the better part of a page, but rarely more than that.
  • Reports rarely have more than one or two case studies, and most do not have any.
  • The longer the report, the more likely it includes at least one case study.

What design characteristics mark case studies? The image below captures the top portion of the full-page case study. Allen Overy Models 2014 [pg. 11] prominently announces in large, red font that this is a case study and then presents a three-column discussion about the Deutsche Bank legal function. Later, the report includes a second case study that it handles in a similar style.

The following slice from Pinsent Mason Infratech 2017 [pg. 13] presents a case study that stands out because of its background, which matches the color scheme of the chapter. Also, a z-shaped green line artistically divides the landscape page, sort of like a diagonal from the top left, over and down. It is visible here only in the downward portion as the vertical segment on the left.

The case study starts with a few words of background about the company, Costain. The firm chose to organize its case study, which it labels as “INSIGHTS”, around a question-and-answer format and extends the layout to the right edge of the page.

We have not included an image from Paul Hastings China 2013 [pg. 16] because the snippet would need to be too big. The firm devotes two pages to the largest Chinese acquisition of a U.S. company. Vertically along the left, a a text box announces “Paul Hastings Case Study.”