From textbook to sketchbook: making legal concepts accessible

Maddy Buck uses simple illustrations to explain even the most complex legal situations.

Courtesy of Madeline Buck.

Courtesy of Madeline Buck.

by Ksenia Gorinshteyn

For those unfamiliar with law, it can seem very black and white. Studying law can require hours of reading about difficult concepts and practices, to the point where they become nothing more than words on a page.

Maddy Buck has taken it upon herself to illuminate these concepts with a stroke of color. 

Buck, who works for the Global Programs and Strategy Alliance at the University of Minnesota, became frustrated while studying for the bar exam during law school. There was a seemingly endless list of terms and concepts, but she found it challenging to memorize them all. 

So, she began to draw them out. 

“As a lawyer, I noticed just how complicated legal information is communicated,” Buck said. “Once you learn the concepts, it doesn’t need to be so complicated, but it’s kind of this masking thing that I feel like lawyers do.”

The illustrations are endearingly simple, and she shares them through Instagram. She draws the Minnesota Supreme Court Justices as smiling faces that are a step above stick figures and gives the state of Minnesota a very loose outline. Her art features pops of vivid watercolor here and there. 

“I just suddenly needed some color [in law school],” Buck said. “One of the things that I feel strongly about is trying to find ways to communicate legal information in a way that might be more interesting.”

Buck doesn’t have any initial formal training in illustration. She just felt it was the best way to combat the blandness that sometimes came along with schoolwork. She started drawing every day, whether it was about legal concepts or her own life. 

“She’s always been a creative person,” said Aimee Ny, a friend of Buck’s. “It kind of just became a practice that she did to make herself feel better, like how you brush your teeth or you work out or make yourself dinner.”

This routine opened her up to new opportunities. She’s worked on projects from designing a new sign for a farm to illustrating a book on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) litigation at the end of 2019. 

“I like the idea of being able to respond to current events and explain the law around them,” Buck said. “It’s something that I’ve played around with. Especially when you’re thinking about complex concepts, it can be really helpful to draw.”

In addition to her illustrations about DACA and renaming Minneapolis lakes, Buck works with other lawyers to help them aid their clients. Marian Saksena, who works as an attorney at law for the Minneapolis law firm DeWalt, Chawla + Saksena, LLC, has partnered with Buck to create a cheat sheet on divorce law for those who may be starting the process.

“We want to reach people in a multimodal way,” Saksena said. “Art can cut through a lot of intellectual confusion or emotional stress. When it’s something that’s going to be affecting your life, your children or your finances, you definitely and desperately want to understand it.”

Buck’s art is easy to digest. It doesn’t feel unattainable in the sense that the average viewer couldn’t mimic it, but that’s why her drawings are so appealing.

“[Buck] is capable of doing great stuff but there’s a simplicity to her art where people connect to it,” Ny said. “They don’t brush it off as like, ‘Oh, this is out of my comfort zone.’ It makes you think of how you get through the day or express [yourself].”

Buck’s bottom line is that anyone can draw, no matter their skill level, if they put their mind to it and find joy in it.

“I don’t like it when people say, ‘I can’t draw,’” Buck said. “It’s something that we don’t always think about when we’re in a school setting for so long. There’s all these benchmarks you have to meet, but you have the power to learn and do something on your own.”