What do you think of when it comes to law and design?
A Design Approach To Lawyering
Call it legal design or design thinking for lawyers, it’s a problem-solving approach that focuses on the experience and needs of the client. It’s an iterative process that requires a deep understanding of the problem and your client within the broader ecosystem. The idea is to take an empathetic and investigatory approach to deliver solutions that better meet client needs.
The power of design in law is endless and highly underestimated. Coming from a legal background and having spent a year at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, I’ve found 6 ways that lawyers can embrace a designer’s mindset in their practice.
Like the law, design doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it’s a part of larger contexts, applicable to many industries.
#1 — START WITH EMPATHY
Get to REALLY know your client
The concept of knowing your client goes beyond customer due diligence to a deeper engagement to better understand client’s needs, emotions and motivations. It’s crucial for all service-driven professions, including the legal profession.
Knowing your client is where empathy comes in.
It’s putting ourselves into our clients’ shoes — through conversations and observations, to gain insights into their situation and needs. This means devoting attention to their current context, having the foresight to anticipate future developments, and the agility to craft solutions that truly fit their needs.
Empathy means meeting your clients where they are. It’s asking questions like what can we do to facilitate their understanding of legal complexities. How could we better explain the purpose behind legal requirements so that they, too, can empathize with the legal constraints.
Clients turn to lawyers for legal advice, but it’s no surprise that an emotional dimension exists within. By allowing clients to express feelings that come bundled with their legal problems, lawyers can build greater rapport and trust which strengthens the overall relationship.
Some may argue empathic communication to be inefficient, but the opportunity for clients to share more freely enables lawyers to learn more about facts of the case, which facilitates better informed legal advice.
“While the lawyer-client privilege may make good sense for lawyers, it makes less sense to the client who has not taken a course in evidence or professional responsibility. People divulge potentially damaging or embarrassing information because they trust the person they are talking to, not because the lawyer-client privilege allows them to do so.” — John L. Barkai & Virginia O. Fine, Empathy Training for Lawyers and Law Students
After all, a client, like any other person, remembers how experiences made them feel. It’s the day-to-day interactions that are the most visible, and sometimes a simple “how are you feeling” is all it takes to make a difference.
Empathize with your colleagues and other parties too
Empathy should also be extended to colleagues and other parties involved in the problem-solving process.
Take a contentious matter for example, lawyers can empathize with their adversaries to understand their goals, fears and needs at a far greater depth. This equips lawyers with a better sense of the other side’s priorities and alternatives, thereby forming more informed strategies and options that makes them better advocates for their clients.
And colleagues matter too, if not more. It’s the people who make a team successful and together can help realise the solution. They also make your work easier and more enjoyable.
“Ideas come from people. Therefore, people will always come first.” — Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.
#2 — BE CURIOUS
Understand the problem with a beginner’s eye
Learn to define the problem with genuine curiosity. Being an expert at what we do can sometimes confine our approach to a problem. If we temporarily put aside our assumptions and/or familiar approaches, we open ourselves to new possibilities of examining a situation.
A fresh pair of eyes can often help us identify broader issues, inspire new approaches and opportunities.
We need to be humble and acknowledge that we don’t always know the full picture, and that getting stuck in our usual ways can blind us to details we may otherwise see by embracing a beginner’s mind.
Yes, there may be cookie cutter deals, but in reality, no one matter is the same. Similar facts and patterns can still play out very differently. By actively listening and having a curious mind, we can make a difference when the situation arises.
Dig deeper by asking the 5 whys
Looking at a problem with beginner’s eyes also means understanding the whats, the hows and the whys. Developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the 5 whys problem solving technique forces one to dig deeper into the root cause of a problem by asking “why” 5 times.
This method can be applied to a variety of contexts in the legal practice:
- See the big picture: For juniors who can sometimes (or often) be too absorbed in the details, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Asking the layers of “why” about the context can help better understand the task and how it relates to larger goals.
- Better application of the law: Determining the intent behind the law helps us exercise more informed judgments when applying the law to different contexts. While precedents are often referred to, it remains crucial to understand rationale and how different elements work together.
- Deeper and more holistic knowledge: Asking the whys helps us dive deeper into the crux of the issue or problem. From client meetings to investigative interviews, this facilitates the discovery of patterns, gaps and opportunities that benefits exercises like fact investigation and analysis.
#3 — ENGAGE WITH CLARITY & BE VISUAL
Just as we were taught the importance of plain English drafting, it can sometimes serve us well to visualize concepts, use analogies, and to speak our audience’s language. Because transforming complex legal information into more relatable and digestible content helps everyone see better. Yes, both lawyers and non-lawyers!
It doesn’t need to be artistic or complex, the point is to communicate effectively to get your message across. It is crucial to tailor communications to your audience. This could mean tweaks in structure and paragraphing, and adding subheadings or bullet points, to make the content more accessible and understandable. Ultimately, your clients need to understand your advice, and making it more user-friendly means a better overall experience.
Certainly, the text heavy nature of the law is not something that can easily change in short time. There’ll be limits to how much legal information can be visualized in practice. Nonetheless, lawyers should embrace an open mind with a willingness to explore other mediums beyond the written form. Whether it be quick sketches explaining a complex chain of events, or role playing in a mock trial, in the end it’s being aware that there are plenty of options that can be leveraged by lawyers to facilitate lawyering.
#4 — COLLABORATE ACROSS DOMAINS
Lawyers are trained to be technocrats. We’re expected to get everything right; there’s simply no room for failure. This mindset is shaped by our education and reinforced in work environments.
But while technical competence is key, one should remember that clients come to us with challenges and opportunities that are not strictly legal in nature. Digging deeper into relevant domains therefore offers a more holistic view of the system that helps us better solve multifaceted problems.
“True multidisciplinary collaboration requires people to combine their perspectives and expertise and tailor them to the client’s needs so that the outcome is more than the sum of the participating individuals’ knowledge.” — Heidi K Gardner, Harvard Business Review
After all, lawyers don’t have all the answers, and multidisciplinary collaborations (within and outside of the industry) will drive more innovative solutions to the growing complexity of legal work. By bringing together experts from across disciplines, lawyers are better able to tackle problems they’d otherwise not be able to individually.
#5 — ITERATE INTELLIGENTLY
Even though we usually have an idea of the answers and want to jump to solutions quickly, looking beyond what’s familiar can make room for more creative and tailor-made solutions. Yes, there’s often little time, but contemplate the upshot of experimenting. Be brave and consider different paths, have the flexibility to refine solutions as you bounce ideas off one another and build on each others’ suggestions.
Learn and pivot if necessary
Lawyers are trained to avoid failures — they are rarely tolerated, let alone celebrated. No one encourages giving wrong legal advice. Your career would be over. But striving for perfection is a double-edge sword. It can lead to higher levels of motivation, but it also breeds the fear of failure. Rather, lawyers should aim for progress; to quickly evaluate what works and what doesn’t in order to pivot and improve.
“Quit the wrong stuff. Stick with the right stuff. Have the guts to do one or the other.” ―Seth Godin, The Dip
Just as designers would launch a “minimum viable product” that carries just enough features to quickly gather feedback to learn and further develop, lawyers can apply the same approach by ensuring “minimum viable legal protection” at each turn. Having ongoing conversations with clients and relevant stakeholders to co-create solutions that maximizes value with minimum legal risks. To be flexible enough to abandon old ways when there’s a basis for it, and to revisit past practices to find room for improvement. Just because it works doesn’t mean it can’t be better!
#6 — EMBRACE VULNERABILITY
Asking for feedback requires a level of vulnerability that’s not all that common in the legal profession. For a start, lawyers don’t want to appear incompetent or incapable. Impression management and ego often deters many from proactively garnering feedback. By being vulnerable enough to seek feedback from our clients and colleagues, to take an objective look into what went well, what didn’t and how we can improve, we can perform better as professionals and deliver better value.
SO, WHAT’S NEXT ?
It’s definitely easier said than done given how fast-paced and time-sensitive the legal industry can be. There’ll be pushbacks and it’ll take time to change the culture. But stay optimistic, and implement these mindsets in your practice where you deem fit. Acknowledging the application of a designer’s mindset to legal problem solving is the first step toward using it to improve our legal practice and client experience.
Hopefully through time, the sum of our efforts, no matter how small, can humanize the law, and make it more accessible, user friendly and delightful.
- Law by Design: What the Legal Profession Can Learn from Design Thinking by Nisha Francine Rajoo
- Why Legal Design Is In-House Counsels’ New Best Friend by Caroline Hill
- Collaboration in Law Firms by Heidi K. Gardner
- Law by Design by Margaret Hagan
- Legal Design Lab, R&D lab for legal services at the Stanford Law School and d.school
- How Design Taught Me to Be a ‘Human-Centered’ Lawyer by Rochael Soper Adranly
- How a Lawyer Gets Creative at Work, IDEO U