A misfit’s guide to learning legal design thinking

Here’s my little secret. I felt like a misfit lawyer for years because I didn’t think and act like other lawyers. I was practicing legal design thinking in my legal work before it was a “thing”. Years later, when I stumbled up the concept I began honing and learning legal design thinking.

I’m not suggesting I had any role in creating the concept of legal design thinking. I’m saying my brain asks “why” and “what might be” instead of accepting “what is”.

Do you, do it? Or is it me?

Even in law school, I was challenging the legal system, questioning why it is and how we could improve it. I would present papers titled: “What if there was no government?” and other students would laugh me out of the room. But my brain asks these questions. I am not sure why. I was born this way.

Thinking inside the box has never been my thing. If something doesn’t make sense to me or isn’t working, I can’t understand why we don’t change it. Humans can do anything we put our minds to. I rarely consider things impossible. Everything in our legal system is a human creation, so we can change it, right?

Want to peek inside my brain? This is how it rolls 24/7: How can lawyers improve access to justice? How can we make our legal delivery human-centric? Is this the best way to deliver our service to the customer? Can we do this a better way?

All. The. Time.

Can you imagine my relief when I heard about legal design thinking? Finally, I could label myself.

I heard the words years after I began my career, and I was set. Making the law accessible is my “why” and continues to drive me every day. (For another day).

Legal design thinking is a mindset. Putting humans at the fore of everything we do. We start with empathy and dig deep to understand the needs of our end-user. It is about allowing more people to access the law. We challenge how we look at problems and communicate with customers. It shatters the mystery of the legal system. It looks for alternatives to the billable hour model. And permits lawyers to practice empathy, gather data, and create. It allows lawyers to use visualization and collaboration to build effective customer-centric outcomes.

Legal design thinking allows entrepreneurs (like me) to find leaks in the legal bucket. Each leak is a new market waiting for a service or product. I’m always searching for dissatisfied legal consumers. And gathering information on why they aren’t happy with the legal system. Because I want to make the law accessible for all I am looking for opportunities. Opportunities to create a new product or service viable enough for a new business. (It’s my weird brain talking. You don’t have to go as far.)

But this is the kicker. Legal design is full of misfits. Clients are demanding the legal system drag itself into the 21st century. And legal design thinking is the solution.

Last week, I listened to the Legal Design Podcast featuring Juha Saarinen. Well worth a listen if you’re thinking of dipping your toes in this space. It’s raw and confronting. Some lawyers might feel a little twitchy in their Chesterfield recliners. Juha doesn’t hold back.

He shared an example of one flaw in our system. Let me summarize:

Susan had an appointment with her lawyer, Mara. Mara arrived with nine other lawyers. Susan immediately told Mara to send them away. Mara sputtered and stuttered. Explaining the lawyers were necessary because they were working on Susan’s problem.

Susan’s response? Mara, I have an appointment with you. You have an internal communication problem to solve. I’m not paying for ten people to listen to me speak. Otherwise, this very average coffee your secretary gave me, is the most expensive cup I’ve ever had.

Let it sink in for a minute. Why do we need ten lawyers at the table? We don’t. But old law relies on billable hours. Ten lawyers? Ten times the billable hours. But Susan doesn’t need ten lawyers in the meeting. What she needs is a firm with a slick internal communication system. One producing seamless, cost-effective outcomes for her.

I know many lawyers will run for the hills at this notion because it affects the billable hour model. The more you dabble with legal design, the more you see the future of law. It’s new, exciting and profitable. Only different.

What would happen if a client asked you to remove nine lawyers from a meeting? And what if Susan found another firm willing to take time to understand her needs and desires, then met them?

It’s coming. It’s time for lawyers to let go of the big, old lifeboat we’re clinging to, and embrace the new customer-centric world.

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Let’s work through this problem using the 4 principles of legal design thinking

Customer-centricity

Ever heard a lawyer say they always put the customer first? Of course, they all do. It’s a marketing pitch. Reality? The legal profession operates by its own set of systems and metrics. Customers rarely factor in the equation. Clients fit into “what is”. They aren’t “what might be”.

Being human-centric means putting yourself in the shoes of your client. Both feet, wriggling around, understanding who they are, what they need and what they fear. Their everyday life. It’s a holistic approach. And uses the client’s perspective as the reference point every step of the journey. It’s the key to building trust and long-lasting relationships.

“Even if your firm or in-house team hasn’t had the legal design “a-ha” moment yet, you can. Take some time to put yourself in the shoes of each of your clients or internal stakeholders. Can you improve your service delivery? Leaving your clients filled with delight (and amazement). You know, it can be as simple as picking up the phone and having a conversation instead of sending an email.”

So, let’s go back to Susan. Let’s put ourselves in her shoes. She’s a savvy businesswoman who understands the value of time and money. Susan enjoys a healthy disregard for lawyers and their ways. And bold enough to demand what she wants. She lives in the land of commerce where engaging ten employees on a project like hers is a waste of money. Her money. She’s smart enough to know the problem belongs to the law firm, not her, and willing to call it out. It’s what she does every day in her world. She’s a no-bullshit woman. She expects respectful and agile access to law, without the need to mortgage her house. And if she can’t get it with your firm, she’ll go elsewhere. In her world, time is money, and she’s not afraid to seek better outcomes.

I’m guessing if you looked at your client list, you’d find very similar clients. Clients with similar needs and wants demanding you “up your game”. So, it’s time to get cracking. Refuse to meet these needs at your peril. Other lawyers are already creating new markets for people like Susan. (And not only Susan, other humans with different needs and wants).

I’m not delving into legal design customer personas here. But we have just created our first one.

So, now we have taken a moment to understand Susan. How do we solve her problem, keeping her perspective front of mind?

Collaboration

Traditional lawyering is a lonely job. Legal design thinking is not. As old school lawyers, we focus on our dreams of a partnership. So, we hide information, compete with our colleagues and avoid sharing knowledge.

Legal design thinking encourages learning from others and taking time to discuss issues. We celebrate our differences and acknowledge we don’t have all the answers. We welcome ideas and suggestions to improve products and service delivery.

We are starting to see law firms employing people outside the law to add to the legal design process. Engineers, psychologists, teachers and other professionals bring a different world view to the table.

“You may feel uncomfortable asking a colleague’s opinion. The next time you find yourself wishing you could, knock on the door, pick up the phone, ask for a moment in the lunchroom and seek advice. It’s empowering.”

Now, back to Susan. We know legal design thinking gives us permission to collaborate and brainstorm ways to fix our internal communication issue. It’s time we can around the table. The best part? No competition, recrimination, fear or concern about mistakes. It’s all about Susan and our clients. (And those who will follow after they hear of our radical innovation).

Experimentation

So, we’re at the table. How do we avoid duplicating the billable hours?

Legal design thinking encourages experimentation. I’m not recommending you experiment with Susan’s live legal issue. Start with your documents, processes and systems: your ivory tower. Experimentation can be the most liberating part of legal design. Often, the challenges of developing something new can feel like a slippery seal, sliding everywhere so you can’t grab it.

Legal design encourages you to start somewhere and see what happens. Once you start, do more of what is working and less of what isn’t. Legal design invites you to trust the process.

The path forward opens step by step instead of the finish line. Test solutions in real life as early as possible, even if you know the right outcome isn’t ready. By lowering the bar, you quickly see if the experiment is giving the impact you want. If not, you can easily change direction. Sometimes even a tiny change can be crucial to the outcome.

“In your job, think about what experiments you might do with your customer communication. Think about how customers can buy/access your services? Or how you could make the legal explanation more understandable to the customer? To succeed here, forget about your perfectionism, accept the incomplete and embrace the confidence you will find the answer. If the experiment fails, you’ll get a ton of useful information for the next step of the test. Legal design does not recognize failures, it’s all learning.”

So, let’s think about Susan. What experiments could we employ to help meet her needs? This is brainstorming in action. Perhaps Mara could take notes during the meeting and store a summary in the cloud for all stakeholders to access? Could Mara record the meeting and use AI to transcribe it? Is there a technical option? Perhaps nine lawyers aren’t even necessary? We are gathering ideas to experiment with, try one or all and see what works.

Visualisation

Ok, I hear you saying you can’t draw. Visualisation is not about drawing or design. Although as the saying goes: a picture says a thousand words.

Visualisation plays a fundamental role in legal design thinking. It allows lawyers to convey very complex information in a more digestible way than writing or speaking. Very useful for abstract legal concepts or mapping potential pathways and options. Words often discourage Susan, who wants snappy, easy to follow options, with a commercial focus.

The best way to start with visualisation is with a pen, paper or post-it note. Bring them to the meeting room and start looking at your internal processes for meetings, map out stakeholders, lines of communication. Think about who needs to be aware of Susan’s issue and map a streamline through visual. It will add clarity to the experimentation and if experimentation fails, start visualising again.

“If visualisation isn’t part of your day job, give it a whirl. Think about your clients or internal stakeholders. Could concepts, ideas and options be represented as a visual diagram or image? Would they understand the information more easily? Try it and see how it goes.”

Where to now on your legal design journey?

Did our little walk through Juha’s scenario give you food for thought? We, lawyers, are often blind to the obvious because we can’t see a problem. Susan looked Mara straight in the eye and hit with an “ompf”. Your firm or business might not be legal design ready yet.

But you can. Human-centric design thinking can be something you do every day of your life. As you consume, look at processes, systems, and interactions. How have other businesses are put humans first? Observe the world around you. In your day job, be bold and suggest new ideas or approaches. If the courage isn’t there, try little things. Pick up the phone or walk to another office and have a real interaction. (We all need another email in our inbox, right?). Be part of the solution. Start with small things, and big things will come.

Meanwhile, this misfit will be thinking of a legal design solution for Susan. Then I will buy her a coffee instead of charging her for it.

See more about the Lawyers Design School and legal design training for lawyers and in house legal teams.

Grab a virtual coffee with me and let’s figure out the next step!

Image of Hannele Korhonen Legal Designer

Who’s writing?

Hi, I’m Hannele. I am an ex-corporate lawyer, legal designer, pioneer in legal tech, serial entrepreneur and blogger.  I am the founder and teacher in Lawyer’s Design School.

I’m here to teach you new skills and mindset of legal design to thrive in the future of law.

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