Complex to simple: four mindset shifts in legal design. Part three.

We assume legal information must be complex. But does it? Have we got this all wrong?

Could lawyers make legal information easier to understand and serve our users more effectively? 

Imagine giving your users agency over their own lives through simple legal communication that empowers them to make better decisions for themselves. 

The third legal design mindset is simplicity: making the complex, simple.

I’m not suggesting “dumbing down” the law. Creating simple communication on complex topics is not as easy as it sounds.

Think about how much information you receive each day.  Are you bombarded from dawn till dusk? Have you noticed how brands are presenting information using visual signposts, color and carefully chosen words? They’re responding to the demands of your time by creating simple messages, so you’re more likely to read them. 

Even still, as a highly educated and sophisticated lawyer, I’m guessing you’re developing coping strategies for this. To help you get to the core of what you need to know without reading every single word. When was the last time you read the terms and conditions before downloading an app or program on your computer? Click and go, right? 

So how does your user, without your level of education, deal with your legal information? 

Adding “simplicity” to the existing legal design mindsets of collaboration and creativity will add tools to your toolbox. And allow you to move from traditional lawyer-focused communication to user-centric legal experiences your clients understand.

If you’re like me, it’s thrilling when your clients understand what you’re telling them. It means you’re doing it right.

Complex vs simplicity in legal services

The law is a complicated beast, and lawyers default to complexity in their communication. 

Lawyers write documents using language the average person can’t understand. 

The emphasis is on delivering the message the lawyer wants to impart. There’s little regard for the user’s state of mind, literacy or comprehension level. Precedent documents do nothing to alleviate this. 

Take a look at one of your precedent documents. Can you see long sentences, complicated, ancient vocabulary, with endless lists of definitions?  Always small black font, narrow line spacing on a white background. I’m sure you might even yawn and wish the document would get to the point, or at least make it easier to navigate.

Our communication is dry, matter of fact and without personality. It’s been accepted for centuries, but the landscape is changing rapidly. Consumers connect with brands, their values and experience touchpoints that can make or break a relationship. How do your users feel when they interact with your business or department?

Other industries have found ways to present their information in ways people can digest and navigate easily, and the touchpoints reinforce why their customers should stay with them. The legal industry is no different. 

Yet there’s scant indication it’s moving with the times? It bewilders me. The legal communication of old doesn’t work in the visual, digital era where effective service comes at the push of a button. We are time-poor with shiny distractions everywhere, and our expectations of service providers are growing daily. 

As lawyers, our job is to create an industry searching for the best way to serve our users.

And legal design is the intersection of how lawyers communicate our complex information in a meaningful and effective way. 

Why simplification in legal services is important

  • Your work makes a difference because it helps people
  • When information is easy to comprehend you empower your user. They can move forward with clarity without needing more of your time
  • And this builds trust
  • As lawyers, we know there’s no waiting list to join the lawyer cheerleader squad
  • So, taking the time to:
  • Understand the user’s personal needs and context they will receive the information
  • Think about the level of understanding the user has about the issue and their level of comprehension
  • Be sensitive to the user’s state of mind and use empathetic language and tone 

And then creating a document or service most likely to motivate the user to engage with it and make educated decisions goes a long way towards making your user feel seen, rather than a file with a client number. 

  • It also improves transparency, giving users more ways to analyze the simplified information, compare their options and make fewer mistakes.
  • It gives more people access to law, a human right. When it is simple to understand, people can activate with confidence. Their rights are not dependent on the size of their wallet.

Simplifying legal communication

The best way to start simplifying is to look at the communication through the user’s eyes. What does the user journey look like in terms of the communication. What information does the user need at each point of time? 

If you want to make it easy for your user, you do not bombard them with all the information you know on the subject (and then some). You want to drip the information. This means you give them the right amount of information at the right time. 

Using plain language plays an important role in simplification work. Take a look at my blog on Plain English legal writing as part of future law.

Other simplification methods involve altering the amount of information presented. Because we are talking about reducing and changing information, a risk assessment is essential. But it is possible.

You’d be surprised how much unnecessary information is in legal communications, and with a proper risk analysis, fundamental simplification can occur. My friend has a brilliant metaphor for this: don’t pour information with a bucket if the recipient only has a teaspoon. You need to adapt your communication to match with the recipient’s spoon size.

The following approaches take more time because of the risk analysis but are extremely effective as a stand-alone or combined approach.

  • Reducing or reorganising the information
    • Remove what is unnecessary or very difficult to understand. You’ll be surprised to see that your communication does include unnecessary and sometimes also incomprehensible information.
    • A high-level overview of the information explained in human-friendly and approachable way  (complemented with a more detailed document)
    • Presenting the one key piece of information the user needs to know (followed by a simple, yet complete communication on the issue)
  • Increasing the education
    • Increasing the length of the communication by adding educational elements (user-friendly “how-to’s”, “explainers” “FAQ” for example)
    • Alternative versions using visualizations 
  • Start again
    • Sometimes a document is so broken the only thing to do is take it piece by piece, establish its purpose (if any) and redesign it 

Visualizations in legal documents

As you can see, boring black text is not the way to present legal information effectively. I use visualization frequently. 

It’s useful in legal design because you can convey different information to the recipient instead of writing or speaking. With visualization, you can bring abstract content into a shareable and experiential form.

When you add visual aids to your text, your user can skim to find relevant information quickly. Read more on my blog on Visual Law for Lawyers | The end of dense legal writing?

Visualization is a new and powerful communication tool for you. And that’s our ultimate job, right, to communicate the law. 

Here’s how I have used visualization

I turned a heavy, all text privacy policy into a user journey for the Lawyers Design School.

Rather than writing a long piece of legalese (using small fonts and big scary words), I took a visual approach.

First, I sketched the user journey and privacy trigger points on paper. Then I made a simple design in PowerPoint and finally created a table of the legal implications. 

In this case, the user has a simple way of checking their privacy journey with Lawyers Design School, outlining the steps and how we process their data at each stage of the process. 

No need for long, complicated (boring) letters.


Case study of legal design from black letter document to visualized privacy policy

Do I need to be a professional designer to use legal design tools?

No. Designers are amazing humans, but they alone can’t change the law. It is not for designers to fix what lawyers have always done, because lawyers will continue to do things the same.

Implementing better design to your everyday work is so much more impactful. 

Legal design is a mindset we develop, and we use these tools to enhance the way we practice law.

When lawyers start making small changes in work using legal design, the effect is dramatic. Small changes across the legal spectrum will be transformational. And the buck stops with us.

How to get started

  1. Start with your Frequently Asked Questions. What do your clients ask you most often about the law? Is there a theme? A repetition? 

How could you improve the information available for the questions? Perhaps you could implement some of the ideas above.

  1. Next time you begin an explanation or write an email, be intentional about making it easier for the recipient. 

How would you explain it to your mother? Remember, it’s not about dumbing it down, it’s about helping more effectively.

  1. Get comfortable with doodling. 

Keep a pen and paper nearby and grab them when you start thinking about a problem or need to explain it to someone else. This way your hand-brain coordination improves, and you start seeing the benefits of visuals.

Want to grow your legal design mindsets?

We provide practical, concrete and ready to implement legal design training at the Lawyers Design School.  We take a hands-on approach and can use your documents as tools.  Whether you are keen to dive in headfirst and see how legal design can improve your lawyerly offering, or want to learn a little more, I’m here to answer your questions.

Please drop me a line anytime at [email protected].

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