Learning legal design thinking | My journey

Hey friend, have you ever read about legal design thinking and thought: “I can’t do this, I’m not creative, I’m not innovative, I’m a lawyer, and I think like a lawyer?”

Hey friend, have you ever read about legal design thinking and thought: “I can’t do this, I’m not creative, I’m not innovative, I’m a lawyer, and I think like a lawyer?”

Thing is, legal design thinking isn’t about unlearning anything you already know, we’re adding a new way of looking at problems and adding sexy new tools to your toolbox. Sure, it sounds a little abstract and conceptual, but once you’ve got your new way of looking at the world it’s surprising how simple changes can make a massive difference. You might have people in your legal team who’ve lost the pep in their step or lawyers who’d jump at the chance to be part of the change. It’s incredible how infectious legal design thinking is, and of course, it always helps the bottom line and enhances your customer experience. Your boss might show interest too.

Discovering legal design thinking (and its benefits) is a different journey for everyone (and it’s ok)

Are you willing to give this a go with me? I teach lawyers and in-house teams from all over the world about legal design thinking. Every day, new thinking, processes and systems are rolling out in workplaces, making life easier for lawyers and customers. I’m going to share my legal design story with you. Because if I can use it for motivating myself and my teams, you might be able to use it for yours.

Not everyone is like me and it doesn’t matter. Legal design is a change in mindset, not a new profession. My journey was a little unusual because I always question everything. It bugged the hell out of my parents. Even if you think it’s not something you can tackle, I promise you, you can.

I’m the nerd who always asks “why”

Do you remember the heady excitement you felt when you received your offer to law school? Did you arrive eager to learn and change the world, soaking up every morsel fed to you about jurisprudence?

I didn’t.

Sure, I was happy to be there because I wanted to help people. But I was soon noticing things didn’t sit well with me. I began to question everything about the legal system, lawyers’ processes, and why people could not access the law. I didn’t just think it, I wrote papers about it and asked question after question. Lecturers would roll their eyes when they say my hand head skyward with a question. Yes, I bugged my lecturers and fellow students, too.

Still, I graduated and started my flashy career as an in-house counsel. Where did you start?

I hadn’t heard about legal design when I started as an in-house counsel, but I found user-centricity

I fell in love with the concept of putting the user first. I started applying it immediately, first as an in-house counsel for over 10 years and then later in my law firm.

As an in-house counsel, I wanted the work products to make sense, be understandable and add value to the customers or users. Because, if you think about it, there’s no intrinsic value in legal work by itself (no matter how lofty your ideals). As lawyers, we need to be able to provide value to our customers.

My connection probably stems from my feeling of being too “simple.” Unless people explain things to me in a simple way, I don’t always get it. I had a fire in my belly for writing contracts, instructions and giving legal advice people could read and understand. (Now I know it takes much more effort and wisdom to present things simply. It’s much easier to complicate things.)

So, I set about implementing customer-centricity into my in-house role. Here are some examples of what I did:

  • I put the users (internal and external customers) first, trying to understand their perspective and responding to their needs
  • I made little improvements to my work every day to benefit my customers. I took time to understand my audience, and when writing I was crystal clear about what I was saying and said it in a way they could understand it
  • I quickly became the annoying lawyer who always asked a lot of “why’s” if something didn’t make sense from my customer’s point of view
  • Instead of falling back on the traditional: “it’s not our policy”, I took the time to explain legal arguments clearly. Even if you can’t accept a proposal, it makes it easier to swallow if your customer understands why
  • I got creative with innovative summaries, explainers, one-pagers for long and exhausting sets of documents. Changing the big ole documents was out of the question, but I could add more user-friendly “buddy” documents to help users understand what the hell they meant
  • I began empowering users through clear communication. I helped give the business the tools and understanding to close the deal, instead of being the “know-it-all” lawyer that had to at every meeting
  • Instead of emailing I’d call users and have conversations and people were clear about what was happening next

I starting participating in and organizing cross-functional development projects with an open and creative mindset.

Then, one day I had enough and quit.

I left my corporate career amid a personal crisis and felt like I needed to find more meaning in my work. It would be great to say that I started as an entrepreneur because I had such a groundbreaking idea I had customers beating down my door. Sadly no. I had no other choice other than start my business. I was suffering professional and personal burn out and something had to give.

And I knew back then I was on the road to more meaning in my work and improving access to justice for everyone.

Legal design for me as an entrepreneur

I’ve been an entrepreneur for almost a decade now. I began my entrepreneurial journey by creating my law firm, then founded two other businesses and co-founded three others. They are all in the design, social impact and sustainability space. The Lawyer’s Design School is the home of legal design where I provide easy to understand legal design tools ready for action in the workplace. It’s not wishy-washy navel-gazing or esoteric text. It’s a real practical introduction to a mindset shift, problem-solving, collaboration that puts the customer first and fill the void you feel with your legal work.

My first law firm, Villa Lex, was founded on five values, still valid today. And they reflect what legal design is for me. Here’s a screenshot of my first website, explaining the values:

I wanted to step down from the ivory tower and offer my services to people with my face and my personality and serve them in a manner relatable to them.  I lowered the threshold to reach me as low as it could go and designed everything from my customers’ perspective.

I had a bricks and mortar office with rag rugs made by my grandmother on the floor, and I wore pink slippers (the image below is in my office). Guess that’s as far as you can get from traditional law firms. I know, a little funny, but I wanted my customers to experience a warm and relaxing welcome when they came to see me.

My business model was also quite different from traditional law firms. I started to apply mostly value-based pricing with my customers as they did not want hourly pricing. This drove me to be as efficient as possible, for example creating templates and knowledge management systems to find relevant information quickly. I wanted to work flexibly, so I put all my systems in the cloud very early.

Improving access to the law was at the core of my thinking and doing.

Getting close: I discovered the concept of applying design thinking to legal services

2012 was the first time I started officially learning about applying design thinking to legal services. I took a course for entrepreneurs about service design and started to design new ways to deliver services for my customers.

I designed my first digital legal product in 2012 and it was a complete failure. A perfect lesson of the importance of real user-need as the basis of any design. First, there needs to be a problem to solve before you jump into the solution. And I started the whole process from a solution I thought was a great idea. It was unfortunate no one else did. Before you create a product using a legal design you need to establish there is a problem requiring solving. So, it’s no surprise that it didn’t work.

Since then, it’s been a steep learning curve to customer-centricity and design thinking, what it means and how to apply it in legal work. Nowadays all my design work starts with customer research. It may be as simple as picking up the phone and talking to potential customers and asking about their pain points around some specific thing.

I’ve founded 3 businesses on my own (my law firm, legal design agency and The Lawyer’s Design School) and co-founded 3 (tech startup, legal tech startup and social impact startup). Within the businesses, I have designed many service concepts, like contract automation service for entrepreneurs and compliance as a service.

Drumroll. I heard the words legal design

I’m not sure about the exact time I first heard the term legal design. I think it was in 2016. The real enlightenment came in 2017 when I participated in the Legal Design Summit in Helsinki. It’s a global event where people come together, hear great presentations about research and practice and most importantly inspiration to use legal design.

It was such an incredible moment. I suddenly felt like coming home and began realizing this “thing I’ve been doing” has a name and it is legal design.

I heard Margaret Hagan speaking and this is a photo I took of her presentation back then. The room was full of people from big law firms, corporate legal teams and directors from government agencies. They were nodding and agreeing to the calls for making the law more human and accessible. I felt like my faith in law and legal space started to heal.

From that moment on I decided to focus my work more and more around legal design and fast forward to this moment, it’s the core of my doing.

For me, legal design offers a new mindset, a process and a toolbox to profoundly change the way we do law.

Access to the law continues to be my “why”. Legal design is the key to the change our industry so desperately needs.

And it’s why I’m so keen to spread the word and help desperate lawyers who were like me, escape the misery and find a fresh new perspective, all the while bringing our customers closer to justice.

It’s time to end old ways and pioneer the new. You and your legal team can be part of the change.

If you’d like more information, please send me an email. It would tickle me pink to hear from you.

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