Legal design in practice with Laura Hartnett from Law by Design LLC

What can legal design offer for legal teams and law firms

As lawyers, we’re taught a ten-page memo is the best way to deliver information to our clients. But is it the best way for our clients? Or even the best way for lawyers?

This is a summary of an interview between Hannele Korhonen from Lawyers Design School and Laura Harnett, a lawyer and legal design consultant at Law By Design LLC. In the interview Laura shares

  • Why law firms and legal services are no different to Amazon or Netflix
  • Why legal design is a mindset first and process second
  • A simple three-step formula any lawyer can use to identify designerly solutions

Prefer to watch Legal Design IRL video? No problems.

Who is Laura Harnett

Hannele: Thanks for joining us, Laura. We were fortunate to finally meet in person at the recent Clio Cloud Conference, but for listeners who don’t know you, can you share a little about your background?

Laura: I’m the founder and legal consultant at Law By Design. Originally, I started in management consulting. I worked with change management, project management, organizational design, and lots of business processes and reengineering them. I want to make organizations better, sometimes faster, and more efficient.

From there, I went to law school. I never lost the background and I still wanted to make the organization better.  While I was practicing law, I practiced law in both private practice and a large international firm. From there I went in-house. And then from there, I thought I’d combine the two. Now I am a consultant for lawyers using legal design.

Why did you start Law By Design

Laura: I started Law by Design LLC because I noticed in private practice we would keep reinventing the same thing over and over. I don’t blame lawyers for it because we’re just not trained in law school enough. But I think it’s getting better. I think in the US, legal design is a little bit behind compared to what I’ve seen in Europe. Also, I’ve seen Australia get more in front of having more practical skills and law school. So I’m a huge proponent of that. 

In private practice I was a litigator and lawyers insisted on writing 10-page memos updating clients on the status of the litigation. My management consulting background told me there was an easier way for us, and an easier way for clients. 

Then when I went in-house and I was the client of an outside law firm. I received one of those 10-page memos where I found the conclusion buried on page three. It was a watershed moment. At the time, I was working in insurance where 50 States had 50 laws and my brain lends itself to a chart with each State in a separate area – not a 10-page memo. 

I was looking at this memo and thought “I wanted the answer, but not like this, and we have to ask for it.” I had to turn it around to my clients fast, and then put it in a PowerPoint slide so they could present it to the executive team. 

When I was putting all this together I knew this was not how to practice law.

Lawyers, Amazon and Netflix

Laura: At that same time, the company that I was working for was using design thinking. They were working with customers on how to sell insurance and how to make the experience better. Nothing was out of bounds. Let’s say you have an auto accident, and you can open your app, and it automatically finds your location and sends you an Uber to pick you up as well as load pictures of the accident right into the app. 

Customers expect similar experiences with Amazon and Netflix and all our service providers, how can we do that with insurance, which is a different industry, or banking? When we think of these industries we think of old stalwarts. (Just like we think of lawyers.)

So, my internal clients were innovating while our legal department wasn’t. I took this back to the legal department and said “legal design or design thinking isn’t just for our clients. It’s for us too.” 

Lawyers need to meet customer expectations.

Legal teams giving clients what they want

Laura: So, I started holding workshops and thinking through how we, as a legal department, could pivot to give our clients what they want. 

My simple and entry-level thinking came up with: How do we reshape what we write because writing is fundamental and is the core of what a lot of legal work is. 

From there, I’ve applied more of the management consulting background of how we design processes. How do we use technology as attorneys that are designed to make our clients have a better experience? And also my other part too, is how do we have the lawyers have a better experience in the process?

Lawyers who have better working experiences

Hannele: Yes, because there are two sides to that coin. There are clients, but there are also lawyers who desperately need a redesign of the work.

Laura: That’s it. For me, I think of it as how we make lawyering better for both clients and legal professionals because I think it’s both sides. 

And we can start with the easy places to start and see where the clients are unhappy, or where we should make the experience better or make a contract readable for them. 

But then I feel like we missed the piece, sometimes when we fail to look inside at what lawyers need.

Because in our training, again, going through law school, we’re very focused, we’re taught one way of doing things, and then we go to the practice of law. We learned from those who’ve been practicing for years and follow how they did it. Frankly, this tends to be a very white, privileged, male-dominated industry. So I also see this as a point to include women to include historically underrepresented groups as a way of saying, “I don’t want to practice law that way, it’s not good for my clients, and it’s not good for myself. So let’s figure out a way to do that”. 

So that I love that truly the long form would be human-centered design thinking, and I never want to lose that human aspect of it.

What does legal design thinking mean for you

Hannele:  You said about the pivotal moment for you when you realize that lawyers cannot summarize or make these reports like one-pagers. And I see this all the time because legal design might mean leaving something out. You have to have the guts to say that okay, this is not important. Let’s keep the stuff that matters to the client.

Laura: My definition of legal design has evolved. At first, when I first learned it, I thought it was this process and these five steps or these seven steps. But it’s a mindset.

It’s getting in that mindset before you start naming 74 legal risks. Before you start drafting you must ask better questions of your client and get inside their head and understand what’s important to them. 

Understand what they’re not telling you. Because you know, clients will lie, clients will withhold information, sometimes because they’re trying to and sometimes they don’t want to tell you, but sometimes because they just don’t think it’s relevant. So how do you color in those edges to understand what’s important to the client?

And then I think, to your point, it becomes easier to focus on and align which risks you want to propose because you might pick what you think are maybe even the top three risks. 

“Once you know more about the client, you might pick risks one, two, and 17. To present to them. And that is a mindset and a different way of thinking.”

Real-life legal design example

Hannele: How are you using legal design in your business and with your clients?

Laura: So an example from this summer I was brought into a project that I didn’t want to do. It didn’t necessarily stall, but the consultants working on a new technology project for a team of government attorneys were frustrated. They couldn’t get answers out of the attorneys. They were asking the attorneys: “Well, what, what technology do you want? And what functions do you want?”. 

And from my perspective, I got to chuckle a little bit and I go: “Look, lawyers are never going to tell you unless they’re very skilled. And maybe they’re kind of like patent attorneys and technology and privacy attorneys. They’re not going to tell you what technology they want. They don’t know what the solution is. They don’t think in that mind. They’re trying to write 10-page memos.”

So I came in and applied human-centered design and asked better questions. My approach was to take it if technology is down here, I wanted to take it up a couple of levels. And then it’s our job to interpret what the technology is. This is a great 3 step process and I invite everyone to use it too: Thorns, Buds and Roses. 

Three-step formula: Thorns, Buds and Roses

Laura: The Roses. What do you love about your job? What gets you out of bed in the morning? Why are you an attorney? Why are you a paralegal why? Why do you work here instead of in other places?  I want the answers to those questions. 

And then I want the Thorns. I want to know what stinks about your job. What time do you come home to your family at night? And what do you complain about? Tell about the problems – all of them. 

The Buds. Do you have ideas? You’re at the water cooler saying, “Did you see that email? Why? Why are they doing it that way? Why don’t they do this other way?” 

There are so many good ideas embedded in organizations. And that’s our job to pull those out. So it’s I took a little bit of a 180 on this project that ultimately was about technology and making the experience better. 

But when they approached it as technology, they weren’t getting there. 

Once we went up that level and collected these Thorns, Buds and Roses, we started to see: Oh, for example, we learned how much they loved having their deadlines in their calendar and their to-do list. 

Okay, we need to make sure that the system is aligned. But it didn’t. There were multiple layers of a calendar and it was getting confusing. And we understood. You’ve got some very busy litigators who live and die by their calendars. 

Okay, that needs to be the focus of the technology. The lawyers would have never told you that directly. But once we ask those, frankly, human questions, almost like you’d meet somebody at a cocktail party and get to know that our job on the back end is to interpret then what that means and how that can work. So and again, I invite everyone if they get stuck to use Thorns, Buds and Roses to kind of get up a level and then do the interpretation to dive in.

Hannele:  Oh, that’s a perfect example. Because I’ve also been involved in so many technology projects, because technology is never about the technology, it’s always about people. And then when we start these projects, it’s like we start from the technical requirements, what the technology should do. And it’s like, you have to start with the people, what do the people need? 

What are the key benefits of using human-centred design

Hannele  So what are the biggest payoffs for lawyers using human-centered design? Or what’s the biggest value in using human-centered design?

Laura: It’s long-term success.

For law firms, (and I think some of them are starting to get there), especially when you have a lot of retention issues.

We’re also seeing a lot of lack of succession planning or failed succession planning. Baby boomers are retiring and saying “Oh, who are we leaving this firm to? Who’s going to carry this on?”

“Oh, you haven’t thought about that? Well, we need to put some planning in place.” 

We need to get some training, and some mentorship, we have to make sure that this is a place and an environment where attorneys can succeed and your clients are happy and they keep staying as well.

So, when we’re talking about long-term success, I’m talking about generational success in the future. 

That’s my big goal in doing all of the work. That’s my rose. That’s what gets me out of bed in the day, and, and talking and preaching this message.

I can tell you my ultimate goal, and I think I touched on it a little bit before, is that when I get really honest with myself about what I want. I want to see women and historically excluded communities, I want them I want to see them stay in the practice of law, and I want to see them ascend to the leadership levels.

I want to see the profession change, I believe it can. I am an optimist every day, all day. I love the practice of law. I love lawyers. I love these little stressed-out analytical minds. So many of my best friends are attorneys and were attorneys even before I became an attorney, and I truly just want to make the practice of law a better place. And I think we can do it. We just need to step back and look at it. 

Where to start if you’re a partner in a law firm

Laura: I was impressed at the Clio Conference with a presentation by a small law firm that talked about how they did quarterly retreats. We hear about annual partner retreats, but never quarterly. A great start.

Let me just offer some free advice on that. If you’re only talking to your partners alone, once a year, that’s not enough, you’re not including everyone in the room. You need to be including your clients, you need to be including your junior associates, you need your paralegals, your admins, and your tech staff on the thing. You need to shut down the firm for a couple of days.

You need to get a 360 view because you’re missing out on so many great perspectives because those are the humans that work and contribute to the law firm. 

Make work a safe space

It doesn’t need to be a retreat. Start with a half-day idea session – and make it safe. Then just gather ideas as they come in. 

Once we understand how we don’t have perspective, then it’s our opportunity and responsibility to go get that perspective to step back. You know, if this resonates, talk to other people and say “Can we talk about how we do things? Can we just take two hours, you know, the beginning of the year is coming up and say what do we want to accomplish this year, what’s going on?” Having just that conversation to spark those ideas is so helpful, and it will make the practice of law better.

Hannele: And it doesn’t have to be so complicated. You can just start talking to people and take some time to do it.

Laura: Just start talking. I think many legal professionals, ironically, avoid conflict. Because we know how to do it in a procedural sense. I know how to fight with people in court. But that’s because we are following a series of rules. And so creating those safe spaces to have difficult conversations among us, is, is invaluable. Because once we get that safe space where we can open up and say, I have ideas, I don’t want to feel shamed for having my ideas, but I want to share my ideas. 

How do you have a brainstorming session where there are no bad ideas? The idea is that you don’t have to come up with ideas that work. You come up with ideas that are you know: you have $5 million to spend. You have a jet pack? What do you do? 

I think lawyers are some of the most creative people and they don’t think that they are which is so sad. So sad. But think about all the ways that those attorneys come up with all the risks. They say they’re analytical. No. They’re creative. 

They find ways to write the contract to get the thing you need in discovery to make your case in court. How do you get around that new government regulation so that your client can continue manufacturing we are so creative, but we tend to police ourselves and shut down even our ideas. 

So, create a safe space where every idea is welcomed. Let’s, talk about that. That’s it. Just get in a room talking to each other.

Current Law By Design Projects

Hannele: What are you working on at the moment

Laura: It’s very exciting. I am serving in a legal transformational role, basically in-house in a corporation. So it’s a fun, very different opportunity I’ve done in my consulting, it’s been much more specific. This is transforming a legal organization almost like a fractional legal transformation officer type of role. So when we talk about people processes and technology, it’s all of those.

But again, like we’ve been saying, it’s starting with the people. It’s starting and having those human conversations, getting a cup of coffee with them and asking them, what do you love about your job? Let’s not mess up something that you like, how can we enhance that? And, I think that is the place where many of us should start on a lot of these projects. So stay tuned, I’m sure I will have a lot on the other side of this of lessons learned, and mistakes that I made, because we all make mistakes. But I can’t wait to learn from those. And probably a lot of also great successes to see what comes out of the other side of that.

Where can people find you

Laura: So I met you and some other fabulous individuals on LinkedIn, I tend to be on there a couple of times a week and keep checking in. I love to share ideas love to connect, and love to hear different perspectives. It’s so fantastic.

There’s also my website and I’m true to my original roots on how we present ideas differently. There is a download on how to avoid a legal memo and present legal ideas in five other ways. So helping you go, here’s when you can use a chart, here’s when you can use a table, and here are some examples. And so that might just begin to give that spark of ideas and that creativity of hmm, we could do that differently. I’m always happy to chat with individuals.

Hannele: Oh, that’s perfect. Thank you so much for being here and sharing this insight. It’s been so fun, with good practical insights and places to start now.

Laura: These are important conversations too – as we help the legal world think differently and get into that new and better mindset. Thank you.

Legal design thinking: IRL. Episode 33

You’ve just read a summary of my LinkedIn Live with legal changemaker Laura Harnett.

Each week I provide actionable advice for law firm owners and discuss real-life legal design in the wild.  This week we talked about the legal design mindset, safe spaces and the long-term impact of human-centered design on legal teams, firms and the profession.

You can catch a replay of episode 33  Legal Design Thinking: IRL or join me live and ask questions.

Want to chat about it?

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Prefer email? Drop me an email at [email protected] And while you’re here, take a peek at the Lawyers Design School and check out other ways to use legal design thinking to grow your law firm and thrive in your business.

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