What is Legal Design and Why You Should Care

In November 2017, I sat in the university’s large ballroom listening to Margaret Hagan. The event was the Legal Design Summit, which was held in Helsinki for the second time. Margaret spoke of a different world of law than I was used to. She used the words empathy, creativity and imagination. She talked about people whose lives are affected by law. She gave little answers, but asked even more questions. For whom do lawyers and the law exist? What if legal services were designed for the user, from user’s perspective? Why is legal information so complex, could it be easier and simply better?

What made the moment even more wonderful was that the hall was full of legal professionals. Lawyers from large corporations and law firms, officials from different levels of government, decision-makers and managers. And everyone listened and nodded. At that moment, my faith in change began to recover.

What is Legal Design?

Legal design is a relatively new term and is still searching for an established definition. I had not heard about it before 2016 even though I had been practicing the methods for years. More important than the term is the introduction of the principles and methods of legal design or design thinking in the delivery of law. Legal design makes it possible to transform the entire system and all the services underneath and make them about people and how they comprehend their rights. Design thinking in legal invites turn the tables and start from the user, rather than from the law. Human-centricity and empathy are at the heart of legal design – two words not traditionally associated with law. 

In law, the dominance has been clear to this day. Lawyers have the role of gatekeepers in legal knowledge and expertise, so lawyers have the power in law. Lawyers are the last professions that are still on a pedestal above the client and that continue to offer their services from this setup on their terms. Legal design reverses this position of power, as it shifts the focus away from lawyers and puts the user in the center. Legal design is the key to finally change the industry that is stuck in the past. 

Legal design is the application of human-centered design to law, such as solving a legal problem or preventing a problem. There are many different definitions of legal design, depending on one’s own preferences or emphases. What these definitions have in common, however, is that legal design is a process, not a specific outcome, legal design is people-centered, it is interdisciplinary, and it relates to legal issues.

Legal design is about building a better user interface for the law. It can develop better, more user-friendly and more accessible legal systems, legislation, organizations, legal services, technology and information. The idea behind legal design is that the legal system affects us all, in which case we should all have equal rights and access to the legal system and its various parts. Legal design is about simple, user-friendly and inclusive communication.

Why should you care about legal design?

Your customer does not need you. Not really. If you asked them, they would probably rather have their problem solved, than spend time with their lawyer. It might surprise you that the things that customers value most in legal services are very different than what lawyers think. Studies show that the skills lawyers value most is competence, but the thing clients value most is someone to listen. We need to listen to the customer. Truly listen. This requires an empathetic mindset and emotional intelligence. Most problems for which clients seek legal help are delicate, personal and escalated. 

I once heard a judge from Supreme Court say, ”After all the years working in different court instances I’ve learned that most of the time people do not actually need the verdict, they need to feel like they’ve been heard.”

You need legal design to listen and better understand your customer and also to be better at solving her legal problems. You need legal design to be a better lawyer.