You’ll no doubt have heard about “legal design” by now — it’s a topic which is very much in vogue in the legal sphere at the moment. So, what exactly is legal design? In this article, we’ll cover the legal design basics. We’ll also show you that it might not be as novel as it first seems, and that all you need to do is build on what you’re already doing to start adding real value to your users.
What is design?
Most lawyers would struggle to articulate what “design” is. We might associate it with a nice piece of art, furniture or clothing. More likely than not, we think it involves making things “look good”.
Although making things look good is often a by-product of the design process, design fundamentally involves creating solutions for people. With the user at its heart, design is about functionality, usability and communication. The same could be said about law, which is why applying design principles to law has so much potential to disrupt and improve the delivery of legal services.
Take, for example, the humble “Stop” sign. At first blush, you might not think this been “designed”. Looking again though, you’ll notice that its shape, its alarmist red colour and stark white typography are all designed to communicate something to you (that being, “you need to stop right now!”).
The point here is that “design” is everywhere and plays an important role in our everyday lives. Appreciating this, we, as lawyers, can start to use design as part of our working practices to improve experiences for our end-users.
What is design thinking?
Design thinking is a design-led, human-centered, creative approach to problem-solving. Unlike scientific and engineering approaches, which address problems from the perspective of whether or not they are technically solvable, design thinking addresses problems from the user’s perspective, working out what the user’s needs are in order to devise viable solutions.
Design thinking has its roots in the ’60s, where engineers were encouraged to think more like designers and approach their problems more creatively. In the 80s and 90s, design thinking was taken up by big business and finally (and better late than never) it’s finding its feet in the legal world.
Let’s look at a couple of examples of design thinking in action to bring this to life.
We’ll start with Oral B. A few years ago, Oral B set out to create a better user experience for their electric toothbrush. Various ideas to improve the toothbrush were suggested, including adding music or tracking brushing performance. When they actually asked their users, Oral B discovered that the two main pain points for users were forgetting to buy replacement heads and poor battery life. As a result, Oral B ended up launching the toothbrush with replacement heads and improved charging capabilities. The result? Increased sales and happy customers. Had Oral B not taken a design thinking approach, they would have wasted huge amounts of time and money manufacturing and marketing a product that ultimately disappointed its customers.
Another example is Google and its role in revolutionising the “No Internet” page. Google recognised that their users were frustrated when they lost their connection. Although this was not something Google was directly responsible for, through user research, they found that their user base viewed Google and the internet as being synonymous. So they took it upon themselves to directly address their users’ frustration by introducing a crudely-designed dinosaur game which could be played without the internet. In doing this, Google helped their users transform their frustration into enjoyment and distraction.
Google also helped itself — this was a huge PR piece for the company, with a number of mainstream media outlets running stories on it. The game also receives over 270 million plays a month (which is ridiculous!).
Design thinking methodology
So, how do you do “design thinking”? Design thinking methodology comprises of five stages:
- Empathise — this involves stepping into your users shoes to really empathise with them, understanding who they are and what they need.
- Define (the problem) — having empathised with your user, you need to state your user’s problem. This requires you to craft a problem statement. For example, imagine you are drafting a legal opinion for the GC of a tech scale-up who is yet to hire a legal team. You discover from the empathy stage that they are extremely time poor and need advice to be as simple to consume as possible. Your problem statement then might be, “how might we craft a legal opinion that is concise, easy to read and straightforward to use?”.
- Ideate — based on what you have learned from the previous two phases, you then generate ideas to solve the problem you have identified — they can be as mundane or innovative as you like.
- Prototype — this phase involves experimenting with your ideas, creating simple, scaled-down versions of your ideas in order to find the best possible solution to the problem you have defined.
- Test — having found the best solution you can and prototyped it out, you then need to test it with users and get their feedback.
The driving principle here is “fail fast, fail often”: by prototyping and testing, you avoid wasting time and money on building solutions that aren’t necessarily fit for purpose. If something doesn’t work, you continue to build, test and iterate until you find the right solution for your users.
What is legal design?
“Legal Design” is simply the application of design thinking to law. This involves adopting a user-centric mindset when thinking about the way legal services are delivered and working through the methodology to achieve better results for your clients.
A lot has been made of the fact that lawyers — true to form in the late adopters that we are — have been slow on the uptake when it comes to design thinking. We’ve been charged with claims we’re outmoded, resistant to change and have a vested interest in continuing to deliver our services in the same opaque way.
Personally, I haven’t found this to be true at all. In recognition of the fact that clients need clear answers and need them fast, it was drilled into us as juniors to keep our sentences short, use TL;DRs and steer clear of legislative references where possible. Although this doesn’t always leave room for the lawyer’s friends — nuance and caveat — it does provide the user with simple, hard-hitting answers they can actually use.
The fact is, we’re all hyper-aware of our end-users and have been taking action to ensure they aren’t overwhelmed by our advice at best and apathetic at worst. And the reason we’re so hyper-aware is because our end-users demand it of us: as the private practice market becomes more and more competitive, clients have the pick of the bunch and a key differentiator is how effectively you deliver, and clients can use, your advice. Similarly, there is increasing pressure on in-house teams to become leaner and more efficient, whilst continuing to deliver watertight strategic advice. In summary, clients want more for less. That’s what legal design helps to deliver, it enables clients to get more out of the advice you provide.
Legal design is already being used to re-design privacy policies (like ours). In Brazil, the Public Prosecutor’s Office is even filling suits using legal design, which are just 4–5 pages and use infographics.
Why then could we not re-work something like, say, a legal opinion? Legal opinions can be pretty annoying to read — there’s a lot of flipping back and forth between the assumptions and qualifications and the actual opinion to work out if that thing you think is covered is actually covered, or whether it’s been carefully carved out. What the user needs here is to understand what coverage they’re getting from you. So why not create a legal opinion where the assumptions and qualifications sit alongside the opinion? Or order the assumptions and qualifications in order of significance for the client, with really key ones being highlighted for their attention in a different colour?
There are a lot of potential solutions — they’d need to be tested and iterated on but the end-result would be a much better user experience. Happier customers are more likely to lead to repeat customers, so it’s a win-win.
Ultimately, legal design isn’t something to be afraid of. It’s something we’re already doing, being very conscious of the fact that our users (a) lack time and (b) view us as a cost centre (which we are). But we can take this further and make our outputs as human-centred and user-friendly as we possibly can. In that way, our users will be more satisfied and we can really demonstrate our ROI by adding demonstrable value to their businesses.