Why modern lawyers should care about Legal Design – a lot

What is Legal Design? It´s applying the methods of Design Thinking to legal matters. And what is Design Thinking? It´s an approach to innovation and development of services or products that is productive, human-centered, multidisciplinary and collaborative (Note: Don´t mix up Design Thinking and Graphic Design).

So, why should modern lawyers care about Legal Design? Two compelling reasons:

  1. Results
  2. Exercise for skills that are underused in legal practice.

Some brilliant Legal Design results

I have seen some brilliant results achieved by Legal Design. They are effective, they are state-of-the-art legal communication and they are beautiful. Have a look for yourself:

  • Juro´s privacy policy. It is probably one of a kind in the field of privacy policies: plain language, well structured and with visual aids. Make sure to look at it from all angles (using the “Open all” and “Close all” links and the “Your privacy at a glance” that pops up when you click on “Privacy” link on the bottom right corner of juro.com). This is what a good privacy policy should look like! Because the law says so: transparency and clear and plain language are among the core requirements of GDPR (cf. Art. 12 GDPR).
  • The arbitration process chart by the Finland Arbitration Institute. This interactive web tool is the product of a legal design process that gathered the views of users like business leaders, lawyers and students. Several prototypes were tested and validated by users. The flowchart gives important information about the arbitration process (e.g. timeframes, costs and relevant law) and the FAI has received widespread industry recognition for it.
  • The Creative Commons copyright licenses. The licenses exist in three different languages: the legal code that we lawyers are familiar with, a machine-readable language and a plain language that is understandable for ‘non-lawyers’ as we like to call them. The extent of certain licences and license restrictions are summarised by icons for e.g. attribution required, share-alike, non-commercial use only and no derivatives. Wikimedia Commons uses these licenses and explains the plain language licenses with examples and visual aids.
  • I also know of (at least) one in-house legal team that provided value to the business they support by applying legal design to their standard contracts. What used to be a 40-page monster that nobody liked (and probably few ever used or read) was subjected to a redesign process where the stakeholders and users of the template where interviewed. The end product was a handy 12-pages standard agreement that contained only the clauses that the business really needed.

Legal Design is an exercise for skills that are otherwise underused in legal practice

I have taken part in several workshops in Design Thinking this year and I can tell from first-hand experience that it feels a bit like a tough workout: intense (sometimes even a bit overwhelming), exiting and making you feel a bunch of muscles that you didn´t even know you had because you hardly ever use them! There is a lot to be learned for lawyers taking part in Legal Design events:

  • At the focus point of the Legal Design process is the user of a service or product. As lawyers, we often tend to lose sight of quite a lot of those users: We draft contracts, standard terms or privacy policies mainly for other lawyers, such as the judges in a future dispute or the in-house counsel who pays our bills. Most times we do not draft for the people who have to understand, implement and live with our work products: the business and operations people working within our client´s organisation, the consumers or businesses our client wants to sell to or the general public reading our policies. Legal Design puts empathy with the users of legal services on centre stage and makes lawyers walk a mile in their shoes.
  • A Legal Design process, by definition, is an exercise in working in a multidisciplinary team. To achieve good results, the process needs the different perspectives from e.g. lawyers, business people, communication designers and software developers. In other words: when doing Legal Design, lawyers practice collaborating with the people we like to call “non-lawyers”. (BTW: Let´s just stop calling them that. How about “professionals with complementary skills”?)
  • A successful Legal Design process relies on the combined creativity of the design team. Creativity needs a safe space and there are design rules that protect that space: be open-minded and defer judgment, build on each others´ ideas (“yes, and…”) and listen to only one conversation at a time. This is much-needed exercise for us lawyers, who usually excel at judging immediately, diving into solution mode as quickly as possible, saying “yes, but …” and making our own views heard. The creative and very hands-on Legal Design process also helps to unlearn any fears of using colourful sticky notes, dot voting, paper models and role play. (You don´t become a hippie by using those tools J.)
  • Another cornerstone of the Legal Design process is to fail fast in order to learn more and create a better service or product. The process is reiterative, not linear: It works in loops that are repeated until the Legal Design team is happy with the results and those have been validated by the users. The whole process is quite structured but can appear somewhat messy and quite ambiguous. This is a real challenge for lawyers, since many of us are perfectionists and fear failure probably more than anything else. I know that both from myself and from the absolute majority of my coaching clients. That´s why it is so very helpful to learn to let our own work go at an early stage, gather feedback from users and then go back and make it better – in their eyes, not just in our own isolated view.

These are all skills that we as lawyers really need to develop in order to stay relevant as legal advisors to businesses and consumers. Empathy and creativity are unique human features that no AI system provides, not now and maybe not ever.

So when you are planning your next retreat or other team-building event – why don´t you skip the speed boating or rock climbing and engage in a Legal Design process that creates results and teaches lawyers valuable skills?

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Marion Ehmann is a lawyer as well as the founder and owner of kiMEru Coaching & Consulting AB. She uses up-to-date research and best practice plus her almost 20 years of experience in the legal profession to support lawyers in their professional development.