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What is legal design?

Legal design has moved from a being niche discipline practiced by a handful of challenger firms, to the keyword for which everyone wants to rank. Like the concepts of “innovation” and “legal tech” before it, “Legal Design” is creating a buzz. However, much like innovation and legal tech, legal design suffers from much misunderstanding. This misunderstanding risks it becoming a victim of its own success.

Here we explore what legal design is, we consider what it is about the term that has lawyers sitting up and taking notice, and we also think about what the next step is for legal design. How do it's advocates ensure that it doesn’t become a victim of its own success?

What is legal design?

Legal design is the product of combining the law with design thinking. Matthew Syed in his book Rebel Ideas references scientist Matt Ridley’s notion of “ideas having sex”. Legal Design is a perfect example of ideas having sex. On the one hand is the idea of the law being something which enables and empowers individuals and businesses. On the other hand, is the idea of design thinking, a non-linear approach to problem solving.

The result is beautifully designed contracts, with words written in a way that everyone can understand, that fulfil their legal function, but which also delight the users. However, and more importantly, legal design is a completely different approach to delivering legal services. The latter often gets lost in misunderstanding.

Legal design can be challenging to understand. Design thinking introduces the concept that you might not be right first time. It encourages legal services to be delivered with a diverse team that spans disciplines. The word design often results in a gravitation towards what something looks like. Yes, that is sometimes part of it, but legal design goes so much further than that.

Ikea is the perfect example of design thinking in action. For many years, the Billy Bookcase has been something of staple in our household. My non-DIY loving father quickly got the hang of putting one up and his love of books meant that he added Billy bookcase after Billy bookcase to the house. My first rental property had a Billy bookcase – now complete with a door to hide my somewhat questionable alcohol selection. Fast-forward many years and my home still has a couple of Billy bookcases dotted around. The design works.

Ikea know what design is and they think about the user. The problem with the Billy bookcase has nothing to do with what it looks like. The problem with it is that you regularly hit your finger rather than the nail when fixing on the back. The solution? The easy thing would be to do nothing. The bookcase is a winner after all. However, great design is about revisiting and reiterating. It’s about empathising with the user. So, our latest installation of a Billy bookshelf was met with delight at finding Ikea’s solution. A nifty little plastic device to sit the nail into. No more bruised fingers. The same simple designed bookshelf.

As with our Ikea example, legal design isn’t just about what the solution looks like. It is about the thinking that leads to the solution. It is that thinking that provides users of the law with something that works for them. It is what is so enticing about legal design.

Design is more than what you see

A great example of legal design is the privacy notice designed by Stefania Passera for Juro. It has been widely acknowledged as best in class. Stefania excels in contract visualisation and the privacy notice reflects this. However, what you can’t see by looking at the privacy notice is the design thinking that went on behind the scenes. The visualisation is the end part of a journey. Many have copied her design, jumping straight to the “solution”, skipping over the thinking that is so fundamental in legal design.

This fixation on the visual. The mistake of equating “design” with “something that looks nice”, is one of the main reasons that legal design risks becoming a victim of its own success. Legal design is not about cookie-cutter solutions.

What makes legal design so exciting?

At the heart of design thinking – and quid pro quo legal design – is empathy. It is for us what makes legal design so powerful. Legal design forces lawyers to think about, empathise with, the people who interact with the legal solution. It encourages lawyers not only to think about their client, but their client’s clients. This is something that we have discussed in the context of moving away from a client-centric approach and instead moving towards being a client partner.

This notion of empathy is something that lawyers can relate to perhaps more readily that producing beautiful visual designs. It is the part of the process that will do the most to revolutionise the way legal services are delivered and, ironically, it risks being overlooked as more and more beautiful contracts are shared and viewed.

For a more detailed description of empathy in legal design, read Lawbox’s blog on the design process. One of the things that legal design demands is that the legal solution be designed with the user. Not with the user in mind, but with the user. Design thinking is iterative. It requires client feedback. It requires user feedback. It taps into a skill that we speak about regularly at Client Talk: active listening.

This iterative approach is what has the power to revolutionise the legal industry. If lawyers empathise and listen more deeply to their clients and their client’s stakeholders, the solutions delivered are likely to move closer to what clients want. Many people in the legal sector speak about not only changing what is done, but about changing the way things are done. Legal design is one way that this can happen.

What next for legal design?

Despite the rise in commentary and popularity of legal design, there are still only a few firms that dedicate themselves solely to legal design. Some firms use design thinking as part of their offering and some are starting to dip their toes in the water and explore what the buzz is about.

However, misunderstanding abounds and, for legal design to avoid becoming a victim of its own success, more still needs to be done to educate the users of law and the lawyers themselves about what legal design is and what the benefits for the whole legal ecosystem are.



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