24 September 2019

Legal Design

Is there a place for design thinking in law?



Everyone has some idea of what a designer looks like. Sharply dressed with an edgy pair of glasses. Types fast on a MacBook Air. Occasionally does a spin on an ergonomic yet stylish chair. Makes things look pretty with nice fonts and smart graphics. Talks about things like “front-end” and “back-end” – and not in a rude way.

Designers are cool. And they are bringing all their coolness – their edge, imagination, and innovative thinking – to the world of law. Time to sit up.

What are you talking about?

Legal design. The newest disruptive force in the legal industry.

Erm, ok, you’re thinking. What are we designing, exactly? Trendier robes and wigs for barristers? Ways to deliver a court summons via app? Surely anyone can put information into a snazzy PowerPoint complete with sound effects? “I’m pretty good at using Microsoft Paint myself”, you might say.

In fact, legal design is about much more than choosing a cool font. It’s a mindset, culture, and way of life. It’s about taking design thinking and applying it to the legal industry.

But what is design thinking

Design is about usability, it is about utility, and it is about engagement.

In short, design mindset is about putting people first.

Designers take advantage of user research to make the UX – or user experience –  more engaging. They identify people’s needs and create solutions. How might they make human lives easier and more enjoyable? How might they add value to our day-to-day living?

Design thinking is all about asking “how might we do this better?”

Let’s compare the lawyer and designer mindset.

In a law firm, clients contact lawyers to solve their legal issues. Lawyers then use their own expertise – the knowledge they already have – to resolve the problem.

Compare this to designers.

Designers first aim to understand what the user needs: this means focus groups, surveys, design workshops, and statistical analysis. Then they research all aspects of the problem. They might even set up hackathons or design jams to brainstorm ideas. Then they begin to solve the issue, trying out different possibilities, taking on board feedback, adapting, and improving.

And here’s another point where designers and lawyers differ. Designers do not work alone. They collaborate with other disciplines, working together with psychologists, coders, researchers, and behavioural scientists, to profit from diverse expertise and perspectives.

So how does this apply to law? 

In practice, applying design to the world of law might entail a new way of communicating information in a way that is functional and aesthetically pleasing.

Or it might entail implementing a whole new service or product, such as an improved digital interface for people to navigate a specific part of the legal system.

Or it might be an innovative way of carrying out processes with the organisation, helping people to collaborate more effectively and efficiently.

Essentially, legal design means thinking outside the box. Yep, that old chestnut.

It means an approach to law that is creative, collaborative, and doesn’t aim at perfection first time.

And it means creating a user experience that is intuitive, attention-grabbing, and satisfying. Because when things are engaging and enjoyable, they become a valued part of people’s lives. And isn’t that what we’d like for law too?

Yeah, sure. But enough of the buzzwords. Concrete examples, please…

One obvious way in which legal designers can improve legal services is by turning legal documents into something people can actually read.

In general, contracts are drafted by lawyers for lawyers. The result? Something that looks like War & Peace written backwards.

Who actually checks ‘Terms & Conditions’? Privacy policies? Company compliance procedures?

As Professor Camilla Anderson said,

“we are alienating people with legalese that nobody reads, nobody understands, and nobody likes…”

Remember the General Data Protection Regulation mandate that came out in 2018? The one that demanded that all privacy notices be concise, transparent and written in plain language? Exactly.

Step forth legal design.

To bridge this gap between lawyers and then the people actually affected by laws, legal design can simplify legal documents and make them comprehensible. They can communicate difficult concepts in a way that is inclusive and accessible. We’re talking concise summaries, headings, highlighting, cool typefaces, flowcharts, coloured icons, diagrams, and timelines. Nice visuals to make complex ideas tangible and easy to grasp.

Take the ‘Terms & Conditions’ page at the end of an online shopping experience, for example. You’re all ready to check out and then suddenly there’s this 25-page document about your rights as a consumer. Isn’t it a bit ethically dubious that we just agree to things we have no idea about?

Legal design thinking can transform this morally doubtful experience into a transparent and empowering exchange by making ‘Terms & Conditions’ pages easy to understand and maybe even enjoyable (*gasp*) to read. It can use the appropriate brand voice, boosting the overall brand story, and also demonstrate that you care about your customers’ rights (*sneaky wink*).

Another example? Comic contracts. Contracts – but in the form of a comic-strip.

The idea began when South African lawyer Robert de Rooy created an employment contract for ClemenGold and their fruit-picking employees in the form of a comic. As many of the fruit-pickers had difficulty with complex English, De Rooy designed contracts that they could understand just by looking at the images; the different parties involved were represented by different characters. The contracts restored a balance of power; employees were no longer ignorant of the terms by which they were contracted and could hold their employers accountable.

Artist Candy Chang used a similar idea in New York in collaboration with The Street Vendor Project and the Center for Urban Pedagogy.

Chang transformed the New York street vendor laws – previously only accessible in a 58-page guide that was almost impossible to make sense of – into a visual format that street vendors could easily understand. They would no longer violate these laws accidentally and could also challenge police officers who claimed that what they were doing was illegal. Chang’s guide was translated into five different languages – making it accessible to all the vendors.

Within the UK too, legal design concepts have found a foothold; for example, with barrister Adam Wagner’s website RightsInfo, an online resource that uses a range of visual tools like infographics, timelines, and videos to provide engaging content about rights for users.

And before you start feeling left out, lawyers also benefit from new ways of doing things. Legal design is about making life better for lawyers too. It seeks to make tasks more streamlined, allowing lawyers to lawyer more efficiently. For example, JustisOne’s Precedent Map turns the relationships between citing and cited cases into a visual image so legal practitioners can see at a glance where an authority has been considered instead of ploughing through a ton of legal documents.

Ok, I’m convinced. But what is the future for legal design? 

Legal design is hot shit, that’s for sure. And the movement is making strides across the globe.

At Stanford Law School, the Legal Design Lab is an interdisciplinary venture that aims to train law students and professionals in human-centred legal design. Helsinki, Finland, is home to the legal design consultancy Dot., which runs workshops and design jams. Legal Geek is running a Legal Design Geek workshop-conference (we’re going!). And in London last year, The City Law School and Justis hosted the Legal Design Sprint to get student lawyers thinking about how they can apply design thinking to problems.

But ultimately there still needs to be a paradigm shift in how lawyers think. Law needs to become more creative, collaborative, innovative, and understanding. As Margaret Hagan, from the Legal Design Lab, said,

“lawyers and legal people must embrace a restless imagination, and a deep day-to-day empathy for people whose lives they affect.”

Applying design principles to the legal industry helps people to better understand the laws that affect them. People are empowered to make decisions themselves using the information presented by legal services. If normal people can understand the law, this removes the need for lawyers and exorbitant legal fees – which most people can’t afford. Plus, if people understand the rules, they’re far less likely to break them.

In short, we’re talking about improved access to justice. And, through a proactive and preventative approach, reduced legal disputes.

And this is a win-win. Because when they don’t think they’re getting ripped off, people feel far more secure and satisfied, leading to enduring relationships between clients and law firms. Massive brownie points are awarded to lawyers for helping empower people who were previously left at the mercy of incomprehensible legal processes. Embracing legal design therefore gives firms a competitive edge as well as bringing new opportunities at a time of huge financial pressure and digital disruption within the industry.

Cora Harrison, September 2019

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