Design Thinking for Law Firms
by Maryam Khan
Design thinking is used by some of the world’s most technologically advanced companies, including Apple, Google, Samsung and Amazon. Despite it being new to law firms that are mostly seen as ‘traditional’, many firms have taken the step to learn more about design thinking and how it can improve their internal operations and client relationships.
What is design thinking?
Legal design thinking is a process used by law firms to understand clients and their circumstances. Design thinking works by developing a deep understanding of clients by challenging their assumptions, redefining their problems and identifying alternative solutions that might not have been immediately clear with our initial level of understanding .
While there is no definition of legal design, The Society for Computers and Law defines it as ‘delivering the law differently – according to the needs of the people the law is intended to serve – so that it is more engaging, easier to understand and more accessible for people .’ Ultimately, once a deeper understanding of client needs is achieved, law firms can develop unique and innovative ways to solve client problems.
Simply put, legal design thinking uses design thinking practices to its advantage by enabling law firms to offer new and more effective legal services .
How does it work?
The Four Principles of Design Thinking
The highly user-centric design thinking process is based on four principles laid down by Christoph Meinel and Harry Leifer of the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, California .
1) The Human Rule
According to the human rule, clients should always be at the centre of the design to incorporate their needs into every aspect of the process and ensure a user-centric approach .
2) The Ambiguity Rule
Since ambiguity is inevitable, limiting the entire problem-solving process to one specific solution should be avoided .
2) The Tangibility Rule
Prototypes are extremely important to effectively communicate the designer’s thoughts to the user, help make their ideas more tangible and bring them to life .
The Five-Stage Process
The design thinking process, based on the four principles mentioned above, is then broken down into five key stages:
Adopting an empathic approach with your clients is crucial to the human-centred design process . The first step is to understand what your clients’ needs and desired outcomes are. This means actively engaging with clients to understand their business objectives and long-term goals. Through empathising, the designer can gather real insights about the client instead of relying on their assumptions or gut instincts.
The second stage is defining the problem. After gathering, analysing and synthesising all your findings from the first stage, you can understand the problem on a much deeper level. The designer identifies and formulates the problem into words, after which law firms can develop solutions and ideas to solve it. Defining the problem assists designers in developing key questions that are used in the ideating stage .
Once a concrete understanding of your client’s circumstances has been achieved and a clearly defined problem has been outlined, brainstorming is next. This stage involves incorporating different ideation techniques such as lateral thinking and mind mapping to develop as many ideas as possible to identify new solutions to the problem statement created in the previous stage .
Design thinking is all about trial and error as well as experimentation to turn ideas into tangible products. A prototype is a scaled-down version of the desired product that incorporates the potential solutions identified in the previous stages . The main objective of the prototyping stage is to identify the best solution for each of the problems identified earlier. The prototype is first developed, investigated, improved upon, and finally, either accepted or rejected .
Now it is time to test the prototypes to see what alterations need to be made to the final product. The testing stage is rarely ever the end of the whole design thinking process. Often, after the testing stage, depending upon the generated results, the problem can be redefined and the process started over until the desired refinement is achieved .
Why should law firms adopt legal design thinking?
1) Client Satisfaction
Legal design thinking is an extremely user-centric process that requires lawyers to put themselves in their clients’ shoes so they can make decisions from their point of view. Additionally, legal design thinking helps develop clearer and more summarised legal solutions instead of lengthy contracts that tend to drive clients away .
2) Stronger Client Relationship
Incorporating legal design thinking into a law firm’s legal service delivery enables lawyers to build better and more long-lasting client relationships. Law firms would better understand their clients’ business, industry and challenges, which ensures that they give sector-specific tailored advice. With this increased understanding, lawyers can also offer better solutions that achieve the clients’ desired outcome ultimately resulting in stronger client relationships and increased client satisfaction .
3) Multi-disciplinary Collaboration
Clients are involved in the early stages of identifying the problem and working towards a solution through legal design thinking. This client involvement backed by design thinking in the early stages of co-creation provides an invaluable insight into their business goals and objectives. This translates into more sustainable solutions and ones with greater turnover.
4) High-Quality Legal Products and Services
Due to the experimental nature of legal design thinking, there is much diversity in ideas as new ideas are quickly prototyped and tested. Legal design thinking allows lawyers and law firms to identify areas within their practice where new services can be offered to achieve tailored solutions.
5) Identifying Emerging Opportunities
With prototyping, lawyers can take calculated risks and identify emerging opportunities to develop their internal processes and client service before their competitors. This allows law firms to offer better client services and improve their internal processes which further develop new revenue streams.
6) Strategic Growth and Business Development
Design thinking is one of the main reasons why the world’s leading companies continue developing innovative solutions and adapting to market changes. Law firms are slowly starting to incorporate design thinking into their client service delivery approach and benefit from its advantage over their competitors. This incorporation leads to strategic growth in terms of retaining clients and attracting new ones and develops a culture of innovation within law firms, which is essential in a highly volatile and disruptive legal market.
7) More Cost-Effective Operations
Due to legal design thinking being an extremely tailored approach, the entire legal service delivery process becomes extremely fine-tuned. As a result, lawyers spend less time drafting lengthy contracts and reduce their billable hours. Not only is this beneficial for the client in terms of reduced costs, but lawyers can also make more use of their time and expertise.
Can lawyers be designers?
The legal market has become increasingly competitive and is facing multiple challenges from clients demanding innovative services. Most law firms have clients ranging from small start-ups to huge multinational corporations that are extremely technologically advanced. Correspondingly, it is essential for law firms to match this level of technological understanding.
A major misconception is that design thinking is purely about aesthetics and creating physically appealing products. However, this is not the case. Design thinking is about creative problem solving, exactly what lawyers and law firms do every day. Another misconception is that law firms are too traditional and being creative would challenge lawyers. However, design thinking does have a structure and is not as ‘free-flowing’ as some may assume. This structure simply serves as a guide to the activities carried out when designing a particular project and can be customised depending on the problem at hand.
Legal design thinking is now going beyond simply being incorporated into client service delivery and document layout design; it is also increasingly used by lawyers to redesign the legal content within documents. Law firms adopting legal design thinking into their practice allows them to develop more creative solutions by understanding their clients better and, overall, pushes for a stronger culture of innovation.
 Ideo U, ‘Design Thinking’ athttps://www.ideou.com/pages/design-thinking
Interaction Design Foundation, ‘What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular?’ (2020) at https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/what-is-design-thinking-and-why-is-it-so-popular
 Stephanie Etiaka, ‘Design Thinking in the Legal Industry: How I think Design Thinking will Impact the Legal Industry’, LinkedIn (2020) at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/design-thinking-legal-industry-how-i-think-impact-stephanie-etiaka/
 Design Thinking Legal, ‘Design Thinking for Legal – What is Design Thinking?’ at https://designthinkinglegal.com/
 Emily Stevens, ‘What is Design Thinking? A Comprehensive Beginner’s Guide’ Career Foundry (2021) at https://careerfoundry.com/en/blog/ux-design/what-is-design-thinking-everything-you-need-to-know-to-get-started/
 Rikkie Friis Dam and Teo Yu Siang, ‘5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process’, Interaction Design Foundation (2021) at https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/5-stages-in-the-design-thinking-process
 Indian Legal Tech, ‘Introduction to Legal Design: The case for simplifying legal services’ (2021) at https://indianlegaltech.com/blog/what-the-hell-is-legal-design-simplifying-the-case-for-design-thinking-in-law
 Thomson Reuters Legal Insights Europe, ‘Better Legal Innovation with Design Thinking’, Thomson Reuters (2021) at https://blogs.thomsonreuters.com/legal-uk/2021/06/17/better-legal-innovation-with-design-thinking/