Why is Legal Design Thinking important?

by Astrid Kohlmeier

Helsinki University November 2017, about 600 attendees – the biggest Legal Design Summit worldwide so far was organized by a bunch of students! From a mere idea to a well developed concept they realized a fantastic conference with speakers from all over the world. During the conference I had several light bulb moments and felt kind of „home at last”.

Law and Design – how cute!

In the past time, when I told fellow lawyers that I am a lawyer and designer for over 15 years now, I often heard “hey, what an interesting combination (big questionmarks in their eyes), Law & Design. Uh – I know a Lawyer with a really stylish office Interieur. Oh yes, and he has a very nice business card.” What that really meant was, there was no real understanding of what „design“ really is about and the impact it can have especially in legal services when you put humans with their real needs in the center of what you try to achieve. Tiresome it was, and then some…

Design Thinking opened the door

And then, suddenly the Innovation Movement came along and with it a method every innovative industry, except legal, was using: Design Thinking. It just was and is everywhere.

Designers already think like Designers 🙂

When I started about learning more about the methods of the „new” Design Thinking I realized: Yes, it`s exactly the kind of thinking I had learned already in Design School. I`d like to add: Design Thinking is a very good technique especially for Non-Designers to apply to their own business. But for Designers it`s just the „common” way to find a solution for a problem and take the right path to implement new products, visualizations or services.

Lawyers could learn from this Knowledge

This holds also true why Design Thinking is in fact a fantastic way to design legal services. The conference in Helsinki showed: design methods enable the legal industry and companies to transform their services into a user centered benefit.

Where does Legal Design matter most at the moment?

At the moment legal design is especially a topic in the educational / universitarian environment – like e.g. the famous Stanford Legal Design Lab, founded by inspiring Margaret Hargan, who gave a fantastic Keynote with her unique sketches or the lectures about legal design of Cat Moon at the Vanderbilt Law School. But it became also clear: the idea of legal design has already begun to spread in the legal industry and law firm sector – very good!

Interdisciplinary case study: Dottir | Hellon | Varma | Customer

A real good example of how lawyers and designers can collaborate was reported by the interdisciplinary team of Dottir, a young finnish lawfirm and Hellon, a services design agency of Finland. They combined their knowledge and did their first experimental case with the biggest finnish pensionfonds company. The interesting conference–panel of Lawyers, Designers, Clients and also a customers gave the audience deep insights about their experiences throughout the project and showed in a lively way that if law and design are combined to help clients and create consumer centered solutions, everyone is winning.

Rethink: Lawyers do not focus enough on real users needs and pains

Especially the deep user insight research done by one to one interviews – which is btw one of the main elements of every design process – was a crucial point. Dottir Lawyers reported about their experiences and feelings of helplessness when being confronted with the real needs of consumers. It was excellent and brave to share that emotional aspect with the participants of the conference. And it showed: lawyers do often not think about the impact their wording can have for people who have a problem. Lawyers all too often only focus on the legal correctness of their wording in contracts or legal documents, but they assume too little what side effects may result for the common public. Instead of telling the consumer the facts about the legal circumstances concerning the calculation of the pension (case study) – they should realize the perspective and needs of consumers, which are totally different in that they wonder: How can I afford my life after my retirement? What options do I have, if the calculated pension is not enough for my living etc.? What matters less is: the legal perspective itself.

Outcome and learnings

The insights of the user research led to a transformation of the legal documents, which are now better understandable, contain more helpful options for the consumer, have a simpler structure and look better. Maybe that does not sound like a big revolution – but: it is a very good start by just changing perspectives and collaborate with other disziplines!

Embedding Legal Design in Product and Service Design Processes

One step further was the speech of Jose Torres from Bogotà by stressing the idea, that users perspectives and legal matters should be embedded in every product or service development process already in an early stage. As an easy way to avoid later regress or a dismatch of products with the law like he lively showed with the automated speaking and listening Barbie Doll – that was not very well accepted because of fundamental violations of personal rights in kids bedrooms.

Conclusion: What to expect next for the legal design movement?

The legal design movement is in a good starting position:

  • we already have some – but not enough – university driven legal design labs
  • We see first legal design case studies like in the dutch lawfirm Houtoff, where Sarah van Hecke works as a legal design advisor with a behavioral psychological education background. She and her collaboration partner Cate Snow, a grafic designer, gave at the conference in Helsinki another vivid example of positive results by combining law with communicational design.
  • There are first movers in the Service Design Agencies environment in Finland (Hellon) and Germany (IXDS).

It was absolutely thrilling to participate and contribute my own ideas in a group of like–minded people scattered all over the globe. Let´s start the Legal Design Movement together, spread the word, build more Legal Labs (Hello i.e. German Universities!) and establish the importance of Legal Design in all legal businesses – whether in already existing law practises, the legislation, courts, or new Legal Tech start ups.

Thank you Helsinki for seeing the importance of the topic worldwide and for realizing this amazing conference – see you soon!

This post was also published on Linkedin by the author.