Back to the drawing board – lawyers who think like designers

GC investigates how ‘design thinking’ is being applied to legal services.

You wouldn’t normally mistake a lawyer for a designer. One is usually armed with a pen and a rulebook, the other with a Mac and a black turtleneck. Right?


Design concepts have been around in business for a while. Global design consultancy IDEO, famous for creating the iconic first Apple mouse, is often credited as being the first to reposition design from being a ‘beautiful wrapper’ around a previously developed concept, to a system for creating ideas that can be applied not just to processes, but systems and even organisations.

Until recent years, design thinking methodology had not infiltrated legal services. But now, that has started to change.

From design to law

A key player in marrying law with design has been Margaret Hagan, director of Stanford’s Legal Design Lab and a lecturer at the Stanford Institute of Design (known as the While a fellow at the in 2013-14, she began experimenting with how design could enhance legal services, going on to become a key figure in developing programmes and courses for in-house and private practice professionals across the legal world.

But she’s not alone – others, like Josh Kubicki, chief strategy officer at Chicago-headquartered law firm Seyfarth Shaw, have also practised extensively in the field. Kubicki describes feeling ‘very alone in the world’ at first. But now, he says, design thinking has ‘become quite a phenomenon’.

IDEO remains at the centre of developments. The company is structured around a culture that challenges the notion of creativity: ‘[Partner] Tom Kelley talks of this myth that innovation or an idea just springs forth from the brain of the lone genius,’ says general counsel Rochael Soper Adranly. ‘That’s absolutely not the case. The innovations that we work on here are the product of many minds and many iterations.’

This has meant a flat structure, where even the newest employee is free to pitch ideas and take advantage of a social contract that everyone freely interrupts everyone else. Legal is no exception to this concept of freeing the mind – so much so that 12 years ago, when the company was establishing an in-house legal function, it employed a design thinking approach.

Just what is design thinking?

Design thinking puts the customer at the heart of the design experience, conceptualising them as a human being with problems, rather than simply a client facing challenges relating specifically to their vertical alone. The designer must understand the subject’s needs holistically, within the broader business and market ecosystem, using rigorous and blue-sky questioning. Perspectives from outside the sector become important here, to break out of any siloed thinking that might inhibit an effective and innovative solution. All practitioners apply an investigatory, but above all else empathetic, approach. Then, rather than leaping to a solution, the design team brainstorms, or ‘ideates’ a range of concepts, continually prototyping, testing, and iterating until the concept is refined enough to be termed a solution.

image of Josh Kubicki

Josh Kubicki
Chief strategy officer
Seyfarth Shaw

Put simply, design thinking takes an expansive view of a problem, rather than narrowing it down. It’s about teasing out the implied as well as the overt, applying truly inventive thinking to gradually solve issues that the client might not have known they had, while experimenting and reworking along the way. In other words, it’s the opposite of the standard legal process and its carefully defined, precedent- and deadline-driven approach.

The process

IDEO starts with an ‘immersion phase’, which goes beyond a standard fact-gathering session. This constitutes more of a deep dive by a multidisciplinary team, into the user’s world, in order to uncover their acknowledged and unacknowledged needs. This usually involves looking outside of the client’s immediate ecosystem, and into other industry sectors: ‘What’s trending, what are people learning, what are the best case scenarios in other industries, what are the categories that we can use for analogous inspiration?’

The next stage is ‘synthesis’ – a search for patterns, and what IDEO calls ‘opportunity areas’, which form the basis for a brainstorm or ‘ideation’ session. ‘It’s important not to rush this stage, although many so-called design thinking workshops do’, says Adranly.

Slowing things down is key, especially during the ‘prototyping’ phase, which involves breaking down what the team has learnt and testing it repeatedly to collect feedback about how things are landing. ‘That can happen one time, three times, ten times – whatever it takes. And then refining that out for implementation,’ she explains.

Not your typical GC

Adranly’s role as GC departs from the typical job description because she is also ‘legal design lead’ at the company, meaning she co-heads the legal design and innovation practice. This is a separate vertical at IDEO that uses design thinking methodology to train other in-house legal teams and law firms to be more innovative, or to support innovation within their organisations. If the in-house team isn’t invited into the business conversation at an early stage, it is too easy to veto ideas, and this is why Adranly and her legal design team work to bring legal and business teams into close partnership.

image of Design Thinking process IDEO

‘One time a client had a question and I wondered why they were asking us that – it seemed like a question that they should have been asking their own legal team. As I dug further, they said, “We were afraid to ask our own legal team”,’ recalls Adranly.

‘I thought, “Well, you can’t be!” So through a series of conversations on our side, we created a legal innovation workshop with their legal team and their product team to brainstorm through a lot of the issues. It was fantastic. The client’s legal team were phenomenal. They were great thought partners and they were great contributors.’

A typical IDEO project team for a legal design and innovation project will include a lawyer or lawyer-turned-designer along with designers from a variety of backgrounds – such as media, entertainment or even education – to bring fresh perspectives, challenge assumptions and open up opportunity areas to do something outside the box.

Does Adranly’s role make her a lawyer or a designer? Both, in her opinion. Her own CV has swung from lawyer to artist, to representing artists, and back to law, giving her a fairly unique set of soft skills. In the same way, IDEO needs legal hires to have the ability to be part of problem-solving and collaboration throughout the organisation.

Are you a mac or a PC?

Andrew Baker is vice president and global head of services at LexPredict in Chicago, a consultancy that advises law firms and corporate legal departments on improving the way legal services are consumed, delivered and managed. Design thinking is an important component of LexPredict’s toolkit, but Baker admits that getting a project off the ground can involve fighting on two fronts; one of which is cultural.

‘You have to understand that you’re trying to improve two things simultaneously: one, the business objective and two, shaping and sculpting the mindset and openness of the people who are a part of that project early on,’ he says.

Josh Kubicki, chief strategy officer, Seyfarth Shaw

‘Many firms were sending work from a certain practice area overseas or using augmented legal services contracts, but at Seyfarth Shaw, we didn’t want to do that for strategic reasons. The design challenge for us was, how do we design a new service model that can be nurtured within the current business model whilst extending value to the client?

We used a number of design tools and approaches – one of which involved thinking about the client journey. We learned that what is important to a certain type of client is not necessarily cost, and that there were a number of unmet needs that were going undetected both by law firms and the clients themselves.

We created what we call “client playbooks”, which describe the client journey. Each of our clients has a different culture and different touchpoints, and sometimes we’re dealing with different roles within the organisation. We map those relationships and find out the client’s perspective around the most effective methods of communicating with them: for example, how should the work be discussed? How should the work be packaged? What type of measurement do they prefer? Is speed the most important factor? Perhaps it’s risk mitigation or triage?

We had these discussions with the client and then designed a team around that customer journey. We used a mix of technology and a new “talent track” of lawyers that removes the usual administration burdens and obligations that an associate or partner would be burdened with – so there’s a value proposition designed there for the lawyer as well.

In the end, we had created an active service that’s providing cost, functional and technical value for the client that is materially different from a typical law firm model, whilst keeping it within the firm.’

Blue-sky thinking can be anathema to the lawyerly persona – naturally risk averse and sceptical. ‘Lawyers are fundamentally wed to precedent,’ says Baker, himself a law school graduate. ‘But in many cases you have to put precedent aside if you’re going into a project where design thinking techniques are used, and really try to think completely anew about what you’re doing.’

Adranly agrees that putting the client at the heart of the process can be a struggle if you think you’re already an expert on their needs. ‘Sometimes what causes some of the tensions with lawyers is that we think we’re so smart, we think we know what the client wants without actually having gotten super curious about that,’ she says.

The expert can be the enemy of true discovery, and also of the prototyping phase of design thinking, because lawyers are trained to get to solutions quickly. In many legal situations the stakes are high, so solutions have to be right. But an important component of design thinking is to embrace the prospect of failure as the basis for iteration and ultimate success. ‘Failure’, however, is very much not in the lawyer’s lexicon. To really succeed at design thinking, they have to get humble and accept they don’t know all the answers, just as designers have to accept that great ideas aren’t usually the product of one inspired mind.

This means spending time with others, both clients and service providers. From personal experience, Adranly acknowledges the difficulty of this, especially between in-house counsel and law firms, when corporate legal teams often have very little time to spend giving outside teams a really detailed picture of life in-house.

But law firms need to reach out too, and move beyond the model of the consulted authority. Baker points to a fallacy among firms that their profitability is a result of good client service and client understanding. ‘Many firms think that they are very client-centric. If you evaluate the number of firms that have meaningful programmes where the firm is reaching out in a systematic way to gain deep client insight and then pairing that insight with targeted investment, that’s fairly rare. So I think there’s a disconnect between the organisation they believe they are and how they really operate,’ he says.

The trick is to become a problem-finder and develop a nose for what clients are implicitly saying, rather than relying on issues raised explicitly. ‘You have to have the right kind of facilitation, the right kind of conversations, to turn over a stone that will maybe lead you to something you wouldn’t otherwise have found,’ Baker explains.

Thinking like a community

The good news is that Baker believes corporate legal departments are generally more open to new modes of thinking when it comes to overhauling service delivery. He has noticed design thinking concepts that are taking root in other business functions often creeping into the in-house legal team.

This certainly describes the path to design thinking taken by Alex Gavis, deputy general counsel at Fidelity Investments. He became acquainted with the concept through business clients – Fidelity is somewhat unusual in having an entire group devoted to design thinking within its corporate innovation centre, Fidelity Labs. Gavis used this exposure as a springboard to broader involvement in the design thinking community, and along with Margaret Hagan, taught a pop up class at the Stanford designed to help aspiring lawyers and business professionals simplify their oral and written communications. After a successful run on the West Coast, he ran a similar course at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

By using a design thinking approach, companies like Fidelity, that rely heavily on contracts, can spend time with both customers and business people to get a sense of what aspects of contractual language are confusing, and what goals that language is intended to achieve. This can result in clearer wording.

For Gavis, design thinking is really about ‘falling in love with the client’s problem’. It allows lawyers to spend time empathising and interviewing, which can lead to more creative solutions. In his own in-house team, he has worked to broaden perspectives and avoid silos by using ‘communities of practice’, bringing together lawyers from different disciplines to work on issues and train others in the group. He also collaborates with business teams, supporting them in their own use of design thinking and then using the system to make sure they are getting what they want from the legal team – in a design thinking feedback loop.

image of Rochael Adranly

Rochael Soper Adranly
General Counsel

Baker has found that in-house legal teams are more likely than law firms to instinctively understand when they need to evolve strategically, due in large part to the legal operations movement, which has encouraged the sharing of best practice and stories.

That’s a point that Kubicki agrees with, adding that legal operations professionals are often the owners of change management, which is where he believes the real value of design thinking lies for in-house teams. For example, in-house counsel often struggle to keep on top of contract management, but any system that fixes the issue from the perspective of Legal alone might throw up issues elsewhere in the business.

‘The power of design is to say, “Ok, you do have a problem, but it’s part of an ecosystem, and not just one piece of it.” They start to recognise it’s a case of, “We can change this, but we might not be able to change that without addressing some other human needs of the value chain outside of Legal”,’ Kubicki says.

Considering a legal problem in tandem with the needs of other groups can provide a collaborative solution that bears fruit across the whole business, and can prevent blame for the bottleneck being laid at Legal’s door. It might also gain the sort of trust and alignment that transforms the persona of the in-house legal department from operational to strategic, according to Baker.

Designing the future

At IDEO, Adranly thinks that design thinking is only going to pick up speed: ‘The conversation used to be, “What’s this design thinking thing?” It evolved to, “We see the value, we just don’t know how to do it yet”, and now it’s, “We’ve been experimenting with design thinking but we need to accelerate and we can’t do it on our own”.’

Whether increased receptivity will lead to widespread adoption remains to be seen, but both branches of the legal profession stand to gain from any tool that helps them to stand in their clients’ shoes. And across the world of legal services, riddled with ambiguity and disconnects, and increasingly looking to technology to solve its problems, work in this area might serve as a timely reminder to put the human being back at the centre – and leave it not to accident, but design.