Legal design thinking for a better ecosystem

With most non-urgent legal activity having been suspended indefinitely as a result of the pandemic, the judicial system is facing a steep uphill climb. With this unprecedented digitalization of the workforce, returning to age-old methods is no longer viable; innovation is crucial.

Author: Anna Marra, Project Manager, Consultant and Trainer. Director of IE Law School’s Executive Education Management for Lawyers programs

How might lawyers contribute to designing a better human society to respond to post-COVID-19 challenges?

This is not an article about how COVID-19 is affecting law firms and in-house legal departments. This is about how we really want to redesign the legal ecosystem for a better society. In other words, something more democratic, more inclusive, more straightforward, more friendly, and easier to navigate. This is all about how if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that change is possible.

The time to assume a designer mindset has come for lawyers too. One of the most familiar comments that you can hear is about people’s desire to get back to their normal lives. This is entirely understandable: right now, we’re forced to face our fears in order to help us survive the COVID-19 threat.

Making sense of the “new normal”

Some people are becoming extraordinarily productive. According to the article “Why Overreacting to the Threat of the Coronavirus May Be Rational” (Time, March 11, 2020), doing something is a brain-distraction technique. It enables you to get up and act, to make ready, to grab the nettle, to shake off denial and paralysis. Others are confused and use the copy-paste technique. Even if emotionally we sense that life has changed temporarily, intellectually and behaviorally we have not assumed the change yet. Having lost confidence in traditional “oracles” like the media, the government, the medical profession, people are unsure who to turn to. As they are afraid and confused, conformity is reassuring, so they copy what everyone else like them is doing.

Despite the different reactions to fear, the point is that COVID-19, with all the terrible human and economic consequences it is causing, also demonstrated that a different world is possible. Data from EEA member countries show how concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), mainly emitted by road transport, have decreased in many European cities where lockdown measures have been implemented. With humans retreating into their homes, wild animals are extending their limits to explore the empty streets of some of the biggest cities. People have never been so open to collaboration, or displayed such empathy.

The life we know has changed, but do we really need to go back to normal? Is this the best option? I believe it’s time to build another viable ecosystem. But to do it, we need the legal profession’s collaboration. How can we redesign the human ecosystem for the better? As justice is a very important component of it, this is make-or-break for those who think that because things have always been done this way, they must continue as such. That nothing is going to change. Most lawyers and judges think like this. But, as I said, COVID-19 shows us that change happens. The issue is whether we want to lead it, or prefer to “copy and paste.”

A creative approach to the law

Legal design thinking, or design thinking applied to legal problems, can be a responsive approach for new decision makers. We are, unsurprisingly, seeing some disciplines like legal project management or legal design thinking becoming strategically important to everyone. Up until now, these disciplines have only been contemplated and adopted by divergent or visionary law firms, but it seems everyone needs them in order to be productive and efficient under the circumstances imposed on them by COVID-19.

A creative approach to the law

The two main problems I see facing us, which are no small matters, are:

  • How can we design a better world with the help of the legal ecosystem?
  • How can we rethink a better legal function?

If we were to apply the legal design thinking methodology, we’d take five steps:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define the problem
  3. Ideate the solution
  4. Prototype the solution
  5. Test the solution and escalate

If we have a high-level problem such as, for example, “How can we rethink a better legal function?” the first step is to break down its complexity. There cannot be just one solution to this problem, but many solutions to different, smaller problems.

So, let’s say that one of the concerns is to have remote, high-performing justice for faster, more democratic, more friendly judgments, that are easier to comprehend. Should we think about having remote courts? Do we need to use specific applications? Do we need to train judges or lawyers how to work remotely, and virtually?

Empathy as a roadmap for change

How would we work using design thinking’s human-centered approach? The first step would be to empathize with the courts’ users to understand their perspectives. We do not have to leap to the problem or to the solution, or to imagine them. We need to search for experiences to see what works and what does not. We can use techniques like interviews, service safari, the user journey map, or the user’s profile. The goal is to understand the users’ needs from their point of view. Lawyers need to apply an empathetic, investigatory approach.

“Design thinking puts the customer at the heart of the design experience, conceptualizing them as a human being with problems, rather than simply a client facing challenges relating specifically to their reality 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.” (Back to the drawing board – lawyers who think like designers)

Once we collect the necessary information, the second step is to synthesize the feedback and define the problem through a definition briefing. When we have cleared up the problem, our minds will be more open to creativeness and to come up with all the possible related ideas. We will choose from all the possible ideas by evaluating them, for example by applying a 2×2 matrix on usability and value, or by hierarchy of importance.

We will choose one idea and we will try to prototype and then test it. If the feedback is positive, we will escalate the pilot idea, otherwise the idea will be abandoned.

As IDEO’s Chief Counsel, Rochael Soper Adranly (recognized by the Financial Times as one of the Top 20 global General Counsels of 2017) says, “The law is not exactly known for creative problem solving. But it turns out that the industry is facing the same set of challenges as everyone else as disruptive technology forces regulators and policymakers to think differently.”

This is a moment of rich opportunity for legal design thinkers, as many critics argue that global challenges need to be faced and solved in the most human-centered line of attack possible.

Shows the picture of the author, Anna Marra.Anna Marra is a PM trainer and consultant for private and public organizations. Anna was a pioneer in proposing the discipline of Legal Project Management to improve performances in law firms and in-house legal departments. In 2017 she became Councilor of the LPM Global Advisory Council of the International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM). Presently she is IILPM Accredited Training Provider (ATP). Anna is author of various publications on legal project management, corporate social responsibility, and strategy for law firms

Note: The views expressed by the author of this paper are completely personal and do not represent the position of any affiliated institution