Redesign the Future of Law

Margaret Hagan, founder of Open Law Lab, talked with Andrew Benedict-Nelson of Insight Labs about the role design can play in imagining a better legal industry.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Tell me about how you became interested in the intersection of law and design.

Margaret Hagan: It’s a strange coincidence. Around the time I was staring my law degree at Stanford, my boyfriend  — now my husband — was writing his PhD thesis, which was all about interaction design and user-experience design. I had never really thought about the word “design” before or considered academic study of it. It had seemed like something really peripheral. It was only when I sat down to proofread this thesis that I really started to think about design as a process to get stuff done.

This really sparked something in my brain, because before law school I had done social science research on political movements, and it seemed as if there was a big gap in people’s understanding of the “how” — how to get people to follow rules, how to get people to understand a system and use it. Then it turned out there was this whole realm of practice of design that could inform people trying to get these things done, mobilizing people and helping them accomplish tasks.

In my first two years of law school, I was also drawing a lot. It was my reaction to the amount of text in law school. I didn’t enjoy the amount of reading or the solitary nature of the learning. My reaction was to draw as many different things as I could — drawing the scenarios, drawing the people involved, drawing flow charts of how the law is carried out. I started doing this simply as a learning tool for myself, but I got an immense amount of interest once I started putting these things online. I had assumed no one would take it seriously, but it turned out to be the reverse — I got lots of interest from lawyers, law students, legal librarians, all sorts of people who responded to a more visual way of learning law.

Then in the last year I took a class on legal technology. In that class the watchword was “efficiency” — we were always asking how we could make legal interactions more efficient. That’s when the design part of my brain kicked in. Design could help make law more efficient by making things more usable, from documents to Web interfaces to the services themselves. We could use design to make incremental improvements to the existing system, but also to imagine completely new ways of doing law and legal services.

I was lucky because Stanford was flexible enough that I could take design classes all through the time I was getting my law degree. Then I got offered a fellowship year at the Stanford Institute of Design — the “d.School.” Through June, I have a year to figure out how to establish a field of “law by design” and then to launch some sort of venture that brings the two fields together.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So I’d like you to imagine something. Let’s say that you run into one of the professors in the halls at the d.School and he says to you, “Margaret, I’m in this horrible situation. I’m about to start my Introduction to Design course, but the dean just told me that all of my students this semester are going to be lawyers.” How might you advise him to do things differently?

Margaret Hagan: There are a lot of lawyers who really self-identify as “creatives.” They’re the ones who are already willing to have conversations about innovation or jump into a brainstorming session. They’re already willing to take off their analytical glasses and try anything. There are more of those people than the stereotype of lawyers would suggest, but it’s not the majority.

Most of the time, you need to rip people out of their usual routines of thinking. You need to demonstrate that design can help take lawyers where they want to go and take their clients where they want to go. A lot of it is taking the jargon out of design. You need to demonstrate that it is quite practical, even though it may seem like a lot of playing in the sandbox. You need to show them that it will eventually be used to implement something and guide them toward that practical end.

So much of the design process is about being open to risks and open to failure. You need to take a bunch of words and make them into a drawing or a concrete thing. You need to exercise those “maker muscles” in your brain. A lot of lawyers actually want to do that. They have a desire to exercise those other parts of their brains, but they also really want to make sure that they’re contributing to something valuable and not wasting time.

To get back to your question, what you’d really need to do is to re-frame the way all this is presented in the class. You’d have to do it differently than you would with a more typical group of students that is already open to playing and experimenting.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: My experience teaching design to lawyers has also borne this out — there are some advantages and disadvantages to making this particular group of people your partners in design. What are some of the specific advantages and disadvantages you’ve encountered?

Margaret Hagan: The advantage is a specific similarity between what a designer does and what a lawyer does. They’re trying to make someone else happy in the process of achieving a task. There really ought to be a kind of alignment between the kind of expertise that a lawyer has and the kind of expertise a designer has. That’s why I think one of the easiest ways to get a lawyer to try the design process is to show how it might lead to a better relationship with a client or with an in-house counsel.

The danger comes from the super-rationalism and fear of failure that law schools inadvertently breed into the lawyers they train. It makes lawyers reluctant to give up control and work with others on a project. A lot of what you have to do to get lawyers to design is reduce the mystique they have built up around control. It’s that mystique that prevents a lot of firms from trying out a new kind of software or piloting a different kind of client interaction.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It makes sense that lawyers would be sort of mentally primed for risk aversion. After all, that’s what we ask them to do for us most of the time. And I think you gained something there by identifying the “experiment” stage as the one where there’s conflict between law and design. For me, an experiment or prototype is by definition a situation where there is almost no risk. But lawyers are trained to find risk where other people don’t, so it makes sense that they might be uncovering it there in an activity that seems completely benign to design-minded folks.

Margaret Hagan: It’s also because reputation is so precious for lawyers. There is a fear that if you lose your reputation, you’ll lose your practice or your professional status. Design has a culture that is a little more forgiving. So organizations have to change to let lawyers and other employees take risks without losing status.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I think the category of status is really helpful here. Because in a design culture, failures can actually add to your status. A lot of Silicon Valley types won’t even begin to trust you unless you can point to a concrete failure from your past.

Margaret Hagan: Right, it’s one of the first questions they ask you.

Another thing that’s necessary is greater openness and transparency about your process — what you’ve tried, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Could you tell me about a few things you’ve learned by looking at the legal industry through the lens of design that other people might not appreciate or understand?

Margaret Hagan: One of them is that there are a rising number of people who are concerned with innovation, efficiency, increasing value in the law. I’d say there is a new buzz out there around that, and if it could be sustained, it could lead to more product designers and creative people being embedded into law firms. I’ve been getting a lot more e-mails from all sorts of organizations basically asking, “What is design and how can I use this magic?”

My hope is that the result will be more and more projects where we can re-imagine how law firms work, how they relate to clients, how pro bono should work. I’m excited to put together teams of law students and technologists and designers who can answer some of those questions. A lot of that has been prompted by the things people have been reading about the changing economics of law firms.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: That makes sense to me. My experience has been that designers are the ones who tend to say, “There’s going to be a fundamental shift that could completely disrupt this industry? Awesome!” They tend to see opportunities there where most people are afraid.

Margaret Hagan: It certainly makes people more open to trying out new things.

Another idea that really interests me as a designer is the “full service” law firm, which would view its clients not just as legal clients, but in the context of the full map of their experience. It would help clients with whatever other pressing problems present themselves at the same time as their legal challenge. The goal would be to get clients not just through the crisis, but to a better place in their business life or their personal life.

A lot of clients and in-house counsel are now starting to push back on the price of legal advice. This is one way that law firms could respond, by offering fuller sets of services. This is one thing we’ve been working on at Stanford — we’re running workshops and doing other things to help re-imagine what that lawyer-client relationship might look like.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: “Empathy” has become kind of a buzzword in the field of design, and there’s also a lot of people who don’t fully appreciate what it means. But I wonder if the answer might be to help lawyers use empathy in the way that designers do. Here’s what I mean. Designers aren’t just nice people — they use empathy as a part of their research method. Do you think there is a way lawyers could do that?

Margaret Hagan: Yeah, empathy is a word I try not to use around lawyers. But you’re right in that empathy with users or user research is a way to identify new markets. Innovation is all about finding new markets; user research lets you do that with the clients you already have, finding out other things that they’re concerned about or trying to accomplish. Lawyers could provide for many of those needs, especially in their role as trusted advisers. If they viewed that role of the trusted adviser as their center, rather than their role as technical experts or legal strategists, it could open up a whole host of services they could provide to clients from end to end.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: We’re interested in models that could end up as a big part of the future of the legal industry, even if they seem strange or exotic today. What’s one model or idea that you would bet on being a part of the legal industry’s future?

Margaret Hagan: I think the consumer law market is going to explode. I think there will be a huge market for middle-class consumers who want to handle legal matters on their own, by themselves, at home on a computer. I think there is a huge market for legal services that people either didn’t know existed or haven’t followed through on because of cost. You’ll see many more things that resemble what’s coming out now, which are lawyer-supported fixed-fee packages for doing things like getting your startup in order or getting your will done. What LegalZoom and RocketLawyer are doing now will eventually become a whole host of different legal offerings. I think there is a huge opportunity for that new kind of middle-class law.

There’s also opportunity in lower-class law. I think you’ll see new design patterns that could serve a lot of people really well. There are a lot of courts that are looking to things like online dispute resolution, mainly to save money. If you were able to carry that out with thoughtful, quality design, it could help a lot of people. That’s the sort of thing I’d like to work on.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I think you’re right to view that unmet demand as a source of opportunity. You may know that in Kenya, many more people now use a cell phone-based banking system instead of traditional banks. That’s led to an explosion of follow-on activity by entrepreneurs figuring out different ways to make money in that environment. What’s interesting is that that may give us some significant insight into how to make money in the cashless society that’s developing everywhere else.

Well, you can imagine that there’s sort of an equivalent population in relation to the law in the United States. They’re probably a combination of students, working-class Millennials, recent immigrants... folks whose main access to the Internet is through their phones and who may be aware of a need for legal services at some point. It would be interesting to try to design a system of legal services with those folks at its center, because in the process you would probably develop a bunch of things that rich people would also pay for.

Margaret Hagan: Yup. It should be friendly, accessible — it could even be playful, though that’s not always the right word to use in legal interactions. But even very smart, very successful people can feel dumb when it comes to law. The user needs a lot of support. Even people who are very “DIY” in other areas of their lives — people who may have started companies or who manage their own finances — worry that they’re going to break the rules or mess things up when it comes to the law. So I’m really hoping we can find some really great communication designers and Web designers for the law, folks who are really good at making hard stuff easy, maybe even so easy that the average Millennial would want to use it.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: When we first started getting interested in innovation in the legal industry, the first category we investigated was technology. And we discovered that it’s really hard to figure out how technology will impact an industry without a design mindset, because technology isn’t some abstract force — it manifests in specific, concrete products. You have to think like a designer to figure out what the outlines of those might be for any given market.

Here’s why I bring this up. What are some other problems facing the future of the legal industry that you think we’ll need a design mentality to solve?

Margaret Hagan: Design tends to be good at solving any system where there are a whole bunch of stakeholders. That’s government for sure. It’s one reason why we need government to provide better data formats, APIs, ways that people can build applications on top of government data about law or the law itself. We need government to get invested in the raw materials of design so people can start thinking about the applications they’ll run on top of government or on top of the courts.

In corporate law, design can do a really good job of facilitating breakthroughs products and ideas. A lot of companies are looking at ways to get their in-house counsel to deliver more effectively for less money. I think that design is a way of making sure those efforts won’t just be incremental. It’s a way of helping us get to more disruptive, big-picture methods for getting us where we want to go, whether it’s drawing from analogous industries or doing some really generative internal research. But there’s always a risk that if you don’t go through something like the design process, you’ll only end up with incremental change.

Another important role for design to play is advocacy for the customer, the end-user, or the client. If lawyers learn even a little bit about that kind of design, it could kick off a new era of human-centered law. It’s hard to imagine that law will be fun to deal with, but I think you could think of a future where dealing with the law feels much more quick, easy, and empowering than it does now. If more people within the law understood design, it could help them move toward that goal when they’re deciding things like what kind of website a court should have or the way clients should feel when they interact with an attorney. It helps you get past the conversation about free coffee and the kind of art you have on the walls.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: That’s interesting. That’s much more than I imagined. I think you’re almost talking about design picking up the kind of work that social justice movements once did within the law. Not to say that those movements have disappeared... but I think you could really imagine a future where design is the most visible driving force making law better for everybody. I think this could be a way of accomplishing some of those social justice goals even in a world where everybody is going into Big Law because they have to pay off their student loans.

Margaret Hagan: I think that’s true. If we could combine the legal toolkit with the perspective of design, we could see a whole new generation of professionals who are not just able to litigate or do transactions, but implement ideas for improving how the law works. This would help people who decide they do care about social justice to actually do something about it and carry their ideas out. I don’t think existing legal education gives you the toolkit to get things done yourself. It assumes you’re going to be working for somebody else, getting their deals done. But I think that people who care about social justice want to build things that are much bigger than transactions.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I like how you’re connecting this with individuals’ ideal of success. Here’s what I mean. I think that if I had been in college and went home to my parents and said, “Hey, I think I want to be a designer,” my dad would have said to me, “Oh, you mean like Steve Jobs, right?” The ideal of success for design necessarily includes making beautiful, elegant things.

I don’t think that’s true in the same way for law. But I think there are still plenty of people who enter the legal profession and strive for elegance in the same way. Design could give them a kind of flag to rally around.

Margaret Hagan: Yes. I think that’s why you see all this interest around law and design. People have this image of lawyers as perfectionists — they always want to make sure their document has the exact right amount of whitespace or the right font size. That may just sound like window dressing, but I think that lawyers who have some of that mentality of craftsmanship provide a great starting point. I think you could see some of that same spirit being applied to actually make things usable. To me, it’s this window of great potential for people who actually care about users.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I’d like to ask you a little bit more about design and technology. I think that design is really good at looking at a new technology and saying, “Okay, that’s cool, but here’s the one thing about it that will actually matter.” Is that true in your experience? What about design helps it to do that?

Margaret Hagan: Yeah. I think that looking at analogous industries is one thing that helps designers do that. And there are a lot of industries that are analogous to law where we could look for success stories. There’s medicine, there’s finance. But there hasn’t yet been a truly great, flashy success story when it comes to legal technology. A lot of law-related tech startup firms in Silicon Valley are having trouble moving beyond the angel phase or the seed round. When they go around to law firms, they find that lawyers are really concerned that they’ll be investing in a technology that will eventually win.

Ravel Law, which came out of Stanford, is doing some really great things in legal research, visualization, and using technology to make sense of big data. I’m hoping that they can be one of the first big demonstrations of how technology can help lawyers make sense of their data or help them find what they need in a better way.

I think that the experience of going through the design process itself also has the potential to unlock lawyers’ ideas about what technologies might make things better, simply because it provides a way to get away from the usual way of doing things. It’s just getting them out of the office, getting them in conversation with different people, getting the inspiration going.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: The specific goal facing us in Law2023 right now is designing the law firm of the future. We’re all pretty sure that that firm will need to be an organization that constantly learns in a way today’s firms don’t. What role do you think design could play in building that kind of learning culture?

Margaret Hagan: Design gives you a way of talking about what you’re hoping to accomplish, maybe more in qualitative metrics than quantitative ones. More demanding corporate clients are going to be pushing firms to try all sorts of new models and pilots. Firms will be forced to try these experiments — they should also have some way of figuring out what’s working and what’s not. Whether it’s an innovation officer or a chief information officer, someone should be responsible for that iterative cycle of hypothesis-pilot-results. I think that will definitely be a feature of the future law firm experience.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I think you’re right that there will be an organizational level cycle of innovation that corresponds to something someone might read about in an entrepreneurship class at the d.School. But I know that many of the lawyers I know are also very serious about improving from case to case on a personal level. How do you think that aspect of lawyers might fit into this learning culture?

Margaret Hagan: There could be a facilitator or point person within the firm who helps those individuals set goal posts or milestones, then checks back in with them. I’m really interested in how we can get metrics into firms — first lightweight ones, then quite serious ones — that help lawyers do their jobs better and help clients assess what they’re getting. I’m interested in how we can do better than the anecdotes and marketing materials we have right now. I hadn’t really thought about those metrics as learning, but I think there could be some really great connections there.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It seems to me that the only risk is that you end up with some sort of flawed meritocracy or accountability regime. But we already have that now with revenue, don’t we?

Margaret Hagan: It would be interesting if you could create feedback loops within the firm that help scale some of the good things that one lawyer might already be doing, or collecting interesting workarounds and ideas and then spreading them through the organization.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I think it’s probably a matter of incentives. My wife was once a high school teacher, and she noticed that there wasn’t a lot of sharing of the best ideas that work in classrooms. One reason is what nobody had any time to stop and talk about that kind of thing. Well, lawyers are also strapped for time, but firms do have a lot of money (at least compared to inner-city high schools). I feel like as long as they can devote resources to the problem and make it somebody’s job, there would be the potential to learn a lot pretty quickly without ever leaving the boundaries of the organization.

Margaret Hagan: Yeah — one of my colleagues at the d.School was working on professional development for high school teachers and discovered a lot of the same problems your wife faced. But we also know that once people are tuned in, they really enjoy learning from their colleagues. It just takes a lot of persuasion at the beginning to get people into that kind of system.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Presumably it has also sorts of nice HR follow-on effects. I mean, I’m guessing these firms are already spending money on wilderness retreats and team-building exercises. You could use the same money in a way that actually teaches you something about your firm.

So we’ve talked a lot about lawyers. But I know you’re interested in the role of law in building a just society more generally. What has design taught you about that?

Margaret Hagan: Imagine that we had a really great, really usable interface for the law. Imagine that we can’t change any of the laws that Congress passes or any of the things that courts decide, but all we’ve got is a really great cover on it that lets a regular person navigate this difficult system and get the best results possible. I imagine that there is a whole bunch of little apps and sites and posters we could use to do that, to make things better.

Think about how useful that would be for immigration law, for example. There’s all sorts of low-hanging fruit there. I think there is huge potential for all sorts of applications and wayfinders. People who are interested in design or technology can understand law well enough to create those tools. They can create a part of the interface that would give people the map they need.

People shouldn’t end up on Yahoo Answers when they are trying to figure out how to get a green card for their husband or deal with a family law dispute. But a whole lot of people are relying on really unreliable information when they’re trying to deal with legal issues like that. I’m not talking about just helping people order a document or fill out a form. I’m talking about tools that help people get through an entire legal process in a way that gives them greater agency.

We could use pretty well-established communication and interaction design principles to do that. It’s not rocket science. It doesn’t require a lot of money. It just requires bringing the right people together.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I think you’re talking about tools that could change the system of law almost in the same way that a GPS changes the system of driving. Here’s what I mean. When I lived in Maryland, I often had to literally navigate the system of Washington DC. As you probably know, DC has all these crazy roundabouts. Now in theory I could spend a lot of time agitating and protesting to get them to remove the roundabouts so I could navigate the city more easily. But if I have a GPS that helps me, I can accomplish what I was trying to do even if the streets are not well-designed. You could see design and technology playing a similar role in regards to the law.

Margaret Hagan: Yes. It’s all about the balance of power. You shouldn’t need to be rich to abide by the law. You shouldn’t need to be a lawyer to follow the rules of society. Even with a law degree, it’s hard to figure out how to do those things. It’s really about removing those burdens for everybody.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. It is attributed to Insight Labs, and the original version can be found here.