Law Schools Begin to Embrace Design Thinking

The human-centered approach to problem-solving has the potential to transform the practice of law

Design thinking has the potential to transform the practice of law by making it more accessible, while helping lawyers to improve service delivery, create digital products, and make legal information less complex.

Its successful use in big law firms including Linklaters, and by in-house lawyers at companies such as Shell, has encouraged law schools to add design-thinking methods to their LL.M. programs.

Design thinking is a “human-centered” approach to problem-solving that focuses on clients’ unarticulated needs. It involves creating quick prototypes, then testing and iterating until a successful solution emerges. It was developed as an academic subject for the legal sector at Stanford University, which founded its Legal Design Lab in 2013. Since then, many law schools have started to add legal design courses, including Harvard Law.

“More law schools are teaching design thinking,” says Margaret Hagan, director of the Legal Design Lab and a lecturer at Stanford Institute of Design. “Often, students are taught in classes that are team-based, and in partnership with a court, non-profit, law firm, or corporate team. Students will interview lots of stakeholders and identify new ways to improve the legal system, and then start building new solutions that can be piloted.”

The main benefits of this approach, she says, are the ability to improve client services, make teams more effective, and improve how lawyers communicate and create products.

And yet, design thinking has not become standard practice at most institutions, according to Matthew D’Amore, director of the Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship Program at Cornell Tech. “The law curriculum in the United States focuses on common law and how to think and argue like a lawyer,” he says. “Most law schools don’t have the time in their curriculum or the faculty to teach design thinking.”

Cornell Tech, a technology, business, law and design campus in New York, teaches design thinking in its LL.M. program. Students go through a systematic process of observing, innovating and building new technology products.

“At the core, design thinking involves observing and building empathy for stakeholders and customers,” says Karan Girota, academic lead for the Cornell Tech studio, a set of courses where students develop solutions for companies. “This allows organizations to anticipate customer needs and create new products and services.”

She says that all law students could benefit from learning the methodology to innovate legal services. “Service companies can either innovate themselves or be disrupted,” says Girota. “No sector is immune, and all professionals should focus much more on innovation, experimentation and change, than they typically do.”

Jeff Ward, director of the Duke Center on Law and Tech, believes that a small minority of law schools teach design expressly, but the number is growing. “A great legal education helps create leaders who understand law as a lever to bring about our best societies,” he says. “Design thinking helps us to ensure that the law serves all people. The law needs engines of renewal and disruption, and design thinking fuels these engines, giving students full license to make tomorrow’s legal institutions better than today’s.”

He teaches design thinking in Duke Law’s LL.M. programs, which are increasingly popular classes. “We tend to have really strong demand not only from students but also from law firms and businesses,” says Ward.

Many big law firms are now employing “legal designers” to make legal solutions more tailored, and to improve internal processes. Linklaters, for example, uses the methodology to improve service delivery in its due diligence activities. The firm has moved data from Word tables into tailored Excel spreadsheets that fit into clients’ financial models.

How are law schools teaching design thinking?

Academics are still learning how best to teach design thinking, but Ward says best practice is to take an interdisciplinary approach, involving a broad range of stakeholders in the process. “Design thinking is almost inescapably interdisciplinary,” he says. “It asks us to uproot from our own areas of expertise and to grab fresh ideas from unexpected places. The complexity of modern client issues demands multiple sets of expertise, with approaches from many angles.”

Anna Marra, director of legal project management programs at IE Law School in Spain, stresses that design thinking cannot be condensed into a one-day course: it’s a continuous, non-linear process of discovery. The need to continually learn and innovate to improve existing products and solutions has been called the “perpetual loop of design thinking”. But “if curiosity and exploration are the new normal, law schools have a duty” to teach design-thinking, says Marra.

She suggests that it should be integrated into the core curriculum rather than being offered as a standalone elective option; design thinking is more of a mindset than a set of tools.  

Some academics are hesitant, however, and dismiss legal design as simply the latest fad. Legal design as a practice is still in its infancy. It has been slow to deliver the radical changes it promises.

“The main problem is that from the perspective of most of the lawyers, design-thinking has no credibility,” says Marra. “They think it is not something serious; it can be dismissed as a trend or a fad.” Moreover, she says that the methodology “does not fit the vertical, hierarchic, rigid” organizational structures at many law firms.

But most law schools think that the methodology is here to stay, noting that they have a role to play in winning over hearts and minds. Duke Law’s Ward says: “Design thinking is not a magic [bullet]. Rather, it’s a tool that we utilize to address the problems that we identify. We are the agents of change, and we need to let go of some outmoded methods of legal services before radical change can come about.”

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