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Is the legal UX broken? And if so, how do we fix it?

UX: isn’t that a software term? Juro co-founder and CEO Richard Mabey explains just how relevant UX is to legal - and why it badly needs our attention to fix.

It’s fair to say that for centuries, we in the legal profession focused pretty much exclusively on the practice of law. Understanding legislation and case law, interpreting it correctly - even creatively - and applying it. Then at some point in the last few decades we embraced the fact that legal processes sit at the heart of almost all commerce, and the focus shifted from the practice of law to the business of law.

Lawyers went from being reactive gatekeepers to strategic business partners. Commercial awareness became the must-have attribute for any new candidate hoping to join an elite law firm. The global financial crisis of 2008 made ‘more for less’ the universal mantra, and legal operations was born.

But the dizzying pace of technological innovation in legal, with venture-backed startups - Juro included - bringing disruptive solutions to market, is a stark reminder that the new frontier in making legal services better has moved beyond the practice and business of law. Clients, in all industries and sectors, are now concerned with the experience of law. And an awful lot of them aren’t happy with what they see.

What is UX?

UX - user experience - is a term that’s often used improperly, but it’s broadly concerned with optimising how easy, accessible and pleasant something is to use. In the world of software, it’s shorthand for how well designed your product is (‘ease of use’). It’s hard to define but you know it when you see it - like when Apple started shipping mobile phones that didn’t need to be accompanied by instruction manuals, and could be plugged in and used straight away, for example. A combination of lots of research (how do people tend to react when you stick a new device in their hand?) and a great user interface (all the information fits on one page, and I can navigate through it intuitively) makes for a best-in-class user experience.

Getting to that point requires a gargantuan amount of work, and profound levels of empathy for the user. Ilya Bovkonov, Juro’s lead product designer, frames our task by “focusing on real-life situations users encounter, to understand their feelings and motivations when they perform tasks. What are their red flags, and drivers? What questions are they asking themselves?” This is how legal begins its journey to better UX.

So what? Why does the UX of a legal solution even matter - if the advice being provided is correct, or the documents the tool produces are robust, who cares what the UX is like? The reason we should worry about all this comes down to poor adoption of tools. In our more-for-less environment, increasingly lawyers and non-lawyers are being encouraged to automate or self-serve legal processes, rather than have a senior counsel stand over their shoulder and make sure they do the right thing. That’s great. But if tools are too hard, complicated or slow to use, then users won’t adopt them - creating a vacuum of legal risk that can quickly become pretty serious.

For example, let’s say a business sets up a new process for high-volume documents - sales contracts, say - where users self-serve from a document automation tool. Legal creates templates, puts rules in place that limit users’ discretion and ability to change key terms, and lets the sales team loose. But the tool is too difficult for non-lawyers to use without vast amounts of training, so salespeople skip a few training sessions while they chase deals.

Pretty soon they find it’s too hard to generate agreements using the approved process, and customers don’t like signing in it anyway - so instead they take an old document, copy/paste, change a few terms, and send it out. Suddenly legal loses sight and control of the process, human error creeps back in, and all kinds of legal risk are created without any real accountability. Good UX would keep users in the process that mitigates risk; bad UX means you wasted money on the solution, and likely will incur risk due to the messy process you’ve created.

How lawyers differentiate in a crowded market

It’s easy to see how this need for better UX is playing out in legal services. Legal is a mature market with cost pressure, ever-increasing specialisation, and lots of competition: deregulation is only adding to that pressure, increasing the number and variety of new entrants to the market, which also puts pressure on people’s willingness to pay. All of which means that vendors don’t have many options if they want to stand out.

If you want to differentiate yourself giving legal advice, then you can either give better advice, give it cheaper, or give recipients of your advice a better experience. Giving ‘better’ advice is pretty hard to define - legal advice is often either right or wrong, and information is much less siloed than it used to be. There was a time when lawyers really were mysterious keepers of arcane centuries-old secrets; nowadays the universe of knowledge that can’t be googled shrinks by the second. Not much room to manoeuvre there. Giving advice more cheaply is something that would appeal to plenty of clients paying by the hour, and lawyers are making some progress here with AFAs, but legal services are still pretty expensive.

But differentiating based on experience is where we’ve seen so many of the big successes in recent years: Axiom, Riverview, Elevate, Lawyers On Demand, and startups like F-LEX and Lexoo. These companies take it as read that end-users require excellence in the practice of law, and a nuanced understanding of the business of law - but they also need a first-class experience of law. This isn’t necessarily new. Private practice lawyers have always chased a better experience for their clients in some way in the ‘real world’ - whether that’s taking them to dinner with the right bankers, or to sporting events, or being available at all hours of the day. But new market entrants are taking that to another level in terms of versatility and flexibility - and leveraging technology to do it.

The big challenge for legal, then, is to take this focus on UX much, much further - learning from peers in other industries. So who is doing UX well, in industries that traditionally do it badly?

Who’s getting it right?

Finance is the obvious place to start. The team at Monzo looked at the comfort and pleasure people take in managing their lives on their phones, and gambled that enough people were ready to get rid of experiences like going into a bank branch, having to call people, waiting on hold, and having limited transparency over their spending. They were vindicated - hitting 1,000,000 customers, from whom you raise £20m in crowdfunding, proves that Monzo was right: people were ready for a better banking UX.

Other successes like Transferwise and Revolut only underline how ready people were to improve their experiences with the finance industry. And while customer-facing companies (B2C) are always ahead of business-to-business companies (B2B), the latter is catching up. Some of the biggest B2B successes in recent years are those that realised that business buyers are people too, and they appreciate good UX just as much as B2C users do. That’s where pioneers like Zendesk, Salesforce and Intercom come in, creating business solutions with great UX - and quickly establishing themselves as the gold standard.

Slaying legalese

All of which brings us to the current state of the legal UX, which is undeniably some way behind other industries we’ve mentioned, like telecoms and finance.

Apple can give you a smartphone with which you can perform incredibly complicated feats right out of the box, without ever needing any instructions. Can you say the same about - for example - conveyancing? If you need to sell your home to a third party, could you identify and discharge your legal obligations without needing any instructions? For almost all of us, the answer would be no, and for an extremely obvious reason: for the most part, legal services aren’t designed for regular users. They’re designed by and for lawyers.

Most big transactions or contracts need a lawyer for each party, obscuring the process for the client and creating a barrier to good UX. There are a few examples of disruptors providing a great legal UX directly to users: DoNotPay uses an AI-driven chatbot to let people challenge various civil penalties, like parking tickets; Farewill lets you generate a legally binding will online in a matter of minutes. The obvious difficulty that new entrants like these face, however, is that legal activities are often protected (“reserved”) and can only be carried out by professionals deemed to be qualified by the relevant regulators. DoNotPay has already run into controversy by providing legal advice, in effect, without a lawyer.

These activities are protected - in the UK’s case, by the Solicitors Regulation Authority - for good reason. Legal activities can have extremely serious results. Solicitors are held to higher standards, with scary consequences if they get it wrong (being disbarred, for example). This means lawyers are risk-averse, which I’m sure we’d all agree is generally a good thing. But it gives lawyers such a strong disincentive to get something wrong, that it leads to the heavily-caveated legalese that we all know and hate so well: why use ten words when fifty will do? Our intention to protect people from the harms that can flow from failures in legal services only end up erecting ever more barriers to people actually having a good legal UX.

This is where companies like DoNotPay, Farewill, Juro, and so many others, come in to try and tip the balance back the other way. If UX has developed in the property sector to the extent that you can investigate, apply for and secure a mortgage all from within a chat window - using a service like Habito - why does the next part of that same process (buying a home) require you to regress back to hard-copy contracts, signing and scanning, posting documents or turning up at a solicitor’s office? If critically important personal services like seeing a doctor, opening a bank account and getting a mortgage can be delivered with a great user experience, through an accessible, easy-to-use and easy-to-understand platform, how long will customers tolerate legal services being stuck in the world of bad UX?

This is partly why legal design is an increasingly important issue for our industry, with specialist designers like Stefania Passera working to create legal experiences that actually make people feel good. “From a purely experiential perspective, many of the "legal" touchpoints between organizations and citizens/consumers are so grotesquely off-brand, incoherent, and impolite,” Stefania told me. “Why should I engage with an organization which does not make any effort to communicate with me? Why should I trust them when nothing in their agreements or policies conveys any evidence of care, effort or respect?”

Photo: The privacy policies of the major tech companies printed out, some of which would take 74 days to read!

Photographer: Dima Yorovinsky

The catalysts for change

The good news is that there are plenty of people out there who can help us fix legal’s UX - starting with the government. In the UK, many of the legal processes we go through still live on paper because the government says they should. The UK government introduced the Legal Services Act to allow Alternative Business Structures into legal, diversifying providers and increasing competition; it’s also considering electronic witnessing of documents at the moment, which would have a big impact on contract processes. But some jurisdictions still require every page of a contract to be initialed before signature, creating serious barriers between the end-users of legal and the kind of UX they’ve come to expect from other industries.

Changing behaviours on the demand side are also forcing innovation in legal UX. Delivering legal services that quickly and seamlessly solve people’s problems requires a lot of data, and millennials (and the generations behind them) are much more comfortable giving up personal data in a value exchange that gets them better services for free. Why else would so many create a profile detailing their connections and interests in Instagram, fully aware that it will be sold to advertisers who’ll follow them around the internet? The crude answer is that they understand that making Instagram fun and free costs money, and giving up personal data is the price to pay. B2B will always lag behind B2C, but how long before consumers demand legal services follow suit?

Of course, there’s a huge counterweight to this inexorable move to digitised, highly designed, UX-first legal services: the lawyer themselves. One reason that people are still prepared go to a lawyer’s office to write a will, or sign a commercial agreement, or sell land, is precisely because of the trust and human interaction you feel from the lawyer in front of you. Having a highly qualified, deeply responsible person right there, who looks and sounds authoritative, has certificates on the wall, and a big study full of leather-bound books, is comforting. It makes you feel protected. It’s part of the reason why sole practitioners and small law firms are still the majority of practising lawyers - many people run into legal issues only three or four times in their lives, and it’s scary. As long as that’s the case, real-life lawyers with real-life soft skills will form a critical part of the legal UX.

If we are to move from the practice and business of law to the experience of law, and deliver a genuinely great legal UX, then the truth is that everyone has a role to play. Software businesses like ours will continue to work to remove barriers and friction from processes that need to feel more human; legal practitioners will work to deliver a service that’s flexible and accessible, as well as authoritative; and governments will continue to look for reforms that help legal’s UX to catch up with finance, telecoms, and everyone else who’s moving forward. Striving to perfect the legal UX might seem like a technical, inward-looking exercise, but if we get it right, the consequences are profound: people find it easier to realise their legal rights and discharge their obligations. It becomes easier to get access to justice, or to start a business. Paperwork becomes less onerous, innovative companies thrive, and both lawyers and their clients are free to spend time doing the things they really want to. What are we waiting for?


About the Author Richard Mabey is the co-founder and CEO of Juro.