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Exceeds its Ambitious Title; A Consequential Work

A Book Review of The Legal Design Book by Astrid Kohlmeier and Meera Klemola


By Robert Dilworth.



Internationally renowned legal design thinkers Astrid Kohlmeier (Munich) and Meera Klemola (Helsinki) have just published The Legal Design Book: Doing Law In The 21st Century. (Wolters Kluwer has scheduled a German edition for fall 2021). This work is intentionally focused on use of legal design in commercial contexts, thus should be of great interest to Legal Business World’s readers.


This is a highly readable and approachable

work; each page is an excellent embodiment of its own principles. The writing style, organization and layout are perfect for a more relaxed setting and pace, for a mind that is ready to reflect and grow. I found this time and money well spent; both would be good investments for any legal professional who wants to evolve with the calling and client expectations in a world of non-stop complexity. I closed the last page enriched; my mind stretched by the power of some new ideas and methods – eloquently expressed by two world-class thought-leaders, supported by highly relatable case studies from industry, law firms, consumer finance, academia, non-profits and others, all richly enhanced by layout design and illustrations from Munich-based designer Tobias Heumann.


Since I am a novice to legal design (in the narrow communications sense that I had first understood), I’ll leave the comparisons of other legal design works to practitioners and experts who have read several. But I am convinced that The Legal Design Book is a needed and consequential work; a precious and timely contribution to legal professionals worldwide.


If you have heard of legal design and are curious to learn the concepts, vocabulary, basic tools and methods, then as the title “The Legal Design Book” boldly suggests, this is your primer. The authors’ laudable goal is to promote use of legal design to help shape a more transparent legal system in which law is an enabler, not a barrier. This goal also dovetails perfectly with today’s accelerated digital transformation of the economy and society – the pace and nature of changes, as well as the need for legal products and services that are more digitalization-friendly.


However, the subtitle is much more telling: “Doing Law In the 21st Century”. For “Legal Design” is both a symptom and a remedy. There is no way to discuss the origin and use of these tools without exploring the need that gives rise to them: a recognition that the highly convergent, binary problem solving style favored by many lawyers - a product of classical legal education and law firm training and incentives - is not always fit for purpose versus 21st Century problems and needs. In many ways, our profession’s mentality, methods and tools are those of the late 20th century, at best. In a today’s world, legal professionals also must adapt with the times and client needs, adding other tools to their toolkit and critically, using discernment, intuition, emotional intelligence, empathy and even a little formal training (which might even come from a non-lawyer !) – in order to know which ones to use first, for which purpose and in which measure. Happily, the authors (supported by research) believe that we all have such abilities – just suppressed or underdeveloped, which can be awakened and nurtured to restore us to a healthier and more effective balance. And that age bears little correlation; that it is a question of openness and willingness to accept new possibilities.


It’s commonly said that if one only has a hammer, every problem is a nail. A really good flashlight has an adjustable beam – broad (flood) and narrow (spot). And intensity levels. All based on purpose. Lawyers excel at highly convergent thinking, which is absolutely critical for many problems and phases of a solution. Our hallmarks are a constructive skepticism and keen ability to detect flaws. Sometimes the hammer, spotlight and even a laser are needed. But not always, equally or prematurely.


The authors - gently, non-judgmentally, but effectively - invite legal professionals to look at themselves more objectively, reboot our skepticism so as to keep it always constructive and solution-oriented and open ourselves to broader tools. They ask why do we often jump first to the solution, don’t first spend more time fully understanding every angle of the problem, can’t see failure as a learning tool, are reluctant to think and test things iteratively, are so risk-averse that we prematurely foreclose creative ideas that could be viable, and rarely sincerely embrace and incorporate pluri-disciplinary and end-client input.


They then show quite convincingly how this is at variance with other professions, businesses, iconic brands and services, etc. that are more successfully adapting to the revolutionary, transformational changes in general society brought by technology, globalization, multi-generational (now 4) workplaces, more cognitively diverse teams, etc. There, a “build to learn” ethos, extensive user-focused process design and multidisciplinary inputs are part of the DNA and core ingredients of successful outcomes, user delight and brand loyalty.

My inferred lesson for my career and that of fellow professionals is that we must recognize and accept that there is no special “lawyers’ exception” to this inexorable trend and societal expectation. All of society is transforming. The sooner we accept this inevitability and embrace the challenges, the truer we can be to our mission of service, be more useful to modern society and regain some of our stature.


The work’s introduction begins definitionally, treating “legal design” as design used in the legal field to transform products, services, work, systems, business strategies, ecosystems and user experiences. The authors introduce legal design as a potential magic key for an industry under intense digital transformation pressures. Chapter 1 then introduces 10 key philosophies or mindsets needed for success; not all of them first nature to lawyers, e.g., deferring judgment, not letting a fear of failure stifle potentially viable ideas, embracing multidisciplinary teamwork, and deeply involving clients. Deftly like a modern Honoré Daumier, Astrid Kohlmeier and Meera Klemola cleverly sketch today’s confrères. Who would not honestly recognize among and within us such caricatures such as the educated lone warrior, eagle-eyed mistake finder, failure-phobic, turbo-charged solution-focused unique expert (versus first a devoted problem finder) or non-sharing, siloed lawyer, all endowed with a factory-equipped, but user-disabled, pivot function?

Chapter 2 then develops the notion of legal design – what it is, how it developed and relates philosophically to other design movements (including the social aspects of the Bauhaus school). Then the many subsets (“invisible skill sets”), why legal design is best viewed as a multi-faceted end-to-end process and most critically, what legal design is emphatically not. The authors skewer a number of common superficial perceptions of things that, while they may be an element of a good design project (such as using graphic design and combining text with icons) are not “legal design” in se.


Having established what legal design is (and is not), the authors address in Chapter 3 why legal design is so of the moment, and essential to coping with some of the challenges of our time. These include the intense cost pressures on in-house counsel and their need for service alternatives and efficiency so as to have time and creativity for high-value tasks. As well as the need for processes that are optimized for the transformative digital tools that are rapidly becoming commonplace, so that we can reap maximum benefit.


Additionally, pressure from today’s dominant service-focused culture, profound changes in our information consumption preferences, and the increased workforce and client expectations of interdisciplinary cooperation as de rigueur – in every other modern field and endeavor. Finally, the need in an exponentially complex world to keep pace with the incessant complement of equally complex new laws and regulations, master them and explain them effectively to those tasked with complying.


The core of the book, Chapter 4, provides step-by-step, end-to-end practical descriptions of how to successfully realize a legal design project in pursuit of this mission. These include steps to (i) establish the optimal project team and culture, (ii) thoroughly research and understand the problems, (iii) synthesize and define key insights and a working problem statement; (iv) generate and select (shortlist) ideas using a variety of creative techniques that draw on a blend of divergent and convergent thinking styles, (v) prototype and test the tentative solution(s) and (vi) implement the final choice(s). The marvel of this process is that it privileges (and even requires) diverse perspectives and active participation, thereby boosting the likelihood of innovative, viable solutions and enhanced stakeholder commitment at the adoption stage. Throughout this section, attention is sensitively given to interpersonal and ethical dimensions.


This is followed in Chapter 5 by the cases studies from the fields noted above. Uniformly, users of modern legal design thinking experienced improved outcomes, relationships among stakeholders (including with legal counsel) and even trust between commercially contracting parties. Ample evidence that since so many challenging problems of our age do not arise in isolation – rather have systemic causes – effective, durable solutions also require multiple lenses and skillsets.


Having demonstrated how legal design plays a major role in legal transformation, the authors in Chapter 6 examine leading professional profile models, i.e., I, X and T-shaped professionals and the Delta model (indeed dynamic), to see where legal designers might best fit. They put forth a unique floating model based on a hybrid of five skillsets. They then suggest a variety of potential career roles for such professionals in the main types of legal organizations. They conclude this 330-page tour de force (text, illustrations, note space, bibliography and index) in Chapters 7 and 8 by focusing on a multi-tiered model of Legal User Experience (LUX) and very practical suggestions for empirically measuring the success and value of legal design projects. Critically, this includes a temporal framework and types of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for the most typical categories of re-design projects. Demonstrating value in today’s data-driven world is of course vital to establishing effectiveness, return on investment (ROI) and obtaining internal support and funding for future innovations.


If you’re legally bi-curious (bi-directional thinking, that is, pivoting based on utility between divergent and convergent cognitive modes), then I heartily recommend that you read this book and incorporate whichever lessons first resonate with your life and practice.


To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (physician, writer, poet, Harvard professor, polymath) “a mind stretched by a new idea can never stretch back to its original dimension”. The Legal Design Book will help you awaken some of your dormant DNA.


 

About the Author

Robert Dilworth is a member of the New York Bar specialized in securities, financial products and derivatives. He is internal counsel at Bank of America / BofA Securities since 1998, currently a Managing Director & Associate General Counsel. He formerly had a similar role at Deutsche Bank in New York and Frankfurt. Robert splits life between New York and Hamburg and is a member of the Liquid Legal Institute, the European Legal Tech Association and the Society of Computers & Law. He is reachable via LinkedIn or e-mail (robert@dilworth.de). He writes above in his personal capacity only.

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