Updated: Aug 18, 2020
By Alisha Andert.
Innovating legal with Legal Tech and Legal Design
How do you drive innovation within the legal field? This question concerns many of us. And there most certainly is not one answer to it but many. However, there are two terms that are frequently mentioned in this context: Legal Tech and Legal Design. On the one hand, Legal Tech seems to be quite easy to grasp. As the term itself already tells us, the whole concept of it is to make use of technology or some sort of digital service within the legal field. During the Digital era it seems rather natural that Legal Tech becomes an integrated part of most innovation attempts within the legal field.
Legal Design, on the other hand, seems to be a little harder to define. It can be called a new approach to innovation within the legal field, although, the methods that are used, such as Design Thinking, Business Process Modeling and Information Design, are not really new. They are just new to the legal world. What makes Legal Design especially unusual to legal professionals are not only the methods, but also the mindset that comes with it.
A mindset that includes being collaborative and approaching a new challenge with the idea of not knowing anything about it, and therefore, being open about what the result of a process will be. These elements are not what we are being taught in law school and they are most definitely not what the legal business world has taught us thus far.
But other fields outside the legal sector have changed. Agile approaches, new work and other cultural changes in many companies made us reflect on the legal field as well, and the feeling of being behind grew stronger. But with it grew an openness to try new methods.
So how does Legal Design change our approach to innovation? I am looking at that issue and will focus on innovating legal services.
Shifting from increasing billables to product thinking
I don’t want to get too much into the discussion on the “billable hour” and its effects on the willingness to optimize processes or reach results in time. The whole topic has become highly controversial and there are more and more firms that are trying out other pricing models, or at least adapt the original concept of billing by the hour, as it is not satisfying for clients to not know what they will be paying for a service.
Although there hasn’t been a huge breakthrough yet in the pricing of big law firms, something else can be noticed within the controversy: the client’s needs become more relevant. Of course, the discussions are driven by the fear of losing clients if they find a better pricing model at another firm, and thus, they are still focused on increasing or not losing revenue. But this should be approached with the idea of creating a better product for the client, rather than billing as much as possible for the same service. This mindset is what will be increased when using Legal Design to innovate legal services. We are getting into product thinking. Not out of altruistic motives because from a business perspective, creating a product that customers like is more sustainable than just increasing prices.
From result to development driven
“We need Legal Tech in our law firm.”
“We are looking into AI solutions for our business.”
“In a few years from now we will have automated all manual work.”
These are statements that sound familiar when innovation is at stake within the legal field. I am not saying that that way of thinking is wrong. In fact, I am glad to hear when firms are open for new technology and realize that the way they have worked for decades might need to be adapted for the future. However, I see a pattern here that is very common among legal professionals. We tend to be driven by a very specific result that should come out of an undertaking. This is not surprising as lawyers usually are supposed to achieve a certain result for their clients. However, innovation is not a linear process in which a certain result can be set in the beginning and then be reached step by step as time goes by. Still, I see companies making big plans for the future on how to involve technology and digitize their whole business.
Sometimes, the plans are so big that they get cancelled completely when the final budget has to be approved. The sole idea of setting a very specific goal now of what the business will work like in 5 years from now is not only naive, it can be harmful. Changes happen so quickly in these times, needs evolve, new technologies are invented. What’s important is that we are constantly able to react to these things and to keep our developments going. Innovation is not a linear, it is an iterative process. Progress is not measured on how close you got to a result that you predicted in the beginning, but rather on how well you adapted to the changing needs and developments.
There is a famous quote by Henry Ford (although there are debates about whether or not he said it like that) that goes: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This is often quoted in the context of customer feedback lessons. But I also find it suitable to display why we should take a development, rather than a result driven approach to innovation.
Imagine instead of pursuing the goal to make people get around faster with less effort, the early inventors of the automobile would have simply set the goal to breeding faster horses. Super-horses that would be well-trained, never get tired and are extremely fertile to create more super-horses. Being open to a variety of results from an innovation process does not mean that all of the results are equally desirable. It gives more room for the various ways a great result can come in. Development-driven means being agile instead of sticking to a fixed goal, which enables innovators to adapt to changes in the working environment. There is no need to give up on a service when it doesn’t work right now. I am not concerned about a service that does not yet hit the nerve. I am much more concerned about a service that hasn’t changed in many years because a company thinks they have “reached their goal.”
Taking a user-centered perspective
Another important change that Legal Design brings to innovation within the legal field is a user-centered approach. Users can be from many different types of groups of people based on the context we are focussing on. When innovating legal services we will often speak about the client as a user, but lawyers delivering the service and other stakeholders involved can also be users. Why is it so important to take a user’s perspective when innovating? In order to understand that we just need to look into a different field in which products are designed.
How would a product designer approach the new design of a soda can? He would most likely talk to customers first. “In what situation do you use a soda can?”, “What do you like about it and what are you missing?”, “Do you have a favorite soda can and why is it your favorite?”. But not only that, a product designer would become fully immersed with the customer’s perspective. He would buy a soda can himself, look at it, hold it in his hand, drink from it. He would also observe the typical user at a fast food restaurant or cinema and truly determine the status quo of the current product.
Why? Because in order to create a better product (which should always be our goal), we need to really understand the needs and pain points that go along with it. I am aware that lawyers will never design soda cans. But a product thinking approach will help create better legal services. Legal services that people want, like and yes, are willing to pay for. This cannot be done without taking a user-centered perspective at some point.
In practical terms it means that when approaching innovation in legal services we should always identify the users that are involved or affected by it. Before throwing around ideas on how to improve a service, there will be a research phase in which the core needs and pain points are recognized. This is a way to prevent focusing on a service that clients don’t really desire.
Co-creative design as a key for desirable solutions
Along with a user-centered approach to innovation comes co-creative design. Co-creation means developing solutions together with a user. Asking a client what he or she wants in the beginning of a project and then never talking to them again until delivering a solution is risky when you want to make sure you’re meeting that client’s expectations. A typical pain point in contract design is that what the parties wanted wasn’t quite understood or when important issues only come up late in the process. The important difference of a product thinking approach is that you keep the user involved in the process. Having short feedback loops and testing a result with users enables us to get much closer to the user’s needs.
Imagine coming up with a great idea, such as offering pre-recorded video counseling for clients in order to increase time efficiency and enable clients to access legal counseling at any time they want from every possible place. A fancy cloud-solution for the recorded video counseling is developed by a tech team and a huge pile of money is invested in that innovative service. Finally it goes to market and...clients don’t use it. It now becomes apparent that what the clients were actually willing to pay for was not just the legal advice itself but rather the interaction with their lawyers that has now gone missing.
In an innovation process that used co-creative design, you would have built a prototype of the new recorded video-counseling and tested it with your clients. This way, early on, you would have found out that the great idea you had just didn’t quite hit with your clients, which would have saved a lot of money. And in addition, made you acquire new insights into your client’s needs.
From separation to interdisciplinary team work
The different roles that are needed when developing a good product cannot only be performed by lawyers. And they shouldn’t be expected to. This seems unusual to many legal professionals as there are very few interdisciplinary touch points in law school and law firms.
But let’s have another look at that product designer with the new soda can. Will he be the one crafting the new can, design the font and market the product? Will he deliver it to the stores and sell it to his users? Most likely not. For some reason, it still seems to be a common understanding that lawyers do all of these things alone. There might be different specialties on tax law, corporate law and criminal law, but in the end, our minds work similarly. We have learned to think in very specific directions. Risk management, liabilities, costs - all of which are expected from us on a professional legal level. In order to create legal services as a better product though, it’s time to open up to more directions. The best way to do that is by bringing different minds together. Interdisciplinary teams have a huge advantage in combining different perspectives and skill sets. This way they perform better on various levels and are more likely to adapt to changing environments.
Legal Design will change the way we approach innovating legal services. With a shift to product thinking, lawyers will be driven by development. Creating solutions will involve the user's perspectives as well as the attempt to develop solutions together with the affected users. In more practical terms, using Legal Design in legal services requires a shift from the way law firms currently perform, to a more interdisciplinary type of team work.
About the author:
Alisha Andert LL.M. is co-founder of This is Legal Design, an innovation consultancy for the legal field. She is also holding the position as Head of Legal Innovation at the digital law firm Chevalier in Berlin. Alisha moreover is honorary chairwoman of the German Legal Tech Association.