Law that works for all — Finding inspiration (and friendship!) in legal design thinking

Jeff Ward
Jeff Ward
Sep 18 · 5 min read

Anyone close to the law knows this: the law often fails. That is, for far too long, far too few people have had access to the law as a means to solve problems.

Between those able to access full-freight legal services, on one end, and those eligible for legal aid and pro bono services, on the other, there is a massive middle — nearly 90% of all people — not receiving sufficient legal assistance to address their problems. This gap represents perhaps one of the greatest market failures of any major industry. Even more, this gap signals an embarrassingly persistent failure of justice.

If the last, say, 80 years or more are any indication, then we can be sure that this gap is not going to narrow unless we inspire some audaciously different ideas that respond to a much broader range of human needs. So, what tools do we have to jumpstart such change?

There are current discussions and proposals for numerous changes that could enhance access to legal services — from open access initiatives, to tackling law school affordability, to experiments with limited-license legal technicians. States like Utah and California are exploring regulatory changes related to unauthorized practice and law firm ownership, intending to jumpstart access through innovation.

I welcome these explorations. And I find further hope in at least three additional assets — namely (1) available design methodologies, (2) advancing technology tools, and (3) a growing community of practice dedicated to a better legal future.

  1. Available design methodologies: As I’ve noted elsewhere, human-centered design thinking can help bring inclusive innovation to law. Unlike more traditional methodologies, it privileges creative processes and empowers acts of change-making, focusing not on what the lawisbut rather on what it should be. The law, like every powerful institution, needs engines of renewal and disruption, and human-centered design thinking fuels these engines, giving students and legal practitioners and all stakeholders full license to make tomorrow’s law better than today’s.
  2. Advancing technology tools: Indeed, technological tools offer significant opportunities here — to lower costs, create new market opportunities, raise quality, enhance predictability, and more. Yet, many hurdles stand in the way of this promise, and the promise of expanded access to law through technology will not be realized without intentional intervention. Technology is ethically neutral, but we can insist that its benefits accrue significantly to the under-resourced and under-served.
  3. A growing community of practice: It might seem simple, but one of the unspoken benefits of using the tools of human-centered design thinking to reshape the ways that legal services are delivered is that it tends to forge connections with some really wonderful people — people like the inspirational Cat Moon, the visionary and tech-savvy David Colorusso, and the pioneering Margaret Hagan. Because design has not traditionally had a significant place in legal education and legal practice, it helps to have allies.

So, with friendship and a community of practice in mind, I’ve invited three of these friends — Raina Haque (Wake Forest Law), Kevin Lee (Campbell Law), Kelli Raker (Duke Law) — to share some quick thoughts on using human-centered design in law.

Jeff: Raina, as the Duke Center on Law & Tech celebrates this year’s Duke Law Tech Lab “Demo Day” with our start-up teams that focus on access to legal services, you, Kevin, Kelli, and I will work with dozens of forward-thinking stakeholders to generate creative ideas for building thriving legal services markets for the “massive middle” that has long been left underserved by the law. Why now? How do you see legal service delivery changing?

Raina: Certainly technology is changing the practice of law. For example, we’re seeing innovations employing simple rules-based engines and more advanced artificial intelligence are rapidly disrupting the traditional models of legal research, litigation, discovery, contract formation, etc. in nearly every practice area and the operation of every industry.

Jeff: Are these positive changes?

Raina: They can be. Ideally, these exciting new technologies can revolutionize the legal industry by increasing public access to justice, decreasing the cost and time of legal analysis, and creating high quality work product. And this all puts new demands on us as legal educators.

Jeff: In what ways?

Raina: As with any disruptive technology in the workforce, there will be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. All of us in academia must take up the challenge to rethink education and pedagogy so that our graduates develop the forms of literacy that jurists and legal practitioners will need to foster ethical innovation, strengthen critical inquiry, and improve A2J in the generation to come. Attorneys who equip themselves with an understanding of how to design systems for untapped markets will be in the best position to weather current disruptions to the market due to globalization, technology, and liberalization and to equip themselves to serve the “Massive Middle.”

Jeff: Kevin, at Campbell Law you taught a recent course with Professor Tsai Lu Liu, Department Head of Graphic Design + Industrial Design at NC State. What did you take away from that experience?

Kevin: The students had a rich learning experience with Professor Liu. Human-centered design is ultimately about appreciating the troubles and successes of real-life people. The design class gave the students the chance to encounter the law as it is experienced in its glory and misery by flesh and blood persons. I hope it allowed them to see the meaning of the claim that law exists to serve the quotidian needs of average people and not just the grandness and power of the state.

Jeff: Wow! That’s a powerful message, and certainly one that’s consistent with our mutual commitments to expanding access to legal services. I wonder, Kelli, through your experiences with Duke Law By Design, how you see design approaches benefitting our service to what Kevin articulately calls “the quotidian needs of average people”

Kelli: Complex social issues like human trafficking — the focus of a current design project — don’t have simple solutions, and yet require our greatest innovations to solve. By using a human-centered design process to consider specific “how might we…?” questions, we can keep the focus of our creativity on the people connected to the issue while we prototype options to improve processes, products, and even policies and laws. We’ll be bringing together community leaders and graduate and professional students to consider new ways to addressing human trafficking in North Carolina.

Jeff: I’m glad to have the chance to work with all of you. And I’m happy to know there are so many people not only envisioning but also actively designing a better law for tomorrow. Thanks.

Jeff Ward

Written by

Jeff Ward

Director, Duke Center on Law & Tech

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