Who Says Lawyers Can’t Design?

A few weeks ago, I packed up my studio apartment on Stanford campus for the last time, finally overstaying my welcome. During all the cleaning, I discovered a giant pile of Post-its and colored markers that I accumulated in the last three years from school. Although studying at the law school was my official purpose, I spent an exorbitant amount of time learning about design thinking in parallel (and also computer science but that’s a different story).

From my very first design class on Legal Design with Margaret Hagan, to prototyping privacy policy for Apple, to running training sessions for law firms and in-house counsels from health insurance companies, to ultimately joining the d.school’s renowned LaunchPad program to work on my own venture, it was unclear to me (and probably others at school) whether I was actually working on my JD or faking my way through a graduate program in design.

Thinking back, I realized that lawyers ought to be natural designers, because at its core, lawyering is focused listening — to clients, witnesses, judges, juries — and come up with a strategy or solution to the problem at hand. That is also what design is at its core. Whether you are going through the Discover phase of a design thinking cycle, or conducting pre-trial Discover(y) for a case, you are doing the same thing: understanding a problem, identifying openings for intervention, and solving the problem.

Good lawyers make perfect designers. Lawyers are paid to listen and solve problems, just like designers.

Thinking like a lawyer isn’t that different from thinking like a designer, yet there’s still a sizable misalignment between the two worlds. Why? Two reasons. 1. The superficial contrast between the two industries puts up an artificial barrier between them, making them look more mutually exclusive than they should be. One is a sea of hipster glasses, expertly pressed expressos, and colorful whiteboards, the other is an ocean of thick lenses, expertly pressed suits, and tiny fonts on a Word doc. When the two worlds look that different, the default position is suspicion, not embrace. 2. Design thinking is often introduced to non-designers in a way that’s easy, fun, and accessible, to its own detriment, because people whose work have either lives on the line or big money at stake (e.g. lawyers) treat it as a nice-to-have, not a must-have (in tech-speak: a vitamin, not a painkiller). Introductory design sessions usually take one day, two day, sometimes just a few hours — a “sprint” — and somehow by the end you are a “design thinker.” However, deriving real value from the methodology takes a marathon.

I experienced this first-hand during the last few months, doing user-testing and need-finding 1-on-1s with cancer patients and survivors for AskHilbert. These conversations typically lasted between 30 minutes to 1 hour, and occurred during all hours of the day (Empathy 101: don’t impose your schedule over that of your users, especially if they are going through surgeries or chemo). Our team would review our notes and often re-listen to the conversations multiple times afterwards, looking for clues, revelations, and guidance, as we iterated (and continue to iterate still) our service to help them with financial toxicity. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about this marathon. It takes consistency, discipline, and more than a little blind faith that grinding out these sessions will eventually lead to valuable insights that could make a real difference. And guess who’s good at working hard and grinding out projects (and often gets made fun of for it)? Lawyers!

So if you are a designer who’s suspicious of the stodgy stereotype of lawyers, there’s more than meets the eye. And if you are a lawyer who’s suspicious of the whimsical flare of designers, pick up some Post-its anyways, and give design thinking the benefit of the doubt. Because chances are you are already doing it.

Want to collaborate or just get in touch? Reach out on LinkedIn, Twitter (@kevinsxu), Email (kevin.s.xu@gmail.com)

Special thanks to the unwavering mentorship of Margaret Hagan (Legal Design Lab), constant support of Lucy Ricca (Center on the Legal Profession), and entrepreneurial fellow legal designers like Alix Devendra (Start Here HQ).