How Design Taught Me to Be a ‘Human-Centered’ Lawyer
Not long after I began working with IDEO, I had the privilege of taking part in IDEO’s project to design how its new internal legal group would operate. For those unfamiliar with IDEO’s process, each project begins with a “looking in” phase in which the design team interviews project stakeholders and shares their feedback.
During the project shareback, one of the designers held up a piece of paper with this quote:
“Interacting with legal was one of the worst experiences of my life.”
Maybe the commenter was talking about me. Maybe she was talking about another lawyer. Maybe she was commenting on the legal process generally. It didn’t matter. For the first time in my career, I thought about the impact I have on the people I interact with in my role as a lawyer, and how that impact might be quite negative.
We never discussed anything like this in law school. Instead, we focused on “making cases,” “winning arguments,” and “clerking for the right judge.” Later, as Biglaw associates, we talked about “billing hours,” “closing deals,” and “working with the right partner.” But I don’t recall ever being asked, “How did your client feel about how you handled that matter?” or, “How did the lawyer on the other side of that call feel about the interaction?” Or, for that matter, “Are you providing a colleague or client with one of the worst experiences of his life?” We talk about these issues all the time at IDEO when it comes to our clients and their customers, but they aren’t things I ever talked about with fellow attorneys.
In that moment, I made a decision: There was no reason I couldn’t do my job — and do it well — and care about the experience of the people I was affecting.
Fast forward to 2014. I took my mother to see a neurologist at Stanford University. He confirmed our family’s worst fears: My mother had Alzheimer’s, and it was advancing. Rapidly. This was devastating, hard to hear news. And yet, in the car on the way home, I felt strangely positive. Why? Because the doctor took the time to translate the complexity of her disease into language we could understand as non-medical professionals. He walked us through very difficult territory with honesty and compassion. He was respectful of her even as she repeatedly asked him the same questions. And he highlighted the factors we could control. We couldn’t change her disease, but we could approach it proactively and honestly, while giving her as much dignity and comfort as possible.
What if the experience of working with a lawyer felt more like this?
Even though law and legal processes are designed by humans for humans, the reality is that most interactions with legal professionals don’t feel very good. Interactions are often harsh, transactional, and bereft of transparency, emotion, or humanity. Touch points are filled with frustration, confusion, and disempowerment. Lawyers may resort to aggressive tactics as a way to navigate conflict or out of fear they will be taken advantage of in a given situation. Worse, many lawyers I talk to seem to accept this status quo. That’s just the way law is practiced. That’s just the way it is.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Instead, we can practice what my colleague, IDEO partner Chris Domina, in 2011 termed “human-centered” lawyering (when he asked me if I knew “any human-centered lawyers outside of IDEO?”). Human-centered lawyers are those who can treat legal problems as human problems, translate legal complexity into relatable frameworks, and navigate tension and conflict with skill, patience, and respect for all stakeholders involved.
In working toward becoming more human-centered, I’ve come to understand the value of making emotional connections with individuals I’m interacting with and not treating legal matters and the people connected to them as purely transactional. Empathy, the key to human-centered design, is the same key that opens the door to human-centered lawyering.
For example, instead of being frustrated that opposing attorneys are “rejecting” my proposals or “not seeing it my way,” I’ve learned to try to put myself in their shoes. If I were representing their client or working for their in-house legal team, what would I be most concerned about? What problems are they trying to head off, and what problems have they had in the past in these types of situations? Are they frustrated because this is just one of too many things they have to deal with today? From this very human place, I can be a collaborative problem solver, rather than someone engaging in an argument to win a point or “push back” because that’s what lawyers are “supposed to do.”
In being human-centered, am I any less firm when it comes to working through difficult legal challenges? No; my colleagues generally refer to me as “strong” and “confident.” Do I “just give” on issues during a challenging negotiation? Not at all. IDEO doesn’t compromise its people or its business, no matter how big the deal or how aggressive the opposition. But neither do we compromise our compassion.
Most legal professionals I know have had interactions with other lawyers who use anger, hostility, power tactics, aggression, and rude or belittling behavior to try to navigate legal situations (and most of us have also been guilty of the same at times). In addition to harming the relationships their clients are trying to build, those behaviors leave their mark on people. They leave people fearful or resentful of lawyers, and of course they tarnish the profession’s reputation. That’s not the kind of impact I want myself or my team to have on the world.
Is the legal team at IDEO perfect? Do we succeed in making every legal interaction with people inside and outside of IDEO positive? Of course not. But as a team, we have a clear purpose: to provide human-centered legal support and solutions to the IDEO community and to the broader legal industry.
In Part II of this article, I’ll delve deeper into what human-centered lawyering looks like in practice.
Stay tuned — and stay human — lawyers.