Legal Design Summit: Diving Beneath The Surface

Nóra Al Haider
Apr 20, 2020 · 11 min read


Let’s rewind the clock for a moment. In 2017 the Legal Design Summit was organized in Helsinki. Although the concept had been receiving traction for some years, it seemed as if the Summit acted as a catalyst and launched Legal Design into orbit. Labs and agencies popped up, law firms hired legal designers and governmental departments enrolled their civil servants in design thinking courses.

So what happens more than 2 years later when the conference is organized again? Is there anything left to say? Can you repeat the same message and shout from the rooftops that legal design will change the legal world? I wondered whether the same spirit of optimism would govern the 2019 conference or whether something else would lurk beneath the surface.

During the 2017 summit, I created a word cloud depicting the words that were mentioned most often. I thought it would be interesting to keep track of the keywords this year as well, so that I could compare the difference in themes. I depicted this comparison in a Venn diagram:

Figure 1: Common themes

Both in 2017 as well as 2019 the focus was on human-centered design, but this year the theme shifted to systematic impact and cultural change. These themes point to perhaps a more critical take on the effectiveness of legal design.

This is not surprising. It is a normal reaction towards something that has been trending for a while. Any concept, whether it’s legal tech, legal ops or legal design, that receives a lot of hype will come to a certain tipping point. It’s at this tipping point that the longevity of the concept is determined. This development is visualized in Gartner’s hype cycle that I sketched out below:

Figure 2: Gartner’s hype cycle

During the conference it became clear that legal design is either at or near the tipping point. A natural reaction in this phase is to scrape away the layer of hype that surrounds the concept and to go back to the roots. In the course of the Summit, it became apparent that the speakers steered away from the hype and emphasized the effectiveness and actual impact that legal design can have.

Stripping away the hype that surrounds a concept means that we have to look at the bare foundation. There’s more focus on the essentials. This is not necessarily a negative thing. It reminds me of albums such as Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen or the American Recordings by Johnny Cash. These albums focused on the most important musical foundations of the artists and by doing so, brought out the essence of their art. Maybe it’s time for our Nebraska.

Figure 3: Legal design recordings

The speakers focused, in some way or the other, on the foundations of legal design and how to create more impact. It seemed to me that the conference could be sectioned into three parts: What has legal design achieved so far? Where are we going next? And what do we need to get there?

Legal Design: What have we achieved so far? Where are we now?

Several speakers focused on the achievements of legal design around the world. This section examines their presentations through illustrated examples of their comments.

Figure 4: Legal design around the world

Dan Jackson (Executive Director, NuLawLab, Northeastern University School of Law) examined the differences between the development of legal design in Europe, America, Asia and Africa. Interestingly, the path diverges in different parts of the world. In Europe, the focus of legal design is embraced more by commercial firms. This in contrast to both North and South America where legal design labs are being established at universities. In Africa and Asia legal design is used by non-governmental organizations. In those regions the community leads the design efforts for development solutions.

Even though the application of legal design is different, according to Dan Jackson, the essence remains the same. The concept is used in different fields of law to gain back some of the creativity that is inherent to this discipline.

Figure 5: Quote: Law is perhaps the most creative idea that mankind has ever come up with. The legal profession, everybody here is part of the exercise in law, and because law is founded on principles of history and precedent and careful deliberation, we forget, that a long long time ago, this was a radical idea. We have to own that, live it and understand that law is not a profession but a creative medium for expression and a means for common good.

Meera Klemola (Founder & Director of Strategy, Observ) and Emma Hertzberg (Founder & Creative Director, Observ) also discussed the development of legal design in different parts of the world. Emphasizing that cultural understanding in applying legal design is everything. Legal design has proven to work across different regions, but the medium and application might differ by taking into account the cultural differences that are specific to a particular region.

Figure 6: Cultural understanding is everything

As mentioned by Dan Jackson, legal design in Europe is embraced by commercial firms. Marco Imperiale (Lawyer and Innovation Officer at LCA) presented counter arguments to 10 reasons on why one should not do legal design.

Figure 7: Quote: Innovation is a step between stubbornness and grit. Stubbornness: ask, receive a negative answer. Ask again, receive another negative answer, etc. Grit: ask, receive a negative answer. Ask why not? Do your homework. Provide arguments that support your thesis. Submit a new proposal.

Legal design has also been embraced by judicial courts. Stacy Butler (Director, Innovation for Justice, University of Arizona), Andrea Lindblom (Administrative Chief, Helsingborg District Court) and Ylva Norling Jönsson (Chief Judge, Helsingborg District Court) discussed their efforts in implementing legal design in judicial courts. One of the many interesting topics that was discussed during this panel discussion was how to innovate the judicial system in a country such as Sweden. The Swedish Justice System in general works well. There is low corruption and the society has high trust in the courts. How do you manage to implement changes in systems such as these? Ylva Norling Jönsson and Andrea Lindblom called this the housecat problem. Similar to a fat housecat that does nothing on its own and just lays by the window waiting for food, it is hard to make changes in courts when people think everything is adequate. As long as everything is working, the first reaction will be to do nothing and let someone else take care of it.

Figure 8: The housecat problem

Legal design is not only used by courts or non-governmental agencies. Marie Potel-Saville (Founder and CEO, Amurabi) and Elisabeth Talbourdet (Project Manager, Amurabi) described their implementation of legal design in compliance programs. Their aim with this particular project was to create a code of compliance document that ensured that the behaviour of white-collar workers corresponded with rules and regulations. As they so adequately said during their presentation: “white-collar workers do not wake up and think who should I bribe today?” They reconstructed the code of compliance by focusing on business reality and putting the actual users of the document first so that it would resonate with them. Their methodology used tools and methods from the fields of neuro and behavioural science. One of their key learnings was on how to implement systematic change. This is a topic that was mentioned by several other speakers. The question that kept popping up was: how to build a stronger foundation for legal design in order to create more impact?

Figure 9: Quote: White-collar workers do not wake up thinking who should I bribe today, so why is there so much corruption?

Legal Design: Where are we going next and what do we need to get there?

Figure 10: Take what you need

The Summit in 2017 seemed to focus much more on explaining the concept of legal design. Now that the discipline is more well known across the world, it seemed that this year’s theme was centered on where this field is going next. We have now seen examples of how legal design is implemented, whether it’s at commercial firms or non-governmental organizations. The next set of speakers that I will highlight talked about the future of legal design and possible ways to create more systematic impact. I had the opportunity to interview them about this topic.

Figure 11: Quote: We need more systematic impact

Margaret Hagan’s Legal Design Lab plays an important role in the field of legal design. The last couple of years she has been working on creating legal design solutions to increase access to justice. Her presentation chronicled her efforts and highlighted her main pain point: the lack of systematic impact. The main question that she posed is how legal design can move beyond creating great, but often isolated and individual experiments. According to Margaret Hagan, one of the solutions is to implement a sense of strategic and long-term thinking. This can be done by building networks, creating blueprints and evaluating experiments through measurable metrics. In her presentation she set out her intention to apply this systematic approach to the topic of eviction.

During our interview I had the opportunity to ask her if she is optimistic about the future of legal design. She told me that she is optimistic, but that we are at a tipping point. According to Hagan, we need to invest in impact otherwise we will be just another fad and another fashionable term will come along. She described this as follows:

“…what you can see, there are always these waves of branding of what change should be — whether it is called change management, legal ops, legal tech or legal design. Unless we get more substance, more strategy — and maybe it is not being so religious to the term legal design or anything else. As long as we are working to make the legal system work better for people and have better impact on people’s lives and not drive them into bad outcomes. As long as we are working to make law accessible to everyone. Whatever that is called. I want that to continue to be and I really want us to be integrated into how policies are made. So that we are not an add-on for a PR thing, but something organizations can actually use.”

Figure 12: The hype wave
Figure 13: Quote: Why can’t lawyers just do x, y, z? This question is rarely answered. One answer that might lead to action is to have a cultural appreciation of the tension between legal and design culture.

Michael Doherty (Principal Lecturer in Law, Lancashire Law School, UCLan) discussed in his presentation the tension between legal and design culture and that service design can act as a cultural intermediary. This is emphasized in the phrase legal design as it denotes information going in both directions. As an example, Doherty mentioned the medical community: doctors, nurses, therapists. They all have a distinct culture, but they have to work together intensely. Cultural exchange has to take place by building bridges. Doherty is optimistic about the future of legal design for several reasons. First, the strength of legal design is its pragmatism. It is not an all or nothing methodology. Another reason why he feels optimistic is that legal design feels different. As someone with a long and established academic track record, it gives him the tools to go beyond the walls of the academy and engage with his local community.

Figure 14: Beyond the wall of the academy
Figure 15: Quote: Once you have seen a contract that’s created through legal design, why on earth would you want to do anything else?

Marie Potel-Saville and Elisabeth Talbourdet (Amurabi) gave an interesting presentation on their implementation of legal design in compliance documents. I was curious to find out how they perceive systematic change and how they would go about in making sure that their legal design projects in the commercial sphere create substantial impact. They told me that the quality of legal design does not change whether you are creating projects for public or private organizations. Potel-Saville and Talbourdet really see a change at commercial law firms. These firms not only want to partake in legal design projects, but also want to learn how to implement legal design in their own organizations. By learning these skills they won’t be dependent on design firms and will be able to leverage their skills in every single project.

That’s why they are also optimistic about the future of legal design. Potel-Saville describes the moment when she discovered legal design and saw the results it could provide, she could not go back to her old ways. She sees that same process of discovery in her clients. As she says in her own words:

“Once you have seen a contract that is created through legal design, why on earth would you want to do anything else?”

Figure 16: Discovering legal design
Figure 17: Quote: We need radical collaboration

In 2017 I interviewed Cat Moon. Back then, Moon mentioned that “…we are just scratching the surface of the possibilities of legal design. However, in order to get to the next level radical collaboration is needed. Multidisciplinary teams with different cognitive mindsets need to be brought together to enact change.” I was curious to hear how she perceived the development of legal design since the last time we talked.

Moon still stands behind her statement. Since the last summit she saw the impact of radical collaboration in both research as well as in practice, as her students engaged in multidisciplinary projects. This affirmed her hypothesis that by bringing cognitively different problem solvers together, better results are achieved more quickly.

Naturally, I was also curious whether she also encountered difficulties in this process. She answered the question affirmatively. One of the reasons why, according to Moon, she talks about mindset all the time is because she thinks fundamentally we are not going to get very far without a real shift in mindset. Groups of people might do interesting things, but in terms of a really broad impact a shift in mindset is needed. This is more difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, according to Moon, change has been happening at a more rapid pace than she expected. That’s why one of her main statements during her presentation was to empower people to do what they can, where they are and not get completely bogged down by these structural problems. Both structural changes as well as empowering people to make changes to their current situations can happen concurrently. Overall she feels optimistic about the future of legal design. As she says in her own words:

“I remain optimistic. I think we have to be. I do not think you can call yourself a human-centered designer and not be optimistic…..I think you have to be practical. We function well within constraints. We can do amazing things within constraints and maintain that optimism. We have to believe that there is a solution and that we can all find it.”

Figure 18: Quote: We can do amazing things within constraints

Cat Moon’s last quote summed up the Legal Design Summit. Yes, we do have to take into account the less sexy aspects of legal design if we want this discipline to be one of the pillars of legal innovation. We have to include measurable metrics, blueprints, research on cultural change, radical collaboration, organizational cultures and more. These constraints are not put in place to imprison us. Rather, by adding parameters to this discipline we will be able maximize legal design to its fullest potential.

I would like to thank all the speakers and interviewees for their wonderful insights. I would also like to thank the organizers of the Legal Design Summit for organizing the event. This Summit was free of charge and it would have never been possible without all the hard work of the amazing volunteers under the guidance of Pilvi Alopaeus.

Legal Design and Innovation

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