If your law department feels like an obstruction, people will just find a way around it. Human-centered design is the answer.

Human-centered Design and the Law

A conversation between Seyfarth and IDEO

Design and the law — a hot topic in the legal industry if ever there was one. As such, there are many recent adopters trying to apply design thinking to legal work. While I applaud this interest, I am also a bit skeptical. It takes more than sticky notes and brainstorm sessions (known as “design jams”) to become a designer.

Having been at the intersection of design and the law for a decade now, I know from personal experience that doing “design theater” and actually executing a design-informed strategy are worlds apart. With this in mind, I wanted to seek out other pioneers in the design and law space to share their story and learn from their experiences.

Photo from Linkedin.

Meet Rochael Soper Adranly, the General Counsel and Legal Design Lead at design firm IDEO. I mean this in all sincerity: Rochael has the most fun, interesting job in the legal industry. IDEO was created in the early 1990s as a design and innovation firm — its early products include the first mouse for Apple. Today, IDEO has 650 people and 10 offices, giving Rochael a unique job at a unique company.

When we sat down, I wanted to learn how she blends the world of law and the world of design, and how the two interact with each other. I learned that, and a whole lot more.

JOSH: Walk us through the legal design idea at IDEO. What has brought IDEO and specifically you to look at applying design and design thinking to the legal space?

ROCHAEL: Eleven years ago, IDEO had no internal legal or operations functions. They decided to hire their first general counsel, my predecessor Paul Livesay. Pretty quickly there was frustration on all sides about trying to embed an internal legal function where there hadn’t been one before.

In the early days of IDEO, founder David Kelley wanted to have a place to work with his friends and make cool things. But as IDEO grew, it became important to try to build structure that would support that growth, some of which included having an internal legal structure. I was working with Paul at the time in an outside counsel capacity, and asked Paul if IDEO helps other clients think about their internal organizational structures, their behaviors, and their capacities — could IDEO do that for itself with respect to how legal would operate?

We found that we could. We ran an internal project to design the legal function for IDEO. That was 11 years ago. And the principles that came out of that project still define us today. Those principles have allowed us to grow from 300, 350 people to 650 people with 10 offices worldwide with a few subsidiaries and different business units without having to dramatically change the size or orientation of the legal group.

I think that is because we intentionally designed how the legal function would work, as opposed to getting big and then imposing it on the culture, and then wondering why people are skirting it, or don’t know about it or are just trying to get around it all day.

People are still running fast, trying to get work done. But legal is a very integrated function at IDEO.

Now, when I talk to other general counsel, a lot of them want to find out what we did, and then do it in their own organizations. I always caution that you can’t just replicate our design. You can replicate the process by which we got there, but you can’t necessarily replicate the outcome, because we are designing for the humans at this organization, and what those humans are tasked with on a day-to-day basis, what their values are, what our culture is. And that might look very different at a public company or one in a highly regulated industry. It can certainly be designed — it just would probably look different.

There might be some similarities too. People often want autonomy. People often want to know what’s going on. People often want to be included in decisions. They often want to understand why things are done the way they are. Some of those things would be replicable, but I think exactly how you create those functions would look different depending on the client.

JOSH: So when you’re talking to other lawyers and you share with them where you work and what you’re doing, what’s the reaction? What are some of the challenges you have in some of those initial conversations with lawyers?

ROCHAEL: There are a few challenges that immediately come to mind. One is that the word “innovation” is everywhere. Some people are more paying lip service than knowing really what that means or what that would look like for them or how to invest in it in an intentional and significant way.

One of the challenges I have is helping people see that there are different things meant by “innovation” at different times and in different capacities. Firms might be doing things that feel innovative to them, but those things are related to organization or automation — not necessarily innovation. Which doesn’t mean those things shouldn’t be done. It just means that compared to a different industry, that wouldn’t necessarily qualify as innovation.

A second challenge is that sometimes you find pockets of innovation, but the law is narrow in the application. Every tax lawyer might feel that a particular initiative is interesting and innovative, but it doesn’t necessarily scale outside that particular practice.

Another challenge is that law firms work the way they do and they’ve been working that way for a long time. It’s a resilient business model and profits per partner are pretty great in big firms. So it’s hard to see what’s broken.

Often in innovation you want a certain level of discomfort. You don’t want to innovate at the moment when something’s about to completely fall apart. That’s not innovation — that’s desperation. But you definitely want people to feel there’s a reason to invest in change, because if the status quo is working well, there’s not really a need.

JOSH: Let’s switch gears a little bit — what’s it like to have you as a client?

ROCHAEL: I’m probably a very difficult client because I am tasked with delivering real solutions to my clients very quickly. I’m not looking at big cases that we’re going to litigate for years. That’s not where we want to put our time and energy. And that’s not really our business model. We just want to do great design work.

The other thing is that I am constantly running interference between the rules-based world of law and the non-rules based life of IDEO. I am often elbowing outside counsel to change their language or to be more human-centered. I remember correcting a cease-and-desist letter from outside counsel. I said, “It needs to be more human-centered.” They did not know what that meant.

We’re not litigious. We’re relationship based. If we’re having an issue we want to find a way to solve it, often creatively. Sometimes law firms have the traditional, well-honed ways of responding to conflict, and I’m looking for something different. I’m looking for that expertise but then for someone to partner and collaborate with me to bring a solution. I think that can be interesting for some people, and I think it can be nerve wracking for others, because they’re not used to doing things that way.

JOSH: When I think of IDEO, I think of this amazing company that does great work, but there’s also obviously a business side where you have to write contracts. How easy is it to do that boring, dry, mechanical portion of the business that every company has to do, and still have it function as a brand extension?

ROCHAEL: And not just a brand extension but a business extension. We try to ensure that contract terms are absolutely reflective of our business and how we work and the impact we’re trying to create for clients. So it is not uncommon during a contract negotiation for me to say, “I could do that, but ultimately that’s going to sabotage your project. And I really need to be an advocate of us doing great design work for you.”

In other words, I’m not interested in winning a legal point. I’m interested in delivering great design work. There are different ways companies contract that can interfere with that because of their own risk models or how their other vendors require different approaches — those methods can get upended when you’re trying to innovate because by definition we’re doing something that we haven’t done before. That makes people nervous.

So a lot of times in a contract negotiation I’m also holding that uncomfortable tension for people where they realize, “Oh, we’re investing in something that you cannot promise is going to be anything other than a manifestation of your award-winning process. That’s great and we trust you. And I trust my business people too, but at the end of the day I feel slightly nervous as a lawyer because I don’t have any hammers to hit you with if it doesn’t go well.”

Author’s Note

This is where executing a design-driven strategy — in this case using contracts to accomplish great design projects rather than as legal weapons — is truly challenging and requires more than just an idea and a whiteboard. It requires a deep, consistent effort that reaches beyond the idea and into the real world of business and human interaction. It is only there where real design is tested, iterated and, in the end, found. When you reach that point, you are a designer.

IDEO and Rochael are true design pioneers. Rochael is part of a team at IDEO that is focused on doing more interesting work within the legal space. For those interested in the applying design to the law, keep watching them, and us as well. Things are about to get really interesting.

Thank you to Rochael and IDEO for hosting me in their San Francisco office. This interview was taken from an audio recording and has been edited for brevity.