What Lawyers Need to Know About Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a hot topic in the legal field. Plenty of articles encourage lawyers to adopt a Design Thinking approach, while law schools like Stanford and Suffolk University actively encourage their pupils to practice this methodology. But what is Design Thinking? According to Blake Reary, the Director of Design at Ironclad (a contract workflow platform), “Design Thinking is a fundamentally human enterprise. All through human evolution, when faced with a challenge, we have managed to come up with new and creative solutions.”

In short, Design Thinking is a creative approach (both a process and a mindset) to solving problems. There are traditionally five steps to this approach: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. Design Thinking has become so important that there are entire departments and companies (i.e. IDEO) dedicated to it.

Design Thinking is not something most lawyers or law students consider because it sounds strange to them: “design? Is it art?”; “do you mean interior design?” In fact, we as lawyers are trained to only consider specific solutions to age-old problems (‘cough’ precedence). We are thought to think like lawyers; we are not trained to be creative nor empathetic.

Design Thinking in the Legal Tech Industry

In putting together this post, I interviewed the co-founder and CEO of Ironclad, Jason Boehmig; the Head of Design for Ironclad, Blake Reary; and the co-founder and Chief Product Officer of ZERØ (an AI-powered email management solution), Alexander Volkov. Both Ironclad and ZERØ have incorporated design thinking principles into their product development.

In speaking with these legal tech experts, I learned that Design Thinking is an essential component of both companies. Ironclad has even invested in its own Design Team of seven people, headed by Blake, while ZERØ was co-founded by a design expert, Alex Babin.

By considering design in the early stages of product development, the founders of Ironclad and ZERØ could ensure that the product resulted in a positive user experience. Some of the ways they tuned into the users’ needs were by asking themselves “who are the stakeholders?”, “what are the stakeholders’ needs/problems?”, and “is our product
intuitive enough?” These important questions guaranteed that the respective products solved an actual problem versus a theoretical one. Moreover, by employing Design Thinking, the teams managed to find simple and easy-to-use solutions to complex problems in lawyers’ workflows.

ZERØ and Ironclad continue to utilize Design Thinking to develop new products and ensure customer satisfaction by gaining a better understanding of their client’s needs, how effective the solution is, and what problems remain.

Why Lawyers Should Learn About Design Thinking

Clearly, Design Thinking has provided and continues to provide an edge to ZERØ and Ironclad. Interestingly, however, Alexander, Blake, and Jason used Design Thinking without any formal training. While these innovators were able to become masters of Design Thinking, many others get stuck in the “groan zone.” Blake appropriately explains this zone as the middle zone of Design Thinking, whereupon initial failure, untrained users of Design Thinking groan and give up. As a Harvard Law School Blog notes, Design Thinking “is about seeing a problem from as many angles as possible, taking a “yes and” approach to brainstorming solutions, and having the guts to put those ideas in motion at the risk of failure.”

Unfortunately, however, lawyers are not known to be innovative. As a blog post in Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers’ Massachusetts division states, “They struggle to innovate and instead end up seeking to sustain profitability by working harder instead of smarter. Their anxiety reduces their cognitive ability and that leads to a reliance on the skill sets and mindsets that are comfortable instead of those that are useful.”

Design Thinking, when combined with legal tech, can empower law students and lawyers to come up with innovative solutions to persistent issues such as the current lack of access to justice, barriers to efficient contracting, and distrust towards lawyers. However, Design Thinking does not always need to revolve around technology. If properly employed, this innovative way of approaching problems can help lawyers develop creative solutions for their clients’ challenges.

Some Examples of Design Thinking in the Legal World

Dispute Design

Design Thinking is intuitively employed in Dispute Design Courses, courses such as those offered by Stanford Law School and the University of Missouri, where the students are required to come to alternative solutions to disputes and dispute resolution mechanisms. In fact, most high-level mediators intuitively apply design thinking to solve extremely complicated legal disputes. This is because empathy is also the core of alternative dispute resolution (ADR).

The Hogan Lovells Associate Review Process

Design Thinking was employed by IDEO when it sought to redesign the associate review process at Hogan Lovells, one of the largest law firms in the world. Before the process was reformed, associates received feedback on an irregular basis, which led to an inability to determine what they were doing wrong and how to improve. IDEO looked at what the associates wanted from their reviews and where they fell short, as well as the issues from the reviewer’s perspective. IDEO realized the solution to the lack of satisfaction with the review process was to employ physical note cards in associates’ regularly scheduled check-ins with partners. As an article in Harvard’s The Practice journal on design thinking in the law stated, “Associates appreciated that the reviews produced more-tangible feedback. Partners appreciated that the notecard absorbed some of the awkward formality of the process and allowed the conversation to flow more naturally. Overall, the firm came out better for it as a place where talent could develop more efficiently.”

Davis Wright Tremaine and Microsoft

David Wright Tremaine (DWT), applied Design Thinking to better understand its clients’ needs. In particular, this method ensured that DWT could effectively serve Microsoft, one of its longtime clients. In this case, Microsoft asked to capture data about the work to improve the system of negotiating and executing procurement contracts. DWT met this need by establishing “service-level agreements to set target response times” and implementing “contract analysis to identify which provisions caused the greatest deal friction. Experienced lawyers might have predicted which provisions were the hardest to negotiate, but intuition is no substitute for hard data.” Design Thinking has been so beneficial to DWT’s delivery of service that the firm has its own Chief Innovation Partner and an internal consulting firm (De Novo) that aids its lawyers in developing more client-centric problem-solving skills.

Design Thinking for Law Students

The reason for the lack of a creative approach by lawyers somewhat relates to their law school training. Today, only a few law schools offer Design Thinking courses. Law schools that do have design labs are often the best-funded schools (e.g. Stanford, Harvard, and Duke), which means that a lot of successful legal technology originates from those schools. But for most law students, these courses are simply not available. This means that few lawyers graduate with the skills to implement Design Thinking into their roles, which ultimately results in an inability to improve legal service delivery. And in the current pandemic environment, where law firms have laid off hundreds of lawyers and first-year associate jobs are scarcer than in years past, Design Thinking could provide important skills for recent graduates who are unable to join a law firm. To truly push for legal innovation, law schools may want to reconsider their current curriculums.


  • Maryam Salehijam

    Maryam, a forthcoming book author, currently holds an LLB, an LLM, and a PhD in law. She has spent the last ten years dedicated to the study of law and has consequently developed a passion for changing the law for the better. Her research focus is on contract formation, dispute resolution, and technology.