You know when you’ve been merrily doing a particular thing for years and then an influencer gives it a new name, brings it into popular consciousness and suddenly it’s trendy? (Not wearing make-up, being a ‘girl boss’, running in the rain or … going for a walk?) That seems to be what’s happened with the term ‘legal design’. But we’re not angry about it. To quote one of those particularly cool people online, it’s about damn time.

What is legal design anyway?

Let’s turn to Helsinki-based Hannele Korhonen, founder of the Lawyer’s Design School, for a useful explanation: ‘Legal design makes it possible to transform the entire [legal] system and all the services underneath and make them about people. [It starts] from the user, rather than from the law. Human-centricity and empathy are at the heart of legal design – two words not traditionally associated with law.’

Transform. People. Empathy. Heart. Those are some good words right there. The Legal Design Lab at Stanford has a fancier way of saying a similar thing: ‘We use human-centred design and agile development methodology to design new solutions for legal services. We do exploratory design work and empirical research to reimagine how the legal system could work.’

Margaret Hagan, the Legal Design Lab’s executive director (and speaker at the world’s first-ever Legal Design Summit in Finland in 2016) explains further that ‘the promise of design thinking is that, [by] using this approach, [you] will develop better ways of working, fresh ideas for what products and services you offer, a stronger organisational culture, and a more powerful and lasting relationship with users.’ #Goals

Quick recap. So, at its core, legal design is about finding new ways to solve problems by putting people first. Tell a stranger on a bus that that’s what you do for a living, and R100 says they’ll never guess you’re a lawyer. Hopefully, that’s about to change.

Hang on, isn’t legal design just UX design in a suit?

Well, yes. Just like user experience (UX) design, this new generation of law is about asking questions and putting yourself in the user’s shoes.

If you think of contracts as products, parties to the agreement are the users. And when they use your contract, they have an experience with it. You have the power to shape that experience. A positive experience means that your contract meets the user’s needs. It means that once they have read your contract, they understand it and they know what they must do. Anything more is a delight; anything less is a problem. (You can read more about UX design principles here.)

International firm Stikeman Elliott has this handy infographic that outlines how to apply design thinking – which they say is empathetic, creative, iterative and accepting of failure. (Oh, what’s that? Another set of great words to guide legal design?)

‘Design’ doesn’t just mean ‘pretty pictures’ (although those don’t hurt)

Look, we can all agree that by now all legal documents should be professionally laid out – not just typed up. But legal design starts long before you put any words on paper, so don’t think you can get away with a cool font and a colour change and call it a positive user experience.

As Margaret Hagan explains, design is where creativity meets practicality. It’s about creating contracts ‘that are intuitive, engaging, valuable and beloved by the people that use them’. Beloved! That may sound like a stretch, but it’s an achievable aim.

Plain language is part of design, too. Together with our pals Hey Plain Jane, we apply an approach called Plain Language by Design. Its principles can be adopted when thinking about legal design:

  • It is proactive not reactive. We don’t ‘translate’ complex documents into plain language; we prevent them from being complex in the first place. It’s baked-in simplicity.
  • It is the default setting. We always write in plain language so it becomes part of the culture.
  • It is embedded into the product, process or communication. It’s not an add-on after those are designed.
  • It is win-win. We achieve clarity without dumbing anything down or making trade-offs.
  • It is end-to-end, from the inception of strategies to communication being sent out.
  • It is visible and transparent. All stakeholders see how the sausage is made and trust in the process, because they are part of it.
  • It is reader-centric. Above all, plain language means everybody keeps the interests of the reader in mind in everything they do.

Legal design IRL

So, what does all this look like in the real world?

To add emphasis, ditch the caps lock (which can feel shouty and slow your readers down) and try calling attention to important clauses through design. Studies show that pictures are understood more quickly and are more memorable than words. Why not use a doodle or illustration in a legal document? It’s not professional? We beg to differ. Enter: being funprofessional.

Some other impactful design elements that have worked for our clients include a progress bar at the top of each page of a contract, to tell readers how far they’ve come. This visual shorthand gives them a sense of achievement and proves that the contract is not, in fact, endless (it’s also a great gauge of when to pause and get a cup of coffee). We have also used swim lanes (like flowcharts, but wbetter) to show what’s in and what’s out for an insurance claims document. Our research shows that people associate white space and clear navigation with brand values such as excellence, expertise, professionalism and generosity. What’s not to love?

Using fewer words can also help with clarity, as Liezl van Zyl, director of Hey Plain Jane, demonstrates in her handy posts on LinkedIn. Why say ‘the way in which’ when you can say ‘how’; ‘free of charge’ instead of simply ‘free’; and ‘during the period that’ in place of the blissfully short ‘while’? Let’s speak human, people!

To create contracts that are truly user friendly, it’s important to test them, and make adjustments accordingly. When it comes to legal design, you can’t be too proud to admit when something doesn’t work for the users who need to, erm, use it. (Remember Stikeman Elliott’s ‘accepting of failure’ spiel back in paragraph 7?)

You could gather this data by a combination of qualitative and quantitative testing, questionnaires, interviews and tools such as the think-aloud method. This last approach, which asks participants to monologue what they’re thinking (aka word vomit) while testing an item, is considered the #1 usability tool by Don Norman. Yes, the guy who originally coined the term ‘user experience’ in his 1988 book The Design of Everyday Things, and was the first person to have ‘user experience’ in his title, in 1993 while he was working for Apple.

Humour and vloeking can help, too

Laughing helps your brain solve problems, cope with trauma, remember things and bond with others. Don’t believe legal texts can be funny? Challenge accepted. Infographics are an easy way to bring some light humour into a serious topic, such as this one about how to calm down information officers with some suggestions of what you can do in 72 hours instead of reporting a data breach.

Research shows that saying the F word – among others that start with ruder letters like C and P – can help release physiological and psychological stress, and that people see others who swear as more honest. (Read more about why swearing is good for you.)

Cats also make everything better. Promise.

Want to find out more about legal design?

The Legal Creatives learning platform is one of our favourites, offering videos, community events and course materials to empower legal professionals to think creatively about the law, innovate and grow their business.

Aclara Legal Design has a wealth of suggestions for resources, including loads of actual books, if your personal usability testing shows you prefer learning while lying in the bath or sitting on the loo.

You can also download Novation’s pink paper about UX design and contracts.

Now go forth and design like your user is watching you. We’ll see you out there.

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