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June 20, 2023 article

A New Era of Innovative Thinking

Rachel Sullivant

The need for creative and innovative thinkers became critical during 2020-2021. Between a global pandemic, work-from-home shifts, and global supply-chain shortages, thinking differently about some of our most challenging problems became a necessity. Organizations were forced to become creative in how they solved problems amidst crises. Even before this, the exponential advancements of technology and the corresponding expectations of society have continued to shift how every industry approaches its business.

How do these continued changes impact the work of in-house counsel?  Understanding the pace at which innovation is changing business is critical to understanding the needs and concerns of the organization and people you are serving. Understanding the language can also help to ensure you are aligned with the entire organization. Additionally, the legal profession as a whole is not excluded from increased changes in society that require new ways of thinking. From improving internal operations inside of a law firm to creating new legal tools to help better serve clients, lawyers and firms alike have begun to recognize the increased need for creative problem-solving in a world driven by technology advancements, connection, and consumer-driven solutions. And finally, certain approaches to innovation within industry can be used as broader tools for creative thinking and problem solving within the scope of any job role.

Human-centered design (also referred to as “design thinking”) is a specific approach to innovation and problem solving that has taken hold in many industries. Originating out of Silicon Valley with initial use cases in the technology sector, design thinking has now effectively infiltrated a wide swath of industries – from retail to healthcare. The process “encourages organizations to focus on the people they're creating for, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes.”  Human-centered design moves fluidly between several phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. The methodology seeks to find underlying pain points and truly understand people’s needs before attempting to create solutions. My research thus far has not identified the extensive use of human-centered design within in-house counsel. This surfaces the question: What solutions to known and unknown problems could the human-centered design framework provide for in-house counsel? If individuals and teams were able to walk through the stages of the process, I believe they would correctly identify issues, while also coming to creative and innovative solutions to problems that impact adaptability, speed of change, and the needs of those they serve.

Empathize & Define

The human-centered design process begins with empathy and problem definition. Developing empathy for the people or group of people you are solving a problem for is the cornerstone of human-centered design. Empathy can be further understood through the process of discovery. Discovery, at its core, is an exploration into the needs, desires, and pain points of your “end user.” It can be experienced through in-depth customer interviews, surveys, and observation and immersion activities. Through empathy, the ultimate needs and pain points of individuals become crystallized. These insights help drive your definition of the problem. Although you may have started the process with an original problem in mind, through discovery, you may refine your problem to address the heart of the issue more specifically. For example, perhaps the problem is that people within the organization unintentionally neglect to bring projects to in-house counsel at the appropriate time.  Developing empathy for this example might look like connecting with key stakeholders in the organization and initiating in-depth interviews to see why they may be hesitant to bring in legal support or alternatively, why they bring them in when they do. Through the use of explorative open-ended interviewing, key insights can arise that may challenge assumptions or expose system-level issues that could be addressed. These insights can help you reframe your original problem to narrow in on key issues within your organization.

This thorough work to understand needs is the groundwork for creating meaningful solutions, despite and perhaps precisely because of varying perspectives across the business. In the McMillon Innovation Studio, it is a requirement for teams to be comprised of different disciplines. We have found that the most creative and game-changing solutions come from the most multi-disciplinary teams – diversity drives innovation. Counselors should pull in perspectives from across the business in this process. Those perspectives, even if conflicting, can lead way to greater insights and solutions.


Brainstorming or rapid ideation requires encouragement of wild ideas – with the focus being on the insights gained from customer discovery. The goal is to generate a quantity of ideas, rather than quality. When facilitating ideation sessions, I always provide an ample amount of post-it notes, some good tunes, and a set time frame (5-10 minutes). From there, ideas are grouped and sorted with top ideas chosen to prototype. Continuing with the example above, after further discovery into the problem, a litany of ideas may emerge (all of which should be rooted in the insights from discovery). For example: a list of “must call counsel” issues that are disseminated across the business, a tech-based solution where someone could type in their question and see if they need counsel or not, a 15-minute touch-base meeting with various teams to make sure legal is up to date on developing projects. Importantly, in the ideation phase, all constraints should be put on hold. Maybe you don’t have the budget to create some state-of-the-art high-tech triage solution – that doesn’t matter. The idea could lead to more cost-efficient ways to create the same results. So put the constraints away and get creative.


Prototyping in the human-centered design process is “low-fidelity” (in other words, simple or loosely representing your idea). The purpose is to create something that communicates the idea so that you can gather feedback and adapt as necessary. It is not intended to be your final end product. Neither does the prototype need to be a physical design – a prototype can be a process, a space, a way of communicating, a service, or even organizational structure and cultural norms. For our example, you could create a mock-up wireframe of a website portal for questions, an agenda for a 15-minute touch-base meeting, etc.


Through the final phase, testing, the prototype should evolve and become more refined based on the feedback from your “end user.” Continuing with the example, if you were to test the 15-minute touch-base meeting prototype for a month, you could see: how many people came to the meeting, if things came up, what came up, if it reduced errors, etc.

In-house counselors have a unique opportunity to engage in the human-centered design process. Rocheal Soper Adranly, General Counsel for design firm Ideo explains it this way: “Today’s general counsel need to be both business-minded and human-centered…This means having a clear awareness that legal problems are human problems.”  By understanding and having empathy for users, whether that be colleagues in the business or partners outside the organization, in-house counselors can gain a deeper understanding of the needs, desires, and pain points of their end-users, further allowing them to effectively identify and be creative in how to solve some of their most challenging problems.

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Rachel Sullivant

University of Arkansas, AR