June 15, 2018 Dialogue

Justice Innovation with Law School Design Labs

Margaret Hagan

Legal design is a new approach to justice system innovation. It offers a powerful way to understand the human experience of courts, legal aid, and solving life crises, and then to use this understanding to generate and vet promising new products, services, and policies.

More law schools are developing labs and classes, in which students are trained in legal design through project-based classes. This growing roster of design-driven legal innovation programs include:

  1. Stanford Legal Design Lab
  2. Northeastern University's NuLaw Lab
  3. Chicago Kent Law Lab
  4. Harvard Law School's Access to Justice Lab
  5. University of Arizona's Innovation for Justice program
  6. Suffolk Law School's LIT Lab
  7. Georgetown's Iron Tech Lawyer program
  8. Brigham Young's LawX program
  9. Michigan State's Legal RnD
  10. Vanderbilt's Law and Innovation program

These programs offer a rich resource for organizations working on access to justice innovation, including legal aid groups, funders, and strategists. These classes all involve partnerships with legal organizations, to scope discrete opportunities for innovation and to create working prototypes of new tools, services, and policies. Students often come from interdisciplinary backgrounds, including law, engineering, policy, medical school, design, architecture, and beyond, so that they are able to create more holistic, robust solutions.

How Law School Design Programs Partner with Legal Organizations

Most of these programs explicitly focus on training students on access to justice innovation. At Northeastern's NuLaw Lab, Director Dan Jackson has been leading law and architecture students to create new prototypes that have been installed in Boston Housing Court to improve the user experience around privacy, mediation, and preparation for their day in court. At Michigan State's Legal RnD, Dan Linna has developed partnerships with local housing courts and legal aid groups to gather data, devise new communications with litigants, and evaluate outcomes of them.

At Stanford Legal Design Lab, I have led partnerships with the California Judicial Council, local legal aid groups like Law Foundation of Silicon Valley and Project Legal Link, and self-help centers in Bay Area courts. These partnerships tend to begin as classes, in which teams of students meet with leaders of the organization to understand their key challenges. Then the student teams go through a cycle of the design process to further understand the status quo from various stakeholders' perspectives, then define key opportunities for change and target audiences to focus on, and finally develop new prototypes of solutions and test them.

After one class, if the partner is open to moving forward, then we move toward either follow-up classes or a more dedicated design team to work on carrying forward the solution from proof of concept to trials to pilot. This involves more dedicated software or service development, in which our Lab's software developer, Metin Eskili, takes a lead role to create a proper new tool. Our team also plans out small-scale user testing of the new innovations that we run at courts, in our university lab, or online, to get litigants' input on the developing versions of the new solution. These tests help us to refine our ideas further. Then, when the new solution is operational, we work with our partners to design pilot runs that we can study, through observational research or through randomized control trials.

Stanford Design Lab

Stanford Design Lab

What Does a Legal Design Approach Look Like in Practice?

A legal organization that partners with a legal design program can benefit from the work through the insights that the design research will surface, the development of key personas of different stakeholders and maps of their current journeys through the legal system, and the creation of new proof-of-concept innovations that can be implemented and tested. It is also an opportunity for the staff of the organization to practice these innovative methods so that they can adapt them to the day-to-day work and strategic planning.

At Stanford Legal Design Lab, our team has been practicing and refining what a design approach to legal services innovation can be. We have drawn from the established domain of human-centered design, which grew out of consumer and digital design. Human-centered design is used to scope out new ideas by putting the focus on the end-user of them. Instead of trying to solve problems with a group of professionals brainstorming and planning on their own, human-centered design pushes a team to involve end-users and other stakeholders in defining the true problems to be solved.

That means going into the field, running focus groups, conducting detailed qualitative interviews, and gong on "service safaris" to see, hear, and feel the current situation. In our design work around access to justice in the courts, we have student teams interview litigants in self-help center waiting rooms to hear about their problems, goals, and experiences at court. We also have teams go through the process themselves—in a process we call a "walk-a-mile"—so that they have the litigants' direct experience of filling in forms, going through security, waiting in line, and talking to clerks. In addition to qualitative interviews and experiences, we also gather data from the courts and other sources about what common process fail points and evaluation studies have identified as problems.

After gathering this various information about the status quo, we use the design process to map out the human experiences. This means diagramming the processes that individuals go through, both as "front-end" litigants who experience the service, and the "back end" clerks, judges, administrators, guards, and others who provide services. This helps us to define where there are opportunities for change. We also create fictional personas, representing amalgamations of the people with whom we've spoken. These persona documents make sure that as we start making decisions about what problem we're solving and what solution we choose, it is tied back to the people who will be using it.

After mapping and making personas, our design teams switch from synthesis mode to generative mode. This typically begins with wide brainstorms of many possible ways to address our stakeholders' needs. As legal designers, we think not only of new products—like new apps, brochures, text messages, flowcharts, etc.—but also of new policies or organizational changes that could address the key problems. We then rank these many ideas, narrow them down to a handful, and go through prototyping and refinement cycles to gradually develop them with stakeholders' input.

These prototypes go from post-its to one-page sketches to diagrams and click-through mockups to fully functional versions, at each stage, getting further refined based on stakeholders' evaluations. This keeps our new solutions grounded in our stakeholders' needs and capacities. Once we have a detailed and operational version, then we hand it back over to our partners, or work with them to implement it.

Developing Local Partnerships

If you work with a legal organization and you are intrigued by the power of design for innovation, you can reach out to directors of existing programs. Typically, they must structure engagements around their class schedules, so it is advisable to expect several months or a year's time to get a project running. Often, they have many possible partners, so it is worthwhile if you are able to scope out a specific opportunity and determine if stakeholders would be willing to give access to students and if there will be staff or funding to support implementation. These factors make it more likely that a law school lab can partner with you.

If there is not a local law school design program near your organization, it is possible to try to initiate one from the outside. This would entail finding a leader in a law school, design school, information school, or human-computer interaction program who is interested in leading a course around justice innovation. Many universities have programs around coding for social good, social innovation entrepreneurship, or service design. Even if they are not explicitly connected to the law school, they are often looking for partnerships in which students can work on improving public services and creating solutions for low-income individuals.

Law school students are eager for hands-on projects, in which they are learning about how the system operates and developing more capacity to solve problems and use technology in practical, ethical ways. Partnerships with access to justice commissions, legal aid groups, and courts can be a tremendous opportunity for law students to learn about the legal system and develop a strong portfolio of work to demonstrate their leadership and innovation. In turn, these partnerships can give legal organizations an external sandbox and research and development team, in which to explore problem areas, develop new solutions, and evaluate what new products, services, and policies can best make an impact at scale.

Margaret Hagan

Director, Legal Design Lab

Margaret Hagan is the director of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford Law School and a lecturer at Stanford Institute of Design.