August 09, 2017

Design Thinking for Lawyers

J.B. Ruhl

Law school teaches you how to think like a lawyer.

How many times have you heard that? Of course, it’s true, and that’s a good thing, but there’s something else law schools ought to teach but generally don’t—how to think like a client.

The medical profession has been criticized for the poor “bedside manners” of health care workers, so much so that many medical schools now require courses that teach future doctors empathy. One shouldn’t have to choose between a competent doctor and a kind doctor, a doctor who can see through the patient’s eyes. The same should be true of lawyers, and the training should begin in law school and continue throughout our careers.

Like doctors, lawyers are problem solvers. All too often, however, lawyers turn the client’s problem into the lawyer’s problem. Law students are taught to do that from day one. They read gobs of appellate cases, which distill (and often distort) the facts to their legally relevant essence, and learn from them how to extract rules of law, distinguish cases, and play with hypotheticals. That’s a good way to teach how to think like a lawyer, but it doesn’t teach how to think like a client. Some courses, like mediation and client interviewing, come closer, but only indirectly offer a glimpse into how clients think and how to understand their problems through their eyes.

Particularly given the transformations the legal profession is undergoing, lawyers need all the help they can get in learning how to empathize with their clients. But how can law schools teach that? It sounds so soft and “touchy-feely.”

Quite the contrary, teaching how to solve clients’ problems with empathy can be done through very structured training methods. One such method being used increasingly in other industries is called human-centered design thinking. This is not a frilly trend; it is a serious discipline—IBM is reported to have trained over 10,000 employees in design thinking.

As summarized in a recent Harvard Business Review article, the core principle of design thinking is that people need their interactions with technologies and other complex systems to be simple, intuitive, and pleasurable. When have you ever heard anyone describe an interaction with the legal system in those terms? Unfortunately, the correct answer is never, and lawyers are part of the reason why.

Law schools should begin teaching law students how to make their clients’ interactions with the legal system more simple, intuitive, and pleasurable. In my class at Vanderbilt on the legal industry, I took a small step in that direction by asking lawyer and design thinking expert Caitlin Moon to give my students an overview of design-centric thinking for lawyers.

As she explained, the focus of design thinking in the legal services setting is to match client needs with what is legally feasible in a way that delivers client value and lawyer opportunity. There is a lot to the discipline’s method of training to reach that goal, but three core steps define the process:

Inspiration. Step one is understanding the problem or opportunity that motivated the client to look for a solution. To do so the lawyer must get to know and care about the client, to see through the client’s eyes and interpret what is needed. That’s empathy.

Ideation. Step two is structured brainstorming to identify the source material needed to build different solution prototypes. This should start out rapid-fire and include even seemingly radical approaches, including (gasp!) alternatives to hiring a lawyer and getting ensnarled in the legal system. As prototypes become more tangible, the lawyer must of course assess each for its legal feasibility, but also must explore with the client whether each prototype is simple, intuitive, and pleasurable from the client’s point of view. That’s also empathy.

Iteration. Throughout the engagement, the lawyer and client should revisit the approach and refine it. Starting over at inspiration, the lawyer should seek feedback from the client, brainstorm with the client how to refine the approach, and map with the client how to move forward. More empathy.

This all may still seem soft, but training in design thinking is focused and structured, relying heavily on applying learned methods and techniques in paired role-playing simulations. The simulations start with an interview to learn about the client’s problem, not just its logistics but also how the client feels about it. Next, an interpretation step involves translating all the interview notes into a structured statement of the client’s key experiences and needs. The ideation brainstorming then follows, leading to team-building a prototype that can be visualized through a diagram, chart, or other model. The problem and solution prototype then are shared with others in the class for feedback and refinement.

As it becomes increasingly apparent that a lot of what lawyers traditionally have done for clients can be performed by other service providers, including by machines, we as a profession need to focus on what makes clients want to hire a lawyer: our legal creativity, empathy, and judgment. Law schools do a good job teaching the first and the third of those; it’s time they, and all lawyers, work on the second. Start with design thinking!

J.B. Ruhl

J.B. Ruhl is the David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair of Law and Director of the Program on Law & Innovation at Vanderbilt University.