Better legal innovation with design thinking

A boy asks his father, "Dad, are bugs good to eat?" 

"That's disgusting. Don't talk about things like that over dinner," the dad replies. 

After dinner the father asks, "Now, son, what did you want to ask me?" 

"Oh, nothing," the boy says. "There was a bug in your soup, but now it's gone."

The renowned creative thinking expert, Dr. Edward De Bono, once likened creative thinking to the structure of a joke. Humour works by using patterns. Our brains take given information – a conversation about bugs – and see a logical pattern headed toward some conclusion. While we could guess the conclusion using deductive reasoning, we can't know with certainty. When the logic is subverted with a new endpoint, our brains quickly recognise it as perfectly logical.

That is the key to innovation in your law firm – getting to ideas that you can't reason your way to. For a profession built on the belief that there is a logical solution to almost every problem, this probably sounds strange. But with a different approach to problem solving, your firm can create solutions that your clients love and that can make your work easier. That approach is called design thinking.

What is design thinking and how can it help law firms?

Design thinking is an iterative approach to problem solving that seeks to identify strategies and solutions that might not be immediately apparent. It's focused on creating a deep understanding of the people for whom the solution is being developed.

Learn the 5 steps to design thinking.

We might reflexively think that this always means clients, but it's important to remember that people inside the firm also have challenges that need to be solved. The good news is that solutions for one group will likely benefit the other.

This means challenging assumptions, asking difficult questions, and digging into the things that make us uncomfortable. Questions like:

  • What is difficult about working with us?
  • What expectations do our clients have that we are not meeting?
  • Where are the inefficiencies and excess work in our internal processes?

These questions may not be new or ground-breaking, but design thinking asks us to take a human-centered approach to answering them. Consider the experience of the people you're focused on. Empathise with them and, where possible, immerse yourself in their day-to-day experiences to understand their perspective.

Why should law firms use design thinking?

As the old cliché goes, law school teaches you how to think like a lawyer. Most of the time that's a good thing. But one thing law schools don't do is teach you how to think like your clients. Lawyers are highly skilled at taking a client's problem and distilling it into legally relevant facts, rules of law, and precedents.

In years past, proficiency in these skills was enough to rise through the ranks of your firm. As so much legal work moves to other service providers, machines, and AI-enabled technology, a lawyer's capacity for empathy and judgment is now as important as legal acumen.

Clients want law firms that see their problems through the clients' eyes, not as another matter. More than that, they want interactions with the firm to be as easy and painless as using an app on their phones.

In fact, one core principle of design thinking is that people need their interactions with technologies and other complex systems to be simple, intuitive, and pleasurable. Unfortunately, the legal industry is rarely described in these terms. And in an industry chock full of complex systems and technology, simplicity is the surest way to win client loyalty.

How do law firms start using design thinking?

Design thinking has a prescribed process that is intended to guide you and keep the process moving. These steps are:

  • Empathise
  • Design
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

We discuss these steps in more detail in our blog, "The 5 Steps for design thinking in law firms."

But the easiest way to start on your design thinking journey is by engaging with your clients. Choose a small group of clients with similar needs, build your internal design thinking team, and start listening. Some firms start with qualitative interviews, others go right to direct observation. The choice of tactic is yours. What's important is that you make the effort to dig in to your clients' experiences.

Since these are likely new activities for you and your clients, be prepared to spend some time finding the right approach. There will be a bit of awkwardness to overcome, but once people get comfortable, you'll be surprised at the level of candor your clients demonstrate.

To learn more about the benefits of creative approaches to problem solving, read our whitepaper, How law firms can use creative thinking to drive a successful practice.

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