The undeniable role of Legal Design Thinking in the evolving corporate legal landscape

By Raveena Ashok


The legal industry is facing an array serious challenges today. Professionals are grappling with lagging legal productivity, increased competition for core legal services from new alternate providers, accelerated market deadlines, intensifying client demands and increasing complexity coupled with budget constraints among others.


The traditional legal models of delivering legal services just do not make the grade anymore. We seem to be playing catch-up to the fast-paced and efficient changes happening across other industries. Everything from ordering a cab, hotel, flight and food to movies, shopping and even housekeeping has been revolutionised and made available to the client almost instantly and cost-effectively. Our clients therefore no longer want to indulge our age-old ways of working, having experienced delivery of other services become remarkably more effective, convenient and consumer-focused. Client demands are changing. It is up to us to stay relevant.


My multifaceted role and work at a corporate law firm, focused on legal innovation and technology, has helped me to develop an intimate understanding of the pain-points that we face as an industry and how we can address these challenges. Being actively involved in the innovation process within the firm from strategic insights to product development, while also working on legal transactions and overlooking communications and commercials, has shown me ways to reimagine the way we work, using design thinking to provide clients with remarkable services that meet their needs.


Refreshing the thinking to address the problem: Design thinking is gaining some traction within our industry. While this concept might be novel to the legal profession, it is definitely not new to our clients. The most profitable and successful businesses have been using these techniques in every function of their operations, from R&D and product design to marketing, processes and customer experiences. It was almost inevitable that design would make its way to legal.


Now the obvious question is, how will design thinking help us solve the problems we are facing in the legal industry? Well, that is going to be quite a list given how diverse and multi-faceted the area is. But to put it simply:


Improved client service = Happy Clients Design thinking will considerably improve how you service your clients and help your firm build a competitive advantage. The core methodology of design thinking is driven by empathy and deep focus on client needs. Design thinking is “human-centric” while core application of corporate law is focused on corporations. This is probably why most lawyers in a commercial setting are often taken aback when you ask them to truly empathize with their client. However, law is at its core a client service business. In order to excel, lawyers should constantly be considering their clients’ needs, taking time to understand their clients’ businesses and try alleviating their pain-points. In short, they should be empathizing. Clients are desperately looking for this. They are exasperated with legal services and documents being designed and drafted for legal professionals. They want their needs and concerns to take centre stage. So if you can’t provide them with it, they will find someone who will.


How often do you truly listen? Clients want their firms to listen and try to better understand their business. They want firms to hear them out before jumping to a solution. They want lawyers to understand the commercial implications of the legal decisions they are suggesting. They want firms to collaborate with multidisciplinary professionals who may understand these business implications of the legal action you are suggesting.


It is astonishing when we self-introspect and realise how little we listen when other people speak, more so in our industry there seems to be a misconception that asking questions outside the ambit of the particular matter, suggests a lack of expertise.Design thinking helps to develop the skill of listening. The methodology requires us to actually speak to the client, and, in doing so, to employ open-ended questions. The aim of this discovery phase is to develop an understanding and appreciation of a client’s needs and feelings. Here again, clients are more likely to sustain and keep coming back to you if they feel like your firm understands them and their needs better than anyone else in the market. Design thinking and its core tenets of empathy and understanding of your client’s business and pain-points help to move your actions and advice from being reactive to proactive.


What is my ROI? Where is my Data? There is overwhelming data and studies that have been employed across various industries that can now validate the thesis that design improves profitability. Organisations that have taken the time and effort to imbibe the design mindset and techniques to their working have demonstrated the business value of design in the past few years. Researchers have analysed thousands of organisations across the globe and documented their findings on this, from the Design Management Institute’s reports from 2013 to independent company reports like IDEO with their Creative Difference Model, InVision with their Design Maturity Model, Forrester with their Total Economic Impact Model and McKinsey with their Business Value of Design study. These studies have helped us to gain insight into the commercial value addition and ROI this methodology can eventually lead to.


McKinsey, in its comprehensive study “The Business Value of Design”, found an undeniable correlation between design focus and financial performance. Over a five year period, the organisations with the highest score in the McKinsey design focus measure considerably increased their revenues and shareholder value in comparison to their peers – a 32 percent higher revenue growth and 56 percent greater increase in shareholder value. This is true across industries, whether the company’s products are physical things, digital products, services, or a combination of both.


Design thinking may be the key for to unlock the potential of innovative law firms

Further, from my own experience I am certain that design thinking can accelerate the trajectory of forward-thinking law firms who are focused on innovation and technology. It has always been challenging to nudge lawyers to adopt and explore new ways of working. It is not surprising that we as professionals are very resistant to change and innovation, but unfortunately any future-focused law firm can only do so much without getting buy-in from its lawyers. Design thinking helps to build an environment that will foster a change in mindset and give way to a culture which embraces more efficient processes and models of working, adoption of new technology and tools, in addition to helping professionals think differently. I have personally seen how actively involving lawyers in the product development and process change phases to get their inputs and nudging them to indulge in brainstorming and ideation sessions really helps in adoption of these new technologies and processes. This cultural shift is inexorable, though gradual – design thinking will help expedite this process and put your firm at the forefront of innovation and change.


Various in-house legal teams and law firms are exploring the benefits legal design thinking can bring to their practise. At Algo Legal, for example on a service level, the in-house tools that we are developing for internal or client use are developed using the process of design-thinking – our initial months are focused on understanding the problem statement and conducting extensive interviews and in-depth market research to collate the relevant data-points and define the problem we are looking to solve. We then have a brainstorming session with all the stakeholders, followed by creating prototypes and testing them to see the MVP of the product. Even post release we follow a constant process of iteration and updates based on the feedback and learnings.


Other companies have reported similar benefits. The energy group Shell has used the process of legal design thinking to revamp their commercial contracts to facilitate more effective trade, by focusing on improving the way they interact with suppliers and customers, notably through the introduction of visual contracts. HSBC’s legal team partnered with global design thinking firms to digitise the bank’s retail terms and conditions and make them more accessible to customers. The possibilities for incorporating design thinking are endless.


We have to start doing things differently to meet challenges of the new reality and compete in a changing market. Design thinking is here to stay.


Raveena is the Legal and Strategy Lead at Algo Legal. She works at the intersection of law, technology and innovation and actively explores using innovative, user-centric solutions to challenging legal and business problems.


This material and the information contained herein is intended to provide general information on a subject or subjects and is not an exhaustive treatment of such subject(s). This is not, by means of this material, rendering professional advice or services. The author would like to acknowledge referencing certain reports and insights and the discussions had with various colleagues while developing the views in this article.


A shorter transcript of this note has been featured in Vantage Asia web portal