‘Legal design’ aims to put humans at the centre of a tech-based future

Hagan: human-centred design needed to connect with clients

Legal clients of all stripes need a human or human-like experience rather than technology alone and there is a key role for design to make the law work on a human scale, according to a leading academic.

Margaret Hagan, director of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford Law School in California and a lecturer in design, made the comments in the wake of the lab’s first law and design summit.

It brought together people from the courts, law schools, law firms, and researchers to examine how a design approach could improve how legal systems operate.

The conference developed design-based themes that had resonance for the legal system in England and Wales. They centred on the idea that scarce resources necessitated radical thinking and innovation to deliver access to justice.

Summarising key findings, Ms Hagan, a former lawyer, said: “We in the law are in the middle of a huge crisis, whether we feel it or not. Our ‘user base’ for courts and legal services is on the precipice of a radical decline — while our courts are overburdened with litigants without lawyers.

“Even if our budgets are limited, or our short-term prospects are fine,  we need to be moving at a radically quick new pace to build a better legal system.”

Other themes were that designers in legal organisations needed to have a “restless imagination” and to empower employees to “be scrappy and quick amateur designers”, rather than relying on outsiders “trying to sell you packaged ‘innovation’”.

“Instead, the key to change lies in your own organisation. Who within your firm, court, department, or school is open to work with you on prototyping new ways of doing things? Find them, work with them, and slowly build out experiments, that can turn into pilots, that can turn into full-blown programs.”

Ms Hagan told Legal Futures that the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots was important, but only part of the solution.

“In my user research, I find especially when we are talking about litigants in the court system — but still it applies to corporate clients — the need for a human or human-like experience is so overwhelmingly powerful”.

She continued: “Technology is definitely part of the entire ideal journey, whether it’s in diagnosing [problems], in coaching people through the process, in providing transparency about timings and dates and other key information to know.

“But when it comes down to it, I think most legal processes are so emotional and so stressful for people [that] they really want a human.”

“A chatbot can be human-like now, and we know it needs to be more so, but there’s so much that people want to go ‘off script’ and they want empathy. They want to tell their full, complicated story with all of the nuances [so that] I think there needs to be a balance of AI and humans.”

Ms Hagan said she thought “mobile-first solutions” were the priority for investment, adding: “We need ways to communicate law and to get services done on small screens, utilising voice, thinking beyond the website and thinking beyond the expert systems decision tree model.

“I think both of those models have had their time and now it’s really time to explore better ways to have quicker intelligence that require less Q&As and going down gigantic decision trees.”

Ms Hagan said her design students were attuned to the need for carefully-designed legal strategies and observed that large professional firms – particularly accounting and financial firms – were now acquiring design consultancies “to provide a differential edge”.

“A fair number of students, especially here in Silicon Valley, are very tuned into design as a strategy, as a differentiator, as a way of solving problems already, so it is not hard to make the justification that design is not just about PowerPoint, font choices, or designer clothes.

“It’s good there is more literacy especially among anyone who is paying attention to start-ups; that they are investing in design as well as established tech companies.”

She went on that unfortunately legal education tended to “shape a way of thinking… [and law students] are really still trained to still have an emphasis on the analytic over the creative”. She said that, in her experience, by contrast “even lawyers” were easier to instruct in new ways of thinking.

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