“Legal Design” or should we call it something else?

Legal Design
Lawyer: It’s not a “customer” you design fool it’s a “client”!

An interesting debate took place on Twitter over the past few days on the term “Legal Design”. I thought it would be worthwhile documenting it on here as it will soon be lost on Twitter as we move on there to the next hot topic. I think this is a debate worth preserving and perhaps expanding upon.

Melissa Pershing Moss got things rolling when she linked on Twitter to a LinkedIn article by Kevin V. on What is legal design and why is it important? She asked:-

Why do many lawyers struggle with #legaldesign? Because it requires #listening more (and to all the stakeholders), interdisciplinary #collaboration , #visualization, #embracingfailure to prototype and iterate. Really good article! #designthinking

Nir Golan was first off the mark to respond with:-

A good start would be to stop calling it legal design..:) it’s service design why limit it and us to “legal” ? Kind of undermines our whole goal of outside inspiration no?

Alex G. Smith was on board:-

agreed … as a service design person it also helps my career to know I have a cross industry skill. And we know there is a very good book for this from practitioners across so many industries.

Melissa concurred:-

Agree I would call it service design in convo with you. And service design is what I do. I consult w/ legal aid, courts, etc strictly on ATJ matters. So what I call it with “my users” matters or I might not get invited to do service design with them at all.

Axel Springroll joined in but warned against getting him started. He pointed to his very first tweet:-

I’ve been away dealing with the global post-it note shortage … turns out it was #fakenews. We’re ready to stop bad design leading to same old #LegalTech by removing legal from ‘legal design’ … more to come.

Legal Design without the Legal

Then Rae Digby-Morgan ‏weighed in with:-

I’m so pleased with how this conversation is exploding! Perhaps we should just sharpie out ‘legal’ every time we see it lurking next to design. I wonder if the big shiny conferences will take notice?

But I couldn’t help setting the cat among the pigeons with:-

At #Lexpo17 Matt Homann cautioned against using the word “design” with lawyers. They don’t see themselves as designers and won’t like/want to be involved in workshops using that word. At Inksters we have ‘client focussed innovation workshops’ instead. So sharpie out “design”!

Whilst removing “legal” had been okay up to this point the thought of removing “design” from the equation was a whole different ball game.

Rae came back at me:-

Hmmm, I think we’re looking at this from different perspectives. I don’t want them to be designers either, the designer is the designer. To cast the lawyer in that role is a mistake, good design takes years or training and experience, it’s a professional role.

I clarified that we were maybe tweeting at cross purposes:-

Agreed. That’s not the point. The point is if you are going to involve lawyers at all in the process (and as a designer helping designing legal process for lawyers it might be a good idea to do so) then don’t tell them it is design. Matt Homann will be able to explain it better.

Rae wasn’t for seeing it my way:-

Lawyers understanding design thinking – great. Lawyers curious about technology – great (do they need to code and understand tech architecture, hell no). It’s like saying “I’ve worked on a few law projects, so now I’m a lawyer”. Erm no, and a bit insulting to the years of training and experience it took for that person to become a lawyer. It’s the same professional respect extended the other way.  We would always involve a lawyer in designing for legal, their experience and knowledge is exactly what we need in our multi-disciplinary team!

I persevered in seeking to clarify my point:-

Sorry, you continue to misunderstand my point. I am not suggesting for one minute lawyers should be designers in the same way I would never suggest they should be coders (I’ve written about that before). I am just saying don’t frighten the lawyers off by using the word “design”. But it is really Matt Homann’s point and I may not be expressing it correctly or as well as I should. So it would be good if Matt would now chime in and give us his 2 cents worth. Matt?

Nir Golan re-appeared:-

I can understand where The Time Blawg is coming from if this is indeed the case. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is.

It’s an interesting persona question about lawyers and how they respond and think about “design”.

Would love to hear what from people who have had experiences with lawyers around using the word “design”.

As if by magic Matt Homann appeared:-

On a call. I’ll chime in soon. 😉

Rae was intrigued by what Matt might tell us:-

Yes please! Watching with interest (and very open mind) I’ve just never got that from the lawyers I’ve worked with.

Rich Folsom was having none of it:-

Don’t think ‘design’ is as loaded a term as you are making out. Surprised that asking lawyers to be involved in the ‘design’ of something has got allergic reactions from people.

Nir Golan had heard:-

Some think that it’s about making things “pretty”.

Rich Folsom:-

“Can I get that in cornflower blue?” stuff, sure. But the UX piece: entry points, properly understanding the user journey, re-configuring the flowchart, optimising order of questions, feedback loops to seek great outcomes – surprised lawyers say it’s not their job to be involved.

Alex G. Smith shared his experience:-

“As a lawyer I think all other lawyers like me will want …”

20 years of my career.

Rich Folsom again:-

Don’t think lawyers are special here though. Most people in services industries bad at understanding the market-needs for a productisation of their work. But must listen to people with pain points, even if they aren’t great at the general version of their problem.

Alex G. Smith:-

Why commentators-consultants get angry about service design being obvious when common sense left MBA business world 20 years ago … due to remorseless consultants …

Rich Folsom:-

More remorse needed.

Alex G. Smith:-

Oh it’s all f#cked! You are so right!!

Rich Folsom:-

Don’t think I’m saying that. Just that it is a generally hard skill.

Alex G. Smith:-

It’s a hard skill because that skill was not rewarded in MBA-Ville world of late. It is a hard skill but also a human one when rewarded right.

Richard Folsom:-

Ok, I do not have as much experiences with MBA folk as you. Wouldn’t put the weight of progress (or regression/slower advancement) in a sector on any one degree type. I buy there are pockets of it, but across the board, I haven’t seen that.

Completely agree on human /empathetic skill and about the right rewards allowing that to be retrieved/released/not suppressed from people.

Alex G. Smith:-

I have. Focus on number and methodology and not creativity and human qualities. The MBA course is quietly in as much turmoil as the JD course is in terms of its future and outputs … everyone likes to pick on lawyers though.

Nir Golan came back in again:-

My hope is that at some point lawyers will learn to think about the pain points/context of their clients before releasing their one size fits all legal solutions. So much value in empathy/understanding people/problems/specific context. The mindset should that of readers not writers.

Rich Folsom:-

Anyone who calls the product ‘done’, sure. Had tough prioritisations however to push things ‘down the roadmap’ that I guess are nicher, or that we can make do with a non-scalable approach for now. Still launch though. good sacrifice the perfect, minimum addressable market, etc..

Matt Homann had finished his call and could now give us his 2 cents worth:-

First noticed this outside of law. A client had a “design thinking” team that was only getting called to do things that others thought of as “design.”  Once they shifted story to problem solving — and took the word “design” out of their name — they got called lots more. Then, learned the same thing in firms. Lawyers don’t think about client service, pricing, etc. as problems “design thinking” can solve — and certainly not something for “non-lawyer” designers. Same tools, but rebrand a la The Time Blawg’s suggestion can win over skeptics.

Nir Golan:-

We’re so fu$&ked up, pardon my French..

All clients are the same didn’t you know..

That’s why clients leave.. b/c there’s no effort to understand the specific them.. if the cookie cutter solution does not work then it’s b/c of the client.

Matt Homann pondered:-

I wonder if using CX (Client Experience) vs. “User” would work better with lawyers too? They’re broken just like everyone else, but think they’re all broken in completely unique, legal-specific ways. 😉

Rich Folsom:-

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature?

Rae Digby-Morgan re-appeared:-

It’s perplexing because I don’t recognise this turn off by lawyers because it’s ‘design’. I think it’s straying into smoke and mirrors territory to relabel something to pander to someone. The fact is the industry is changing – and for the good. This is part of it and if they don’t want to engage then they will be left behind. I feel like I’m doing lawyers a disservice to treat them any differently to any other person I work with, whoever they are.

Alex G. Smith could foresee a rebranding:-

Don’t worry – I’m sure a Susskind will try and write a book about it soon, rebrand it something different like ‘outcomes thinking’ or such like.

Joshua Kubicki joined in with a perceptive observation on the use of “legal” as a prefix in the legal world for many things that are not really specific to “legal” just like “legal design”:-

This is indicative of the legal market that dislikes/distrusts things non-legal/lawyer. So “legal” gets added to somehow ease change burden. Legal marketing, LPM, etc. But it also tends to dilute core discipline. For well over a decade in biz design, I seldom even said “design.”

I added:-

Legal tech too. Often nothing that specific/special about the tech to make it “legal”. It’s just tech.

So should we be removing the “legal” tag from more than just “design”?

Nir Golan responding to Joshua Kubicki:-

Which brings us back to the core reason for the lack of real sustainable innovation in legal

To which I postulated:-


Nir Golan came back:-

Too much of by lawyers for lawyers..

Me in response:-

Indeed. I always try and bring in those from outside law to facilitate our client focussed innovation workshops e.g. Inksters Customer Service Workshop benefits Social Bite

Joshua Kubicki:-

It is changing though. Slowly as awareness of how business skills improve firm/team/client performance. An Amlaw100 client of ours – partners did not even know business departments within their own firm, let alone people. We brought them together and now they are hooked on it.

Nir Golan:-

Let me give you an example. Just had some need for a seminar from our firm. Wanted to work together with the firm to create what we need. They didn’t like the idea of collaboration and using our input. Now think of a UX person/a Product person, client person involved. That was missing big time.

Alex G. Smith in reply to Nir Golan:-

Yep, bit I’m sure the table in word was on housestyle.

Nir Golan:-

Alex if only you could see the materials they prepared. A legal opinion on the screen.

We are going to take the materials and redesign them with our UX person.

This is so spot on when working and learning from non-legal professionals. We lawyers have so much to learn from others. #legal #stilllearning

Be teachable

Alex G. Smith:-

Yep, I mean none of this is rocket science, keep learning.

Then Alex G. Smith again but in reply to Joshua Kubicki and me:-

Can you fix legal tech too … “as a formEr lawyer I felt other lawyers would want this product I just started up”

Joshua Kubicki:-

As a former lawyer I know legal marketing and can run it. As a former lawyer I can lead innovation efforts. As a former lawyer I can slide into any role. Business skills have been ignored/neglected so long everything is conflated/fungible.

Nir Golan:-

Business and human/Client-centered skills.

As as a former lawyers I know best what my clients want/need

Carlos Gámez then joined in the debate:-

I agree with most of the thread but I agree with the author of the article that started it all. If a lawyer can learn to extrapolate and empathize (not about them but rather the human Persona they are solving for), legal skills can actually help in: 1 getting to why 2) explaining.

Nir Golan:-

Definitely. A great combination. Super powers.

Carlos Gámez:-

For instance, some of the best IP lawyers are engineers who can actually describe the tech, tax lawyer accountants, investment bankers lawyers+MBA, etc..  ability to go deep and understand legal issues related to the service helps break down problem and then build solution.

At the end of the day Rae had made a friend:-

Nir Golan we are destined to be friends.

And Jason Moyse was impressed:-

Amazing thread.

What do you think? Should we call it “Legal Design” or something else? And should we be revisiting the “legal” prefix in other similar contexts? Are lawyers really scared of “design” and do we need to change that word for them too?

Reactions on Social Media

There have been reactions to this post on other blogs, on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

On the PinHawk Blog, Jeffrey Brandt blogged:-

I’m glad Brian Inkster blogged about this but sorry I missed out on this initial conversation. I think Nir Golan’s summed up the impression I’m left with of our industry when he said, “We’re so fu$ked up, pardon my French…”

It all started with a conversation about the term “legal design.” Now I totally get the first part on questioning adding “legal” as a prefix. I wasn’t quite prepared for the word “design” to be debated. It seems that terminology has always been an issue in legal. Marketing, sales, non-legal, professional, chief and more. It was almost eight years ago I wrote about my disdain for the ‘legal’ prefix on project management. Today I could write the same thing about a dozen terms some folks in legal have tried to coopt.

Brian closes with “What do you think? Should we call it ‘Legal Design’ or something else? And should we be revisiting the ‘legal’ prefix in other similar contexts? Are lawyers really scared of ‘design’ and do we need to change that word for them too?” My stance is pretty clear. Project management didn’t start in legal, neither did design thinking. Neither are substantively changed by their application in legal and prefacing them with ‘legal’ is disingenuous at best. And frankly it’s a crying shame if people are scared of words.


On LinkedIn the following comments have been made:-

Kevin van Tonder (I help drive innovation and change in legal teams):

Interesting thread. I only used “legal” as opposed to “service” because I thought that it could be used beyond the service aspect (e.g. how a law firm interacts with a client) and include the product side (e.g. how a lawyer structures or designs a contract template – is visualisation used, for example). I also used “legal” to provide context to the environment is which the design occurs. But I do agree, in my interactions with “left-brained” lawyers, the word “design” does muddy the water.


Rae Digby-Morgan (Consultancy Director at Wilson Fletcher):

Intrigued to see what comes up next!

It did make me think though, if there are some lawyers scared of ‘design’ (as its definitely not all lawyers based on our wide variety of experience on the twitter thread), then would we not be better listening to them, finding out why they are scared and seeking to reassure?

Changing the language feels like a sticking plaster inappropriate for the problem which I suspect is rooted in firm culture. It would be good to hear from people who are experiencing this suspicion around design whether it’s been termed legal or otherwise, to balance out the positive view we find elsewhere.


Katherine Thomas (CEO at Free Range Lawyers):

This debate is fun but it’s a distraction from the hard work of doing.

It is the very definition of the ‘echo chamber’ in action.  Who cares what we call it? Just do it.

Be intentional (ie design rather than evolve).  Listen to customer voice.  Have service/product delivery people (in this case, lawyers), collaborate with customers and design professionals.  Ideate. Iterate. Etc.

Taking action, trying, doing, learning and taking action again in an imperfect environment will do more to attract the right talent from outside the industry than any amount of debate on semantics (for which, by the way, lawyers are already so well known and which, by the way, may be part of the turn-off……..).

Alex G Smith (Global RAVN Product Lead at iManage):

Katherine Thomas agree. I find legal fascinating but a hard area for this approach but it’s coming esp as our clients (see large banks for example or tech companies) start to have to use this as that’s how their companies work. Will be fascinating to watch how firms react when service and systems designers are in the room redefining business tools/products and need proactive advice and to be part of the design … coming soon.

The Legal Ops folks could really disrupt legal by accelerating this … the best innovation sessions with GCs etc are those that are working with “at scale” innovation/service design teams.


Antti Innanen (Managing Partner, Attorney at Dottir Attorneys):

Call it what you want.

Alex G Smith:

agree so long as we start attracting the best service design/UX/user centric designers from outside the industry into our industry to make it better. Currently only really happening in government and court transformation at present in multiple jurisdictions.


Melissa Lyon (Associate Principal at Hive Legal | Design Thinker | Finalist Legal Innovation Index 2018):

Thanks for bringing that all together Brian Inkster. The fact that we have to pander to the ‘profession’ by making it all about ‘legal’ and calling it ‘legal design’ speaks volumes.
#multidisiplinaryteams bring better CX and EX… Let’s just do it for everyone’s sake.


George Beaton (Adviser | Researcher | Speaker | Author):

Brian Inkster I agree it’s long past time to recognize law is an industry – like others – with an overlay of profession and particular ethics.


Peter Connor (Global Change Agent – helping in-house lawyers transform):

Depends what you mean by “it”! Most of what I have seen promoted as Legal Design is NOT Design Thinking because it starts with an idea not the customer. So perhaps it’s better to let people use the expression Legal Design and distinguish it from true Design Thinking. That is precisely what I do in my training workshops.


Dr. Anja Huber (Head of Strategy & Sales, Orbital Propulsion & Space Derivatives – ArianeGroup):

Typical lawyer‘s talk!


And on Twitter:-

Rae Digby-Morgan:

Would love to hear from people on this.  My experience with lawyers and embracing design has been really positive but its important not to live in a bubble! I don’t agree the answer is to change the language, but I really want to understand the problem and the scale of it better.

Alex G Smith:

Thanks for this round up. To be honest it’s not the wording for me but the not attracting best practice or talent from outside of the industry around service design and user centric design into our world. Adding legal or saying designs in law needs domain background is wrong.

Nir Golan:

This wording creates a very limited and reduced service desigb mindset, methodology, and processes. We should learn this from the service designers across industries. That’s the real learning here. I try to interact with designers from different industries.

Jason Moyse:

very much where I would like to go too…. trying to ‘break in’ ….

I really enjoyed my prior role as head of customer experience and I just don’t think that design thinking was that mature yet — but I have to work in multidisciplinary environments… must…

Alex G Smith:

Ex colleagues are all over the place doing cool stuff and i’ve tried to go to service design or GDS events to get inspiration and maintain skills/currency.

Nir Golan:

Yep.And that’s exactly what legal practitioners that truly want to innovate and change their mindset should also do.Spend time w/ different people outside their industry.And that’s why that word “collaboration” is so key. It’s the real driver of innovation. W/o it we won’t evolve

Alex G Smith:

They will be forced to soon as service designers start changing the businesss lawyers serve. The funnest GC conversations have been with those working in this approach and with their company innovation/service design teams. Like you …

Nir Golan:

Thanks. This is still so so relevant:

If lawyers truly want to evolve, think and work differently, they should spend time talking, listening ,interacting, and learning from non-legal professionals. Product/Innovation/Sales/Design people. Collab is an empty word unless you do the work.Give up the ego. #Listen. #Learn.

I try to spend most of my day working and interacting with people outside the legal bubble.

Nick du Cros‏:

The phrase “compliance by design” seem to be entering the lexicon as well. Many of the same issues as raised below – particularly the involvement from the non-legal/non-compliance members of the launch team.

Stefania Passera:

Legal Design, as a word, has not been designed. If memory serves me well, it just happened. We have not planned to bake deep ,strategic meaning into it — we just wanted to make things happen.

In 2013 I was introduced to @margarethagan. She was starting to do cool things in Stanford, I have been doing my research on contract visualization and user-friendly contracts for a while, and I was thinking of ways to persuade people that they could do it too (“I can’t draw”).

Hence, I thought of a hands-on workshop to make them learn by doing and demonstrate they can do it. I didn’t know how to call it. But since I was travelling to USA anyway, I wanted to organize on with @margarethagan. We decided to name it Legal Design Jam.

To my knowledge, that was the first shared use of the term legal design. There was no @LegalDesignLab at Stanford yet, it was called something else.

We were interested in doing, creating enthusiasm and creating examples, not in naming, because it was just SO hard to show what it was about, giving it some sort of legitimacy, even having a conversation.

So yeah, if the term is not perfect is because it was never designed to be a perfect term (nor to be a hyped hashtag, for what matters).

I just love that we took so many steps forward in 6 years that now we are having these sort of self-reflective conversations!

Nir Golan:


Such a great story of doing!

Joshua Kubicki

This is a terrific and well-needed dialogue. I used to get more uptight about #legaldesign but within the last few years have grown more ambivalent.  This thread has allowed me to revisit it and help me decide if this term and its use matters. IMO it doesn’t.

Your works speaks for itself. Call it whatever you want, people don’t care. They want outcomes, not religions, methodologies, fads, or hype. There will always be a market for buyers and sellers of hype. And legal is filled with this right now.

Lean six sigma. Design Thinking. Lean Startup. Porter’s strategy work. Agile. Waterfall. Scrum. And so on. These are tools, methods, and resources.  They are not applied in a vacuum and seldom applied thoroughly (workshop are often grossly incomplete/ over-simplified).

What makes someone effective at solving real problems (not hypos or workshop scenarios) is working in the trenches, finding what works & doesn’t. Call me a plumber, a non-lawyer (even though I am one), a legal designer – I could care less. Just let me fix something and pay me.

My clients and employers have hired me over that last 20 years (I have seen and done a lot) to fix or grow something in their business or functions. They didn’t care what method I used, just that I got to work and held my own in an often hostile change-resistant environment.

“Legal design” is a misnomer to us who’ve been doing desig field work for years. “Design” is a loaded term. Service. Graphic. Business. Computational. Classic. Typography. Visual. And so on. Design is field filled with different discipline but 1 singular focus: USABILITY.

If legal designers out there want to design a contract, a practice group, a legal tech product, or a new conference promoting legal design, I say fine. Congrats. But if you are not actually fixing something, doing something, then it is okay to call BS on you.

Finally, nobody owns rights to #legaldesign. I know I am one of the pioneers and have the track record and proof. I could easily use this to claim some BS right to call people out (in my jerky times, I have). But to be honest, I am too busy working and continuously learning.

Paul Ward:

Amen amen amen.

Jason Moyse:

I would agree…. mostly… but not fully…

the workshops etc. ARE the entry point in many instances — even for clients….

they are a legitimate and useful beginning of the journey….

Getting to work w mature state paying clients ready to actually get to work – the goal!

Andrea Cannavina:

Thanks for capturing such a great thread, Brian.

If you say “legal design” to most practicing attorneys they will ask if there is a new cable tv show that does the interiors of law offices.

Nir Golan:

To me design means two things: understanding needs and finding human-centered ways to meet these needs. And this applies across the board in all industries.

Carlos Gámez:

Again agree with most of the discussion but I do think that there is a distinction: designes processes, products experiences or services should be desirable, viable, feasible BUT ALSO legally defensible.

Thus, when: @StewieKee is designing a new contract visualization or @margarethagan a new pro-se litigant intake process or @jkubicki a new legal service model or @NicoleBradick a new practice management product outputs must hold in court. Hence, room for #legaldesign

Open ? for me is whether the “thing” is still #legaldesign if not created via method based on #designprinciples. E.g., if Marty Lipton invents the poison pillin response to client job-to-be done but not following design principles, is it #legaldesign or just #legalstrategy

Nir Golan:

How is that different from any product or service in any other field? Like banking or security. They all need to be legally defensible. It’s not a legal thing.

Carlos Gámez:

It’s all semantics, I agree but until rules on practice of law are relaxed, I do see a diff between a product (carrying liabilities, rules & regs towards buyers and 3rd parties) and a “product” intended to deliver a legal service or assisting the delivery of a legal service.

Alex G Smith:

Good call Nir, banking service/system design teams working in the same environment. Lawyers can really help here if designing with development teams … such an opportunity to … erm … stop being so … erm … legal.

Carlos Gámez:

It becomes a legal thing when the product is the legal service. Eg a Derivative transaction isn’t a legal prod but the ISDA contract is. A tech or process to automate the contract (not the transaction) is #legaltech — again, all semantics but this whole discussion is about words.

Nicole Bradick:

This is more an issue of standards than semantics. We should & do have higher standards for releases in high risk industries. We don’t use the words “legal design” here, but for no reason other than what we do is easily understood as product design & problem solving.

Carlos Gámez:

Fair.. but.. some of those standards are “legal”. Eg, arbitration tech must comply not only with rules and regs applicable to execution of arbitration awards; ediscovery tools with latest precedent on tech assisted review; deal tech with international rules on esigs and PoA, etc.

Melissa Pershing Moss:

“The 12 Commandments of Service Design Doing: #1 Call It What You Like: It doesn’t matter what you call it. It matters that you do it.” @MrStickdorn It depends on who I want in the room & what words I need to use to get them there & participating in #radicalcollaboration for #ATJ

Alex G Smith:

Agree, my favourite book, but can we appeal to get the best and brightest into our cool but weird industry … clue they are already in the govt court redesign without us noticing …

Melissa Pershing Moss:

Did sprints @ Nat’l Assoc ALJs Conf just to expose to adopting user lens. Now maybe 1-2 ALJs might think collab on user centered court design? That’s different from attracting new/brightest into our industry.  #segment & #adapt language, method & pace to people & purpose.

Nir Golan:

By removing “legal” we can truly bring so much more people, perspectives, and thoughts into the conversation. This about the possibilities. True radical cross-collaboration.


A month or two ago a lawyer who claimed to have created a “world first” ‘legal’ design workshop argued his workshop was so special because he was a lawyer who could do service design.

Alex G Smith:

That’s was funny, I had comments deleted like others have … isn’t that right @artificialmoggy?

Artificial Moggy:

My person always deletes comments he doesn’t like rather than engage. He knows he would not come out well (like Farage v Marr). But he is not a lawyer (just pretends) and wouldn’t know legal design if you stuck a post-it note on his nose. Did he really do this?!


Not your person but his Antipodean artificial twin.

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