Design Thinking in a Future Legal Practice

If you aren’t already, imagine being a law student in America today. Most law students are constantly reminded of how poor job prospects are with law graduate placement falling for the sixth year in a row to 84.5%. Students working in the legal services industry no longer see the world of 91.9% employment reached in 2007 before the financial crisis.

With the average price of a law degree hovering around $125,000, it is important for law students in the new legal services market to have unique skills.

My interest in the blending of unique skills and personal branding began when I attended my school’s 21st Century Law Practice Program in London in the summer of 2013. Professors Knake and Katz taught two of our three courses, each separately focusing on design in legal services and the role of technology in the future of legal services.

As part of our design class, we began to learn about a concept called design thinking, as well as personal branding. After returning from London and during the duration of my second year, I began focusing on developing skills that, in combination, provide a unique perspective in legal services.  Simultaneously, I had the opportunity to become a certified domestic and civil mediator from professor Brian Pappas at Michigan State.

Anyone who has attended law school will tell you that it “teaches you to think like a lawyer.” But what does this mean? Law school teaches analytical thinking, especially in writing. This one-size-fits-all method of reasoning is not necessarily bad, but it leaves little room for creativity.

I believe that students who blend other methods of thinking may find it easier to approach a problem, if not the end work product. In addition, these unique skills may be highly prized in the changing legal services market.

This is where I believe communication skills, learned from mediation, coupled with design thinking, provide law students and lawyers with a unique perspective. I will start with the skills I’ve learned in mediation and end with a discussion on how these principles fit nicely into my understanding of design thinking.


Any mediator will tell you that one of the most fundamental skills a mediator must learn to master is active listening. Listening for details and facts is something that law students are trained very well to do, and I will admit that many times in my early training I found myself searching for “answers” to people’s problems. There lies a fundamental issue: the answers you reach are littered with your own conclusions and presumptions.

Instead of listening for the facts of a situation, my mediation training focused on trying to find the interests behind someone’s statements or behaviors.  For example, take two people shouting at each other. Their shouting could be attributed to any number of factual answers: person A failed to return person B’s item; A refuses to be in a room with B’s significant other; or A hasn’t spoken to B in several years. While these answers may be factually correct, they don’t get to the heart of an issue.

Finding the heart of an issue is not an easy task. At first glance, it may be easy to see that both A and B are frustrated with the other, but why? The mediation process is about empowering both A and B to find a place where they feel comfortable enough to share information about their thoughts and feelings, but more importantly, helping both sides feel and be receptive to listening.

If you have captured the essence of someone’s statements, you will have what professor Pappas calls an “exactly moment.” For example, when you are listening to a friend complain about his or her day, you make a statement along the lines of “it sounds like you are really [angry or frustrated] because of [X or Y reason]” and the person throws their arms up and says, “exactly!” This is one example of empowering an individual with active listening.

So at this point, you may be thinking- why is this skill important to me as a lawyer? It comes from the industry lawyers work in: legal services. The law is a service industry. Lawyers provide the keys to information and expertise for clients. While partners primarily interact with clients, young attorney’s clients are partners. One of the most grieved issues to bar authorities is lawyers’ poor communication.

To me personally, practicing and honing these skills are invaluable for the service aspect of legal services. Whether it is for a partner in a firm or on the client side, the practice and development of deep personal communication skills are invaluable.

Design Thinking

While I have not had the same number of hours in training in design thinking, I have had a limited exposure to the design thinking process. As part of our Entrepreneurial Lawyering class within the Reinvent law curriculum, we had the opportunity to participate in a weekend workshop with  Margaret Hagan from Stanford’s Design School.

In our weekend workshop, we learned that design is not a branding tool or a magic art, but something in-between. Primarily, it involves thinking from the user’s perspective. We learned that it is a seven-step process involving the user: empathizing, reflection, ideate, feedback, prototyping, branding, and feasibility.

From the beginning, anyone who wants to create a useful, fun, and relevant prototype has to become their end-user.

The first step in the process involves a deep conversation with the user where the creator attempts to discover the user’s motivations and actual interests. When I practiced this skill in our weekend session, I found myself utilizing my mediation training by asking open-ended questions and searching for interests to better help me appreciate my partner’s perspective.

Parallel to mediation, the design-thinking process is not about what you think is the best or right answer for the user, but instead, about remaining present in the moment, responding to criticism, and not fearing failure.

How do these skills interact in the legal context?

To me, a lawyer or law student who immerses his or herself in these skills will find that they are able to switch their brain into different modes: personal communication, brainstorming, and analytical reasoning.  Whether the situation involves speaking with a client to determine the end-goals of mediation, or writing a research memorandum for a senior partner, developing a deep understanding of the issues and the motivations behind it only helps all involved.

Instead of a ten page memo, perhaps a chart or outline would provide a more concise answer?  Is the client a visual learner?  Maybe there is a more appealing method of presenting information than a single-spaced black and white document. Design thinking allows a lawyer or law student to have a conversation about how someone will interact with the end product, not simply how well it reads.

In closing, I believe that mediation and design thinking are irrevocably intertwined. More importantly, I believe that developing these skills makes an attorney or law student better able to catering to the various personalities and learning styles that exist in the world.

Featured image: “vector abstract paper square shapes background” from Shutterstock.

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