New Zealand Law Society - Legal practice and design principles

Legal practice and design principles

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Growing numbers of businesses now use design principles to provide solutions for their clients. It helps them to be more innovative, better differentiate their brands and bring products and services to the market faster.

Legal practitioners can provide better service for these businesses by understanding the design process and adapting to the changing expectations we work with.

At first glance, law and design seem like an unlikely pair. Law is considered heavily text based and traditional, design is visual or experience based and innovative. Lawyers often practise alone in an adversarial setting and design is practised in teams and collaboratively.

However both disciplines share a fundamental purpose, to shape interactions between humans and organisations. At their core, they both require client communication skills and problem-solving skills. They both involve developing arguments, testing hypotheses and refining down a final product.

By weaving design principles into practice legal practitioners can deliver more effective service for clients so that clients will feel more supported, understood, and satisfied in their interactions with the practitioners.

For the past six months I have been an onsite legal advisor for the Simplification Project at Ministry of Social Development.

The project looks at redesigning the transaction processes to be “simple at the front and smart at the back”. These processes form a significant proportion of the ministry’s operational activity. The initiative is about testing new and innovative ideas and strategies through human-centred design (HCD).

Human-centred design

IDEO is a design organisation that was formed in 1991 as a merger between David Kelley Design which created Apple Computer’s first mouse in 1982 and ID Two, which designed the first laptop computer, also in 1982.

Initially IDEO focused on traditional design work; products and displays. By 2001 IDEO noticed that they were increasingly asked to tackle problems that seem unrelated to the traditional design: helping restructure an organisation or helping an organisation gain better understanding of clients.

Design was moving beyond the realms of physical products to interactions and experiences.

According to IDEO’s An Introduction to Human-Centered Design, HCD is “a creative approach to problem solving … It is a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs.”

The HCD process is made up of three phases: inspiration, ideation and implementation; although it is not always conducted in a linear fashion.


The inspiration phase requires gaining a deep, contextual understanding of the client’s needs. This requires an active involvement and immersion in the client’s environment to discover what their needs are.

As legal practitioners, this means moving beyond the traditional model of simply conducting client interviews and asking them to bring questions to us which may not yield important insights. Henry Ford understood this when he said: “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said ‘a faster horse’.”

The HCD approach requires legal practitioners to go out and observe the actual experiences and be embedded in the environment of the people they are providing legal solutions for.

I worked onsite with the simplification project team for this reason. I went to standup meetings, planning sessions and read research findings in order to immerse myself in the context from which they were developing their project.

This allowed me to contribute legal advice into project development proactively rather than waiting until the client identified an issue and requested a particular piece of legal advice.


The second phase of the HCD process is ideation. After spending time in the field observing and doing research, a design team made up of multidisciplinary members goes through a process of synthesis to distill insights that can lead to solutions or opportunities for change.

This means legal practitioners should be able to work as a member of a multidisciplinary team and be comfortable in sharing ideas with people who may have different specialties. This also means that legal practitioners do not work alone but seek ideas and suggestions from their colleagues or other lawyers who practise in different areas with different perspectives.

I was able to use the support and help of my colleagues as well as seniors by seeking their contributions or feedback from an early stage of a legal advice. As each of us worked in slightly different areas with varying levels of expertise, this was a great way to generate legal advice that looked at a particular problem from diverse angles.


The third phase of the HCD process is implementation. This is when the best ideas are turned into an action plan and when a piece of legal advice can be formed comprehensively.

At the core of the implementation process is the prototyping; turning ideas into actual products and services that are then tested, iterated and refined.

This requires legal practitioners to stay engaged after providing advice and to be informed to provide further advice or change previous advice as the product or service is changed and tweaked.

This may mean that a practitioner needs to be flexible with their advice, to be able to change as the product or service goes through iterations.

I went to demo sessions, observed and participated in testings to keep myself up to date as to iterations post my legal advice. As the products and services changed, my advice was further tailored.

Design principles and the future of law

Design principles applied to legal practice focus on the user experience of the client and of the lawyer. They can raise new ways of giving legal advice, carrying out litigation and resolving disputes.

Taking design principles one step further, organisations like Open Law Lab and Innovative Legal Forum provide tools and resources to better design communication in legal practice; in a more visual and interactive format.

As legal practitioners are well aware, not everyone responds well to the text heavy method in legal advice. Designed legal solutions, while being mindful of the professional rules, promise better delivery of service, more efficiency and, foremost, more satisfying relationships between clients and lawyer.

Jin An is a solicitor at the Ministry of Social Development in Wellington. She is currently undertaking the course on human-centred design from IDEO. You can contact Jin at

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