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How Design Thinking Makes for Good Business Development and Client Service

Nat Slavin is a partner in the Wicker Park Group, a consultancy focused on helping law firms strengthen and deepen their relationships with in-house counsel through client feedback and other client facing programs. Nat has met with more than a thousand law firm clients – in-house counsel, chief legal officers, legal operations executives and business leaders – getting feedback on what drives the most successful relationships and greatest client loyalty. What do clients want from their outside counsel? Nat boils it down to three points: “Beyond delivering quality legal advice, they want outside counsel to 1) demonstrate an understanding of their business and goals, 2) make their life easier and 3) be enjoyable to work with. Doing those three things really drives loyalty, and keeps outside counsel top of mind.”

Recent surveys of in-house counsel have revealed that clients are looking to their outside counsel for innovative ways to be more efficient and effective through the re-design of traditional legal processes, the use of technology, leveraging ASPs and other techniques.  Sadly, outside counsel rarely deliver on these expectations, leaving corporate legal departments to drive innovation and legal process design, often at the expense of outside legal counsel.  

How can design thinking improve client relationships and make for good business development?  Let’s look at the five stages of design thinking and see how they might benefit the attorney-client relationship.  For this sake of this chapter, I will refer to lawyers and legal professionals who are engaged in design thinking as “legal designers” or “designers”.  The legal designer can be either an individual from a client or law firm, and can be in any role, including lawyer, executive, or staff.

Empathy – In this first stage, through observation and dialogue, legal designers gain a deeper understanding of their client’s needs, wants, pain points and business context.  This activity helps the legal designer gain a greater understanding of the client and her/his needs.  

How might this look in real life?  Let’s say that a client is looking to reduce legal expenses by streamlining the legal process for a certain type of matter.  While it might be tempting to simply give a discount rate, or replace a partner with a lower cost associate or contract attorney, a legal designer might see it as an opportunity to learn more about the client.  

Our legal designer might start by interviewing everyone involved in these types of matters, on both the client and law firm side.  What is your role in the matter? What works well when dealing with matters like this?  What drives you crazy?  What are the factors that slow down the process?  What steps are not really necessary?  Who must approve what?  How long does each step take?

If the legal matter involves a behavior or situation that is observable (such as slip-and-falls at a grocery store), the legal designer might visit a few stores during a snow storm and watch what a typical store might do (or not do) to prevent injuries.  

Sometimes a client’s culture impacts a legal process.  For example, by being overly cautious, requiring multiple levels of review, comment and approval or by being unresponsive, letting emails, phone messages and work product sit for weeks before being addressed,  clients can significantly impact the efficiency and cost of a matter.  

Likewise, a firm’s culture can equally impact a legal process.  Reward incentives and compensation systems, such as the billable hour system, can impact how long a matter takes to process.  The propensity for lawyers and legal professionals to leverage technology to reduce legal process time through automation can also impact the efficiency of a legal process.  The legal designer might want to talk to executives on both the client and law firm side to identify potential cultural impacts on the process.

The designer might also want to seek an outside expert’s view.  Perhaps someone who is experienced in automating legal processes, or a legal operations executive from a non-competing company, or a management consultant with industry experience could provide insights into the challenges facing the design team. 

The goal of the legal designer is to see the problem with a fresh set of eyes, setting aside previous notions of why things work or not.  She is looking for “red flag areas” that get people worked up.  Strong emotions often guide behaviors that cause or illuminate problems. 

Through interviews, observation and involving outside experts, the legal designer can now start to develop a model of what is happening now, and identify areas for improvement.  Process maps and journey maps are great tools for this.  By deeply understanding the current situation, the designer can begin to see where to focus her problem solving efforts.  

Imagine the legal designer meeting with her client, and discussing what she has discovered and the insights she has gained from her research.  Anyone who has attended client panels has heard the chorus, “Please understand our business better”.  Is there a better way to understand a client, it’s business and the context of their legal issues?

Problem Definition – The second stage of design thinking is clearly defining the problem you are trying to solve.   The legal designer uses insights gained from the empathy stage to frame the problem not only in the legal context, but also in the context of solving a business or legal process problem, as the example above illustrates.  Often the problems legal professionals need to help solve are not just legal in nature, rather they are complex issues that require creative thinking and innovative solutions. 

The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (dSchool) uses a concept called “Point of View (POV)”.  The POV is a guiding statement that focuses on specific users, insights and needs that drives the design process.  It is a simple, but crucial, statement that provides focus and direction of the design process.  For example, our legal designer in the example above recognizes that the client wants to save money and reduce the cycle time for these types of matters.  

However, her “Empathy Phase” activities revealed that single most time (and money) wasting activity was repeated transmitted, review, comment and revisions of documents.  When things got busy (which was nearly all of the time), documents sometimes sat for days or weeks in an email folder, often frustrating one side or the other.  Our legal designer identified several possible problems to address to meet her client’s needs, but offered this as her Point of View:

“To create a document review process that significantly reduces cycle time while improving the quality and accuracy of the contracts on a consistent basis, thus reducing the time to read emails, track changes, make changes, resulting in lower hours (and dollars) spent on these matters.”  

Can you see how this provides focus to the problem and drives the next stages of the design process?  Image what the client would say if their outside counsel came to them and said, “I’d like to focus our efforts in this area.  I think it has the greatest potential to save time, money and grief going forward.  Do you want to work on this together?”

Sometimes the POV statement/problem definition is not obvious.  Make sure that the POV statement is clearly derived from the pain points identified in the empathy stage.  What one problem can we focus on solving that would have the most impact towards meeting the client’s need?  It may not be all things to all people.  

Ideation – This is the brainstorming phase, best done with a group.  Consider including representatives from the client’s organization as well as outside experts in the process.  The best brainstorming results in ideas that may be outside of lawyers’ comfort zone.  Have a discussion about preferences and risk tolerances and see if the team can stretch in its ability to think up truly innovative ideas.  When clients and outside counsel come together to truly brainstorm, both are often pleasantly surprised at the creativity and willingness to push boundaries in the pursuit of an innovative solution.  

After facilitating one such session in a Design Thinking Legal© workshop, a client said, “It is refreshing to see how far my outside lawyers have gone to not only understand our business and related legal challenges.  I am very impressed with their insight and creativity to develop new ways to solve old problems.  We made more progress in one afternoon than we have in the past five years.”

One of the law firm lawyers in the same design group commented, “While I thought I knew their business, there was so much I didn’t appreciate until we started the design process.  I understand a lot more and I finally feel like part of their team.”

Ideation in a team setting can not only result in better ideas, but can also build commitment to those in the design team.  In an age where loyalty seems to be a rare commodity, using design thinking to develop innovative solutions can pay off with stronger ties between client and lawyer/law firm.  

The ideation phase is not a time for any design team member to show off or try to “one-up” each other.  Rather it is an opportunity for law firm lawyers and client representatives to practice collaboration and explore new ways to “do” legal work.  Often ideas are generated that might not apply to the problem at hand, but might be helpful in other ways.  Look for ways to build off of each other’s ideas (think, Yes, and… rather than, but, or…).  

Using tools like “How might we” questions can often spark engaging and productive brainstorm sessions.  Using the earlier example, we could ask:

  • How might we put the entire review process online and take it out of email?
  • How might we do the entire process in 24 hours?
  • How might we make a game out of it and assigned points for responsiveness and quality?
  • How might we automate the 80% of these documents that never change?
  • How might we review, comment, approve and move along the process on an iPhone?
  • How might we…. You get the idea…

As the group considers the results of the brainstorm and begins to select ideas for prototyping, look for opportunities for both collaboration and innovation.  Don’t settle on the easiest path.  Challenge the team to find a novel solution that can be both beautiful in its design and effective in its application.  Work on ways to build commitment and enthusiasm for the ideas moving forward.  

Can you think of a better way to deepen a relationship with a client and outside counsel?  The team is jointly working towards solving an important client problem.  Both parties are collaborating and playing off each other’s ideas.  Everyone is envisioning how ideas might play out in real life, and anticipating that the design team will be involved in implementing the solution.  

Prototyping – In this phase, the design team mocks up a physical manifestation or process for evaluation.  It is an iterative process of trial and error, with each progressive iteration showing the team how to improve the design based on feedback from the user(s).  The iterative process can be maddening, but it both refines the solution and builds strong bonds between the client and outside counsel.  

Often, a legal design solution involves a new process.  Sometimes this involves technology, but not always.  The process prototype can be illustrated in a process map, Gantt chart, journey map or some other representation.  The legal designer can then “test” the prototypes by walking various stakeholders through the process to get their feedback.  This is a valuable experience for the designer, as it will give her insight into the preferences and priorities of various people in the client organization. Imagine taking a prototype idea to not only the legal department, but also the client’s finance, marketing, and operational units for feedback and insight.  

One of my favorite feedback tools is the Feedback Capture Grid.  When seeking feedback, ask stakeholders:

  • What do you like about this solution (+)
  • What would you change to this solution (𝚫)
  • What questions do you have?  What confuses you (?)
  • What interests or excites you the most about this solution (1️)

Beware of idea-killing dragons in this phase.  Often you are testing new, out-of-the-box ideas with stakeholders who are not part of the design team.  They may be skeptical and risk adverse.  They may not yet have drunk the “design thinking cool-aid” yet.  Don’t be discouraged by these dragons.  Rather, use their insights to both improve your solution and prepare your launch strategy.  Their skepticism will give you clues on how to craft your message and build alliances when you launch your innovative idea.  

Honesty, authenticity and conflict over ideas (not personalities) is encouraged at all phases, but this one especially. These values improve the result and build trust among team members, especially between clients and their outside counsel.  Don’t hide under a rock, nor should you shy from conflict that might lead to a better outcome.  

As you seek feedback and revise your innovation, use the experience to share feedback with the design team and collaborate on the next iteration.  Remember that the goal is not only to solve the problem, but also to build commitment among the team to make it a reality.  The feedback you receive and the diverse relationships you build as a designer will open doors for new opportunity with the client long after the design project is implemented.  

Beta Testing – Early in the design thinking process we prototype for empathy, that is, we share prototype ideas to get feedback on the idea so we can make iterative improvements.  Later in the process we prototype for feasibility.  This is the testing phase.  

Taking an idea from a prototype to a testing environment requires a different set of skills.  Legal designers need to practice strong project management skills and a willingness to be flexible in trying new approaches.   If possible, find metrics that can indicate whether progress is being made over the existing system.  For example, cycle time between benchmarks, billable time dedicated to specific tasks, wait or down time between key tasks, etc.  

Lawyers are taught in law school not to release a work product unless it is flawless.  Design thinking doesn’t work that way. It is an iterative process that tests a solution, makes revisions, and tests again until feasibility is confirmed.  This may be challenging for some members of the design team, and may require some discipline and vulnerability to introduce design thinking mindsets to the organization.  

Designers from law firms (whether lawyers or business professionals) have an opportunity to display their project management and collaboration skills, creativity, and political savvy in this phase, building confidence and loyalty from clients.  

Client Relationship Results from Design Thinking

Clients and outside counsel can expect that innovation through the design thinking process will be hard work, resulting in both innovative solutions and increased collaboration.  Clients will gain a greater appreciation for how their outside counsel can help them solve complex problems.  After investing time (blood, sweat and some tears) into the design process, clients will develop a deeper loyalty to their outside counsel, characterized by increased trust and communication. 

Law firm lawyers and business professionals will gain a better understanding of their client’s business, industry, context, challenges and service preferences.   With this increased understanding, lawyers will be better able to offer services and solutions that meet the specific needs and preferences of their clients (opposed to “cross-selling”).  

Together, both parties will benefit from more honest and effective communication, as they’ve been dealing with frank feedback from all quarters during an innovation project.  Finally, as the client-law firm design team concept progresses, both parties benefit from developing new ways to efficiently and profitably deliver legal services. 

So, what do you think?  Nat Slavin said that clients want outside counsel to 1) demonstrate an understanding of their business and goals, 2) make their life easier and 3) be enjoyable to work with.  Can design thinking help you, your firm or legal department meet these expectations?  I think the design thinking is a “killer app” for  business development and client service success.  


A version of this article appeared in the book, “Design Thinking for the Legal Profession”, published by the Ark Group.  You can purchase the entire book at Ark-Group.com

MARK BEESE
Mark Beese is President of Leadership for Lawyers, a consultancy focused on helping lawyers become stronger leaders and business developers. He provides training, coaching and consulting in the areas of leadership development, innovation and business development. Mark also facilitates workshops on design thinking for legal. 

He has recently published two chapters for the book, “Design Thinking for the Legal Profession”, published by the Ark Group.  Mark is an adjunct faculty with the University of Denver Sturm School of Law and former adjunct with the Center for Creative Leadership.  He is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and an inductee in the Legal Marketing Association Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement.  For more information, go to  www.designthinkinglegal.com  and www.leadershipforlawyers.com  

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