Why do we need legal design?
Lawyers are very familiar with providing legal texts which are accurate and precise, documenting complex risk factors. The language of law can, however, be difficult for the users of legal documents to understand. Legal design means reimagining legal documents and services to focus more on the needs of clients and users, creating better opportunities for access to law and justice.
In some areas of law, in particular Privacy Notices, there is a legal requirement to provide information in an accessible form, using clear and plain language. With much easier access to legal technology, there can be even more to legal design than drafting-style. Following her previous post on blockchain, we invited Obelisk consultant and knowledge management expert Lisa McClory to tell us more. Lisa explains some of the key use cases for legal design, how it can be used to make law more intuitive and engaging, and some of the hidden pitfalls for lawyers to avoid.
What’s available to enhance legal design?
With an increased uptake of legal technology and availability of graphic design software, there are a range of tools available to lawyers when communicating legal information:
Why are flow charts so important?
Lawyers are trained to work with large and complex documents and transactions, but most people are not. Diagram software, like Microsoft Visio, Lucidchart, Miro and Draw.io, amongst others, allow users to create flow diagrams, which can be a useful way to break complex legislation or legal processes down into a more manageable format. This exercise can also help identify opportunities to improve the legal design of the service. When designing a flow diagram, it can be helpful to cut complexity by aiming at the most common user requirements, rather than trying to include too much detail within a convoluted diagram. Many software providers give access to templates and guidance as a good starting point.
How do legal apps help?
An app is a small, specialised piece of software, usually designed for mobile, that tackles a specific job. A long-standing example of a legal decision-making app is the online GetLegal tool, designed by the law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite to provide suggestions of corporate structure for non-profits. A range of no-code applications, for example Neota Logic, Bryter, Josef and Fliplet, also allow lawyers to create their own apps without knowing any code, with existing use cases as varied as ESG investment checkers, NDA generators and a post-Brexit Contract Checker. Legal apps can be a great differentiator for law firms looking for an alternative way to provide legal information to their clients, or for in-house teams seeking a way to make information available in a more engaging way to business stakeholders, using legal design thinking.
How do you get started with legal design?
A key task when designing a new app, infographic or chatbot is to understand who will use the tool and what requirements they may have. The best way to do this is to engage with the user whilst building an application, perhaps by involving a small group of clients or business users to test ideas. Leaving user engagement to the end of a process risks expenditure of time and money on features which are not fit for purpose, or on solving a problem which users do not really have.
It is also important to think beyond launch of any app or legal information resources. If the information held within the app may need to be updated, then there will need to be a plan for ongoing maintenance and a decision about how the costs of this will be met. When designing a system or process, it is also important to design a way to get feedback from the system’s users, to carry on improving the process and resolving issues.
Why is accessibility so important?
When designing any legal document or service, it is important to understand how people with visual, hearing, motor and cognitive impairments might use that document or service, what obstacles they might experience and how to overcome them. For example, clients with dexterity impairments may experience difficulties with apps which rely on precise use of touch screens.
Accessibility is a central design requirement and should be taken into consideration at an early stage during any process. The Equality Act also imposes an obligation in some circumstances to ensure that customers and clients are able to access information and services.
What can go wrong with legal design?
Legal design can be used to promote positive outcomes, for example better understanding, or more accessible laws and information for a wider range of people. However, visual elements of communication, such as the size or colour of chart segments, as well as missing or inconsistent numbering on graph axes, or misleading labelling, can all contribute to inaccurate storytelling with data. Data ethics is an important factor to consider when preparing charts and infographics.
The same applies when providing access to legal information. Sufficient guidance is needed to ensure that users are clear about how often any resources are updated, how they are created and any gaps in coverage. Good planning at the outset of a project should include consideration of content methodology and ensure adequate protections in respect of foreseeable risks to users.
Legal design in action – enabling access to law and justice
A recent report of the Lawtech Sandbox revealed that only 24% of applicants to the Sandbox were providing business-to-consumer solutions, and that there is much less innovation in business-to-consumer applications within the lawtech ecosystem overall.
Digital technology has great potential to make legal information more readable and understandable for end users, and to provide cheaper ways to access legal advice. Proprietary legal technology can be expensive, and it can be tricky to get access to Government bodies for collaboration. During the first lock-down period of the global coronavirus pandemic, staff and students of the Suffolk University Law School in Boston, USA successfully ran a global campaign with volunteer lawyers to create an easier way for self-represented litigants to file court forms. Part of the response relied on the open source technology, DocAssemble.
A similar open source legal project is currently being run by the Chancery Lane Project in the UK, which is mobilising a global community of lawyers from leading firms to develop new contract clauses and model laws to help fight climate change.
There is a substantial gap for more such initiatives to promote greater access to justice for people, planet and communities.
Legal design brings great potential to improve access to legal information for a wider range of people. Opportunity also has to be tempered with an acknowledgement of the boundaries of digital technology, and in particular that computers and data are not universally available, at the same time as essential guidance and services are increasingly moving online. Digital technology is a prerequisite for exercise of fundamental rights.
Design-thinking also relies on more collaboration within the legal services sector. The requirements of six-minute billable hours often leaves little time to make legal documents anything more than functional. As with so much in relation to legal technology and innovation, successful reinvention of legal processes and documents will be realised only through teams and collaborative working.
About Lisa McClory
Lisa McClory is a legal knowledge management consultant for Obelisk Support. She has practised as a solicitor and Professional Support Lawyer at Slaughter and May and has worked as a Legal Knowledge Consultant at KPMG Law. You can read more from Lisa on our blog on blockchain and on electronic signatures.