‘Law by Design’ by Margaret Hagan:  A Challenging Read

Margaret Hagan is director of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford Law School.  On her website last month, she published an e-book about her ideas on design which ‘sets forth an agenda for innovation in legal services, with practical, agile and user-centred methods to make the legal system clearer, more efficient, more usable and friendlier’. It focuses on ‘how the experience of law could be improved’.  Behind this is a mission: ‘I am writing this book to counteract the trend of talking about legal innovation only in terms of technology’. Read this book and ‘you can expect to become literate in design, and equipped with tools to revise your current services or create new initiatives’.

The book is unusual in at least two ways. First, it is expressly ‘a work in progress’ which the author hopes will ‘continue to grow’ (and a final section expressly invites feedback). Second, the linear argument is interspersed with drawings, doodles and contributions in the form that they might be written on a white board. I found these visual contributions did exactly what I imagine they were intended to do: disrupt a reader from uncritically following the argument as a written proposition. They force you to slow down and engage. For those who prefer their reading more conventional, various of Ms Hagan’s theses are available elsewhere in more conventional form e.g. her six principles for good design.

A crucial issue for the book is the meaning of ‘design’. Ms Hagan opens with ’Legal design is the application of human-centred design to the world of the law to make legal systems and services more human-centred, usable and satisfying’. But sharp eyed observers will observe the tautology – design is design. I spent a lot of time trying to think of a synonym. I could not find one. I was driven to the dictionaries where design is often defined (eg the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language) as having a number of meanings, three of which are:

transitive v. To conceive or fashion in the mind; invent … transitive v. To formulate a plan for; devise … transitive v. To make a graphic or schematic representation of (something) especially as a plan for its structure …

So ‘design’ in the context of this book seems to mean something like; ‘the conception, scoping and implementation of strategies for the use of law (to improve, in this case, access to justice)’. That is pretty wide and justifies her emphasis that ‘the book focuses on how the experience of law could be improved – and how to get new creative, experimental ideas launched to do so’. Ms Hagan wishes to address even those not looking to invent the next great app or bot:

even for those lawyers and people who are not interested in legal innovation per se, design holds potential … As they construct legal documents, define what services they offer to clients, and form organizations, design can guide them to better outcomes. Thinking like a designer – and making like a designer – can lead to more intentional and successful choices in how they construct work product, client services, and legal systems.

There is a some very practical material on how a legal project might be developed from the first stage of discovery and understanding through to the last stage of ‘scaling, evolving, implementing’. Ms Hagan argues that ‘it can be useful to think of design as a collection of process, mindsets and mechanics’ and she sets out a way of dividing design into its various elements. Legal design is to be ‘grounded in three fundamental principles.

1 Be user-centered. Do things and provide things that your intended audience can use, that are useful to them, and that they want to use.

2 Be experimental. Open yourself to new ways of doing things, and trying them in quick and thoughtful ways to see if they work.

3 Be intentional in how you operate. Be conscious of what kind of process you are using, what space you’re in, what might be going wrong, and what might be made better. Be ready to change and adapt to make for better outcomes.’

And the way in which design is to be explored is through methodologies familiar in the technology world such as ’scrumming’, though she does not use that word for collective brainstorming, and being ‘agile’.

The notion of process is key. It features as Ms Hagan’s second principle of good legal design:

2. Provide process-based views of legal work to empower professionals and lay people who are working on a matter. Show a person how the system works step-by-step process. Like a board game, show them the various pathways, and what their start and end points are.

 The metaphor of a journey is a powerful and resonant one for laypeople encountering the legal system. A good legal design will use this journey metaphor, and clearly show what the user’s given path is, so the user will understand what’s happening, where it might lead, and who is doing what.

The book ends with ‘a future agenda’ to advance her ideas. Anyone interested in the field of technology and access to justice should read the book and to reflect on the ideas that she sets out. The notion that access to justice requires the delivery of a process rather than the announcement of result underlies the possibilities that we are now beginning to explore in the application of technology.

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