Legal consumers have many choices these days, so lawyers find it more important than ever to differentiate themselves from the pack. This is one place that solos have an advantage. Solos don’t have to persuade a committee to try something new. We can “just do it.”
The concept of “design thinking” pops up again and again in conversations about innovation and change. Design thinking strives to make a process, service or product more engaging, usable and useful. At last design concepts have begun to infiltrate the legal world. Solos who truly want to differentiate themselves in the market should consider incorporating design principles into their law practices.
Margaret Hagan is a Stanford law grad, a fellow at Stanford Law’s Center on the Legal Profession, and a lecturer at Stanford Institute of Design. In a January 2014 article in Law Practice Today she described three fundamental principles of design thinking:
- Be User-centered. Know who your user is, and orient your work to serve their needs—especially those that are unstated, and more meaningful.
- Experiment. Be open to new ways of doing things. Watch for dysfunction and for opportunities, and use creativity to try to address them.
- Be Intentional. Understand why you and your organization behave as you do, understand what your values are. Be deliberate in your actions, to keep your actions and values in alignment.
How frequently does your law firm honor those three principles? With regard to the first principle, many law firms now use buzzwords like “client centered” to describe their practices. However, most of them continue to use roughly the same documents and processes they have always used. To the client, the processes are opaque and the documents use archaic and incomprehensible language.
The second principle can be even harder for some of us to employ. Law school drills into us the importance of following precedent. Fear of criticism or malpractice claims may keep us from experimenting with new approaches to serving our clients and addressing the legal issues they encounter.
Very few firms make any effort to implement the third principle. We can’t identify our firm’s values because we don’t stop to ponder what really matters to us, or why we do what we do. We just assume we know what matters most to our clients, often without ever asking them.
Design thinking also includes a “bias to action.” That calls for creating a prototype of your solution to a problem and testing it out by measuring results or asking for feedback. That might be pretty scary for lawyers, but you can start small.
Perhaps you could try a different way of handling a new client intake. What would make it easiest, most efficient and most engaging for your client? What would keep the costs down for your client? What aspect of the process tends to confuse clients? What do clients grumble about? Where do they make the most mistakes or ask the most questions? What do they wish you would do differently?
When you look at your processes from your client’s perspective you may suddenly recognize ways to make it easier on them and increase their trust in you. By way of example, you may add a new FAQ section to your website, and give them a handout to take home, helping them to understand and remember unfamiliar legal concepts or processes they will be encountering. You might use practice management software with a client portal. The portal provides a place for your clients to safely upload documents and enter basic information about themselves and their matter. That could save time and assure that names, addresses and other data get entered into your system correctly.
Many clients come to lawyers in times of great stress and find lawyers intimidating. What can you do to make your offices more inviting or comfortable for them? Are they greeted warmly by name? Are your systems designed to give the clients prompt attention when they arrive? Or do they have to cool their heels in a conference room, despite having a set appointment time?
These are not big, controversial or risky changes in the design of your practice. You don’t have to get it perfect on the first try. It is better to get into action and seek feedback from your clients, staff and anyone else you interact with. Expect to introduce later iterations incorporating improvements based on the feedback you receive. The end result will be better when you learn by doing.
Design thinking can improve the “usability” and “client engagement” aspects of your law practice. Those improvements can help attract and retain more clients.
If you are interested in learning more about how lawyers are improving their practices by redesigning them, there are a number of resources. Read Hagan’s article in Law Practice Today linked above. An article I wrote called Differentiation by Design describes how law firms and other businesses get repeat clients by focusing on enhancing the client experience. Another article describes what law students are doing in the Legal Design Lab at Stanford Law School.
You can also join a free teleclass on business design on December 16, 2016 provided by the Legal Project Management Committee of the ABA Law Practice Division. The speakers will discuss a case study in which a small law firm used design thinking and process improvement to reacquire a lost client and become more competitive in the market. It’s not necessary to be an ABA member to participate in the teleclass.
Put on your design thinking caps and rejuvenate your law practice in the new year!
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.