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LegalFebruary 13, 2024

Using design thinking to improve legal operations processes

This article by Jared Hostmeyer, senior director of product management at Wolters Kluwer ELM Solutions, was originally published in Legal Dive.

Professionals who work in corporate legal departments (CLDs) are no strangers to problem-solving, as every piece of litigation that comes across their desks is, at its core, an issue to be resolved.

But with so much brainpower directed at legal cases, attorneys can sometimes miss the forest for the trees and neglect to concentrate on the processes that underpin their work.

Those processes can be just as important as the cases themselves because they can make or break efficiency, productivity, and spend management.

To improve processes and create a more effective legal department, CLDs should apply design thinking—a user-centric, iterative approach to solving ill-defined problems.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a term that’s typically used in software development but can easily be applied to corporate legal operations.

In design thinking, organizations put themselves in their users’ minds to create innovative solutions that meet their customers’ needs and expectations.

Design thinking involves several phases — empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, and implement. Each of these can be applied to any aspect of the corporate legal department, from staffing to budgeting to rate negotiation.

For the purposes of this article, I’ve lumped these phases into three buckets. Let’s walk through each to understand how you, the legal operations professional, can leverage design thinking to improve your department.

1. Empathize and define

To use design thinking, your CLD should be viewed as a product intended to help an audience. The first step, then, is to empathize with that audience.

In practice, this means meeting with business leaders from other units and ordinary users of your CLD. The latter is particularly important and often overlooked. But everyday users like finance, procurement, and sales staff are the ones who really feel the pain when a legal process is wonky.

Of course, you need to get the perspective of senior leadership as well, but they might not be the ones who spend the most time directly interacting with the legal department.

Ask: What are people’s goals and pain points? Even a small sample size can help you understand larger issues, though you should speak to as many people as possible.

To get the best results, ensure the person asking questions of users is respected and understands law. By empathizing with users, you can understand their most pressing problems.

2. Ideate and prototype

Next, it’s time to approach those problems creatively. Consider approaches that other CLDs have had success with, but think of new ideas as well.

I recall one instance where the most pressing problem was related to expenses. Because expenses for certain types of legal cases were billed to business units as opposed to the law department, the CLD in question wasn’t necessarily viewed as having responsibility for managing those costs.

The CLD acted accordingly, sometimes hiring outside counsel who were overpriced considering the moderate-to-low level of risk involved.

There are several possible solutions to this problem. One might be a triage tool that indicates the severity of risk associated with a particular matter and suggests firms of differing tiers based on that assessment. This technique was reported to reduce outside spend in one of my client’s CLDs by about 30% in about two years.

Another solution might be to incentivize cost-savings by tying them to law department bonuses. Or, if the department can keep costs under a predetermined level, the extra money could be reinvested into the department, allowing them to upgrade their technology and processes using the leftover funds.

To be fair, I’ve also seen the reverse suggested. If CLDs are drowning in legal work, pushing the cost out to business units can make those business units think more carefully before contacting the law department asking for them.

The proper model depends on the audience, which is why ideation is so important. Come up with many different potential solutions, detailing how they would look in practice and what hurdles might arise. Then, run the prototypes by your audience to discover the best fit.

3. Test and implement

Once you’ve chosen your model, implement a pilot project with a single business unit or practice group to gauge the model’s effectiveness.

Communication with users is a key aspect of design thinking, so try to maintain an open line of dialog with your testers. Ask them what they like and don’t like about your model, if it’s improving their productivity or helping them reach their business objectives, and if it meets their needs.

Staying in contact with them throughout the pilot phase not only helps improve your model—it also allows users to become more comfortable with it before it’s fully deployed.

By getting them involved, you’ll be managing the change from one new way of doing things to another, which will improve your chances of success.

All roads lead to design thinking

Imagine, as a thought exercise, a map of your CLD’s processes. It probably resembles a map of the city of London, with seemingly endless roads woven together like tangled wires. Each of the roads leads to a single destination—a goal that your law department is trying to achieve.

While you can get from point A to point B, a better system would result in less traffic and fewer headaches. Though you may have grown accustomed to a particular route, a new one may prove more efficient and effective.

Design thinking will get you to that more efficient and effective route. By hitting the reset button and questioning assumptions, you’ll make your CLD easier to navigate and more useful—and help your legal operations team get to its desired destination more quickly.

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