Margaret Hagan, Director of Legal Design at Stanford: “What could be better?”

The Director of Stanford’s Legal Design Lab is the world’s preeminent expert on legal design.

Josef was lucky enough to sit down with her to talk about how we can use design to drive a fairer, better and more productive future for the legal profession.

How did you get to where you are today, Margaret?

It was all very happenstance. I wouldn’t have been able to predict it. Law school was a wake-up call. I arrived at law school thinking I would be a lawyer, but quickly realised it wasn’t the type of work I wanted to be doing. So, I went across campus to the design school and somehow took those courses as credits for my law degree.

What I learned was that the people in the design school were often thinking about the same problems as those in the law school, just in different ways: systems improvement, services improvements and policy problems. The question I asked myself was: “What would a career look like where I had legal skills but wasn’t on a traditional lawyer path?”

Margaret Hagan

Margaret Hagan

And now you’re the Director of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford University. Can you tell me about that?

The Legal Design Lab is a research and development laboratory. We partner with different types of legal organisations, like courts, judges, administrators, legal aid and high-level policy folks to work primarily on access to justice issues in civil law, like family, housing, traffic and employment law. Our Lab offers capacity and skills that these traditional legal organisations don’t have. We help them ask and answer the question: “What could be better?” 

We also cycle through different types of legal problems. In the past, we looked at how contracts and consumer protections could be better. Recently, we’ve been focusing on housing and debt collection. To achieve this, we run classes, workshops, sprints, pilots, randomised control trials. Really, we’re trying to come up with the best solutions for wicked justice problems.

What is one project that you’re really proud of?

We’ve recently been working on an eviction project. We started by addressing the problems with eviction hearings in a particular jurisdiction, like the fact that many defendants don’t even turn up to court to defend the action. Most people weren’t taking advantage of their legal rights. So, we started a project through a short pop-up class. We had attendees from the business school, law school, design school and computer science school and asked ourselves that question: “What could be better?”

This quickly spiralled into a multi-state project across five jurisdictions. We’re working on many different projects to improve the eviction process in these jurisdictions, from the letters that the court sends to the defendants to tell them they’re being sued – we’re changing them to make the letter more understandable – to text message coaches and websites that ensure people are prepared when they come to court, to training of judges. Through smaller prototyping, we’re generated big systems changes.

"Technology has a lot to offer to improve the efficiency of firms and courts and advice-giving. But without a focus on the people, we overpromise on tech that isn’t used or can’t give the services or guidance that it promises to give."

You’re one of the world’s most renowned proponents of legal design. Can you tell me what legal design is?

Legal design is a problem-solving methodology for the very complicated world of the legal system in its multiple variations, from corporate to legal aid to regulation. At its core, it’s a hybrid of design methodologies, mainly from human-centred design, and legal problem-solving, which is analytic. It involves talking to users, trying different prototypes and involving non-professional people in decision-making. Our mission is to marry these two approaches together to make the legal system and legal services work better.

Why is legal design important? 

Hm. How do I say this in a diplomatic way? [Laughs] I think it is important as a corrective to a strict legal-tech approach to innovation. It’s not that it’s one or the other. Technology has a lot to offer to improve the efficiency of firms and courts and advice-giving. But without a focus on the people, we overpromise on tech that isn’t used or can’t give the services or guidance that it promises to give.

Whether you’re talking about apps or blockchain or data or AI, we need to have the legal design work to understand who will use it, how will they use it and how will we prototype and test before we spend a whole lot of money.

Flip the perspective from the default: who is the audience, what do they care about, and how to I tweak to serve them better.

Flip the perspective from the default: who is the audience, what do they care about, and how to I tweak to serve them better.

[Laughs] Very diplomatic indeed! I think, somewhat surprisingly for a tech company, that is exactly the way we work with our clients at Josef. Our product is designed to allow them to prototype quickly so they can test and iterate, and we have a team of lawyers and technologists and strategists to help them on this journey. For lawyers out there who are trying to do something different like this, what is your advice?

Focus on ways to start being innovative in a way that is not about spending a lot of money or radically changing workflows. The easiest way is to take a step back from your day-to-day work and ask yourself: “What is the work product that I create?” Is it the emails I write? Is it the calls I make? Is it the meetings I have? Is it the memos I’m sending on? 

Once you’ve identified that, consider who is supposed to be using that product and how you can make it better for them? For example, you could ask your clients how to hold a meeting in way that makes it easier for them to understand or get value out of. Flip the perspective from the default: who is the audience, what do they care about, and how do I tweak to serve them better.

How should a lawyer go about getting this information?

[Laughs] Feedback sessions are anathema to lawyers! It’s scary to open yourself up to feedback and criticism and complaints and unexpected bad news. But an easy way to do it is to actually have a more constructive meeting – over coffee, for example – that brings lawyers and clients together in a “what could be better” session. It’s less about feedback and metrics and more about brainstorming and sketching. What could we do that would make our work better and give us more value? It’s about working together and being on the same team.

I know some lawyers that have opened a little lab in their law firm. There’s a coffee machine, colourful furnishings and music. They invite clients when they have upcoming work, like a trial, to brainstorm not just about legal strategy, but also about the delivery of the services. “What’s the best kind of meeting we can have that won’t bore you to death?” Out of those sessions, they’ve come up with whole new ways to work with their clients. For example, they don’t use PowerPoint slides anymore. Instead, they have placemats. That came from that small “What if?” session. 

And if it sounds like those things are small, know that they activate and build a better service. We’re not trying to redesign everything or overhaul the system. We’re tinkering and gradually creation of better ways of working.

What we’re seeing at the moment is that legal design is branching out into different areas and disciplines.

If you were a lawyer right now, what would you be most concerned about?

The standard career path for lawyers is not nearly as guaranteed or stable as it used to be. Whether it’s lack of consumption or competition from new services providers, it means that the standard ways of working and charging and setting up firms can’t be trusted to generate the same profit or lead to the same outcomes.

And what would you be most excited by?

For the same reasons, there needs to be a market shift. People need to keep creating new business models and organisational models and service delivery models. It is a moment to be seized. And there is the new potential brought about by technology and the role of non-lawyers in the industry. If lawyers get it right, they can get ahead as the shift happens in the next 5-10 years.

Stanford University

Stanford University

Where do you see legal design going in the future?

What we’re seeing at the moment is that legal design is branching out into different areas and disciplines. My colleagues in Europe, for example, are really focused on contracting and visual design and consent. We are focusing more on access to justice design. We really dig into these systems. Up until now legal design has been really broad, but I hope that sub-communities begin to develop so we can start building out protocols and research and instruments in different zones.

Josef and you have been friends for a while now. What is Josef to you?

Josef is one of the exciting new business models for justice innovation. And we need more like you! You’re figuring out where technology fits an actual person’s needs and how to develop the tech infrastructure and the business model and outreach strategy to get more tech-enabled services to people who need help. It’s a burgeoning area and I’m so excited to see Josef taking off. I hope that it becomes part of wider ecosystem so that we can help people who aren’t getting the services they need now.


– Margaret Hagan was in Melbourne as a guest of the Melbourne Law School.

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