Ed. Note: Please welcome our guest blogger, Susan Kostal, San Francisco based legal affairs journalist and consultant.

One of the most fascinating ideas out of this year’s LMA Legal Tech West conference was a workshop on design thinking.

Design thinking has taken the corporate world by storm. Intended to build a culture of free exchange of ideas, constant iteration and learning from failure, it is sacred credo in Silicon Valley and at the heart of almost all innovation.

Law is one of the slowest, if not the slowest, industry to evolve, but design thinking has a good chance of changing that.

Design thinking has many definitions, but at its core, whether designing a product or business process, it comes down this: instead of a designer-led process, it’s a user-led process. This concept comes out of the Institute for Design at Stanford (d.school), and launched its most popular course, Designing Your Life.

Mark Beese of Leadership for Lawyers led attendees, myself included, in a design-thinking exercise to improve the onboarding process for lawyers and staff at a law firm. We were paired in teams and assigned to learn as much about our partner’s onboarding process, what they liked, what they didn’t, and then in rapid-fire mode come up with as many ideas as possible to solve their issues, whether they seemed feasible or not.

We were instructed to sketch these out, which, for someone used to working with words like me, unleashed a creativity and excitement about solving the problem that felt fresh and new.

Pipe Cleaner Breakthrough

With 10+ ideas in hand, we went back to interviewing, really digging into our partner’s experience, and then narrowed down our solutions to three. Then, we were given Post-Its, pipe cleaners, rubber bands, paper clips, markers, paper tubes, etc., and asked to build a prototype.

My partner was overwhelmed with the amount of information thrown at her on her first day, and wanted more personal, warmer touch points. One of the offerings I came up with was a branded mug. Sure, lots of people give out branded material to new hires. But along with my mug came a supply of coffee or tea—whichever beverage the new hire had accepted when offered a hot beverage in the interview process. I’m not sure that would have occurred to me absent me taking the time to craft a mug from pipe cleaners. My onboarding solution, while small, told my partner she was welcomed, that the firm wanted her to be happy at work. More importantly, it told her she was valued, and that her needs were noticed and were as important as corporate goals.

Some teams had unworkable ideas, such as a corporate jet to squire new hires for a tour of the firm’s offices. But that prompted me to think about giving each new employee a modest transit or parking voucher. The message the employee gets is that we are so excited you’ve joined us that we want to pay for your commute for your first few days with us.

How It Works In The Real World

Davis Wright Tremaine has embraced design thinking, is using it with clients to find legal process solutions, and has created DWT De Novo, an internal consulting firm to help its lawyers develop more client-centric ways of solving problems.

Jay Hull, DWT’s Chief Innovation Partner, told me that there are about 20 DWT staff and lawyers actively involved and 10 full-time people dedicated to the initiative. Hull, a former transactional lawyer, said the key is multi-disciplinary teams that feel free to pitch ideas, can iterate quickly, and who are confident enough to show clients prototyped options that aren’t yet fully baked, so team members can learn during the design process what features appeal to the client and which aren’t working and need improvement.

“To me, it starts with empathy for the client,” Hull said “and burrowing into what it’s like for them to engage with the product or process.”

Hull’s time in-house helped tremendously, he said, where he struggled with existing processes. “There was a huge transaction, and on the 42nd draft of the agreement, it hit me. What were we thinking? Couldn’t we have done this in 20 revisions? There has got to be a better way.”

Studying the Giants of Customer Service

At the launch of the effort, two DWT professionals participated in a two-day design-thinking workshop hosted by Nordstrom, well known for its top-notch customer service. Then several lawyers, Hull included, visited the dSchool and met with Margaret Hagan, a fellow at Stanford Law’s Center on the Legal Profession. She launched the Legal Design Lab, experimenting in how design can make legal services more usable, useful and engaging.

DWT debuted the concept with a large public company. “They needed thousands of documents reviewed, knew they couldn’t do it efficiently in-house, and didn’t want to pay for a traditional review by a law firm,” Hull said.

Using software DWT already owned, the firm conducted an automated review of the contracts, with human beings doing post-automation quality control, for a fixed set-up fee of $15,000. The audit singled out several hundred contracts that needed further review, for which DWT charged a per-contract flat rate.

Note that this is a process- and solution-oriented approach, rather than a pricing- model approach, although the firm billed the client on a flat-fee basis. It hatched a single-point solution and provided the model for other contract review projects.

Clients “Want a Different Model”

Microsoft, a longtime client, is a big proponent of design thinking. In-house lawyer Lucy Bassli needed thousands of procurement contracts reviewed so she could free up her department’s lawyers for higher-level work. She wanted it structured as an annual flat-fee engagement. She asked for RFPs and “made it clear she wanted a different model,” Hull said.

DWT more directly applied design thinking principles, including empathizing with the client and crafting an MVP (minimum viable product) with rapid iterations based on client feedback. The process analysis included details I’ve heard many in-house counsel complain about, such as how documents are managed, how communication with the client and related firms should be structured, and how projects will be assigned.

“We are ‘all in’ on this concept, and the firm is behind it,” Hull said. Now, DWT partners are coming to Hull and his team for help. “I’ve had lawyers come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I’m not exactly sure what you guys are doing, but the client says it takes way too long and costs too much. Can you help me?’”

Design thinking “opens up pathways to better solutions, where there isn’t this constraint so common in the legal industry that everything that comes out of your mouth better be perfect, and you better be prepared to defend it at all costs,” Hull said.

“That’s just dumb, and very self-limiting.”

Susan Kostal is a legal affairs PR, marketing and business development consultant based in San Francisco. She covered legal affairs as a journalist for nearly three decades. You can follow her on Twitter at @skostal and view more of her content at www.susankostal.com.