Harness the Creativity of Design Thinking to Enhance your Law Practice

“I just saw an ad and applied to the position but didn’t get the job and I’m not sure I even wanted it.” (Career Paths)

“Our managing partner, office manager, and one of our largest rainmakers will be retiring within the next three years. Tell us what to do.” (Succession Planning)

“We know the process for landing new clients, but what exactly should we do with it?” (Business Development)

Three clients with three problems and for each client, I threaded each solution with design thinking.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a creative approach to problem solving that emphasises empathy - understanding the motivations of the people whose behavior must change to create a solution. An overarching piece of the approach is understanding the full context of the people affected by a problem, the major forces affecting the lives of the people entangled with the problem. These are the people, who will be expected to change their behavior to address the problem and those, with the power to change any processes (how people do things) and structures (how and to whom people are connected) affecting the problem.

Career paths involve the job candidate and the people the candidate will work with in the new position. Succession planning involves the people leaving and those expected to assume new roles and responsibilities. Business development involves the lawyer and the prospective clients.

The steps of the Design Thinking process are:

1. Empathize: Keep empathy front and center. Every problem involves people. People, whose behavior contributes to keeping the problem in place and people, whose behavior will lead to a solution. Empathize to understand what is motivating them. Why do the problem “owners,” those who want a solution, want a solution? What do they want to be different? Why? What are they doing to perpetuate the problem? Why? Do the people, who will be expected to make changes care enough about the problem to change? What do they want? Why? Which questions can’t you answer? Who would be a good source of information? What could you ask them?

2. Frame: Frame the problem as a challenge statement. How could you word your significant problem to inspire many possible solutions? Go through several rounds of revisions and encourage team debate before landing on your challenge statement.

3. Ideate: Explore the challenge in its context. Find inspiration for solution ideas by building empathy with the people needing a solution and those, who will need to change their behavior or use their power to change a process or structure as part of the solution. A deep understanding of the people, especially their hopes and dreams, is the fodder for creatively designing an effective solution. Designers find inspiration through research, including observing, listening to, and asking questions of the right people.

4. Prototype: Develop ideas into prototypes. Make sense of the research data, generate ideas for approaches, identify design opportunities, and design prototypes.

5. Test: Experiment with prototypes. Bring your ideas to life and test them. What do you learn when you test a prototype? What could you apply to the next iteration of this process?

Empathy – Front and Center

Keeping empathy front and center is easy to forget when stress and anxiety is on the front burner. My coaching client, who was eager to change jobs, expressed frustration and anxiety about finding the right new job after interviewing for position, he was certain he could handle. Pete admitted that he had done no research to understand what the job entailed, what the organisation was like, and who was giving up time for the interview.

He had not kept empathy front and center. Designing and implementing every phase of your job search begins with understanding the problem from the viewpoint of a person who needs help. What are the everyday experiences of the person hiring and interviewing? Empathy means seeing yourself as the solution to a problem faced by people who have too much to do and not enough time to do it themselves. Keeping empathy front and center should make a difference to your approach.

Framing the Design Challenge

I have consulted with several firms and other organisations on a variety of succession planning problems. It’s not uncommon for firm leaders to feel paralysed and not know how to approach the problem of leaders leaving. This is a clear sign that the problem needs reframing.

To frame a design challenge, the people involved in the problem and those expected to address it must consider and discuss the situation. Questions to ask are:

  • Why is this a problem? This generally leads to clarifying the facets of the problem and the concerns about who will step up into the roles expected to be vacated, respective skills, experiences, and expectations (financial and otherwise).
  • What are you interested in and concerned about?
  • What are you assuming to be true with no evidence?
  • What do you want to be different and better once this problem is solved?
  • Who is contributing to the problem? How?
  • Who will be expected to contribute to the solution? How?

Frame the problem as a design challenge. When a problem is framed as a challenge, options to approach the challenge emerge. Data from succession planning consultations often looks similar to this:

1. Frame it as a design question.

How might we accomplish this set of changes so that at the end of it we keep all of our clients, continue to grow, and have a competent managing partner and office manager?

2. State the ultimate impact you want.

We want to attract strong associates interested in becoming partners and have a managing partner and office administrator focused on running the business side of things.

3. Think broadly about possible solutions.

  • Explore the cost-benefit analysis of paying a managing partner a salary.
  • Explore what makes an offer attractive to the associates we want.
  • Design a plan to maintain and strength client relationships during and after senior partners retire.
  • Research job market for office administrators.
  • Develop a plan to train the next managing partner to take over current managing partner’s responsibilities.

4. Identify any constraints.

  • The business model may not be attractive to the associate we want.
  • The most likely replacement for the retiring managing partner wants to be compensated for managing, unlike the current one.

Prototyping and Testing

Although a prototype often suggests a product rather than an experience, an experience can be prototyped too. This is the core of learning business development skills.

I have designed and regularly teach an eight-hour programme on business development. The programme is spread over two or four days. Lawyers want to know what to say to convince prospects to hire them. They are given communication and sales frameworks, but then are told to brainstorm ideas to make the frameworks personal. In addition, they must practice noticing their and others’ communication styles, what to say, how to adjust their body language and tone of voice, and timing. Practicing and adjusting their communication style is developing ideas into prototypes and then testing out those prototypes.

They share their past experiences, dissect them for insights, and then put their ideas into action. They practice with each other and in the real world between classes and reflect on those experiences to refine their prototypes. They may reframe a challenge, empathize more deeply and thoroughly with people, whose behavior they want to change, adjust a prototype, and test again until completely successful.

Each iteration of the Design Thinking process moves you forward, closer to a better understanding of the problem and a solution. Incorporate the feedback into a revised prototype, generate new solution concepts or features of a solution, or think about where you need to do more in-depth research to find insights.

Jurisdictions: 

Susan Letterman White, JD, MS works with lawyers and law firms to improve leadership, organizational and team performance, and marketing and business development, through strategy planning, training, group facilitation, and executive coaching. She is a Practice Advisor at Massachusetts LCL/LOMAP, an adjunct professor at Northeastern

University, where she teaches leadership, strategic change, and communication skills, and the principal consultant at Letterman White Consulting. Susan practiced employment law for more than 20 years and was the managing partner of a law firm. She received a Master’s in Organization Development with Academic Distinction from American University, a JD from Loyola Law School, and a BA in Philosophy from Brandeis University.