The Modern Legal Professional Series Part 1: Good Legal Design for In-House Counsels
This is a two-part article aimed at sharing insights on how legal work can be modernised to bring about clarity, time cost savings and overall success of an organisation.
In the dynamic and intricate world of law, in-house legal counsels are often confronted with the challenge of communicating complex information in a way that is both understandable and accessible to their stakeholders. In-house counsel can be said to be in the problem solving and risk mitigation business, crafting agreements and communicating risks to prevent problems much later on. And yet, legal documents are often associated with dense legalese and complexity, often leaving business stakeholders scratching their heads and resulting in the legal team having a reputation for convoluted communication. This is further compounded by the fact that the legal industry has been characterised by antiquated processes and outdated modes of thinking with a resistance towards technological change. This article explores how in-house counsels can break free from traditional norms and leverage the potential of legal design in their day-to-day work of an in-house legal counsel within the bounds of the law. Good legal design injects clarity and accessibility to an in-house counsel’s work, streamlines processes, and contributes significantly to the organisation’s success.
The Current State of Legal Communication Within an Organisation
Corporate legal settings often grapple with the challenge of communication disconnect between legal teams and their non-legal counterparts, such as business executives, marketing teams and operations personnel. The conventional use of intricate language and complex documentation could pose challenges for these non-legal counterparts when it comes to deciphering legal documents. This could lead to potential misunderstandings, delays in decision-making, and potential legal compliance risks. These consequences could entail significant costs to the organisation. This communication gap not only impedes effective collaboration within the different units of an organisation but also hinders the ability of legal teams to align their work with organisational objectives. Acknowledging this gap sets the stage for exploring innovative solutions.
Understanding & Embracing Legal Design Principles
Design thinking can be attributed to a cognitive scientist and Nobel Prize laureate, Herbert A. Simon, who first offered the principles of design thinking further discussed below. In the realm of architecture, Louis Sullivan’s famous quote “form follows function” emphasises the importance of prioritising the purpose or function of a design over its aesthetic considerations. This principle resonates with the essence of design thinking, where practical problem-solving and functionality take precedence in the creative process.
The five distinct phases of design thinking are as follows:
The crux of good legal design is simply putting oneself in the shoes of the audience – think about the end users’ experience and their challenges. In the context of an in-house legal counsel, similar to the design thinking process set out above, good legal design entails identifying an issue, seeking the view of involved parties, and generating and testing ideas – as rapidly and iteratively as possible.
Legal design also involves adopting a user-centric and accessible approach through the use of visuals, clarity and accessibility, where the emphasis is not solely on conveying information, but doing so in a way that resonates with the diverse stakeholders within the organisation. Legal documents move from simply being repositories of information towards tools that are built and crafted with the end user in mind. A document or material incorporating good legal design does not just communicate legal information but does so in a way that resonates with the diverse audiences in an organisation and aligns seamlessly with the goals of an organisation.
Practical Applications of Legal Design in Daily Work
Corporate counsels can integrate legal design principles into their daily work by incorporating the following:
A simplified contract is both legally sound but also accessible and comprehensible to a wider audience. Simplifying a contract contributes to effective communication and helps build more transparent relationships between the contracting parties, enhancing the relationships between the organization and the parties they regularly contract with including vendors and suppliers. Some practical ways of simplifying contracts include distilling complex legal language in contracts by replacing legal jargon with straightforward, everyday language and breaking down complex, lengthy paragraphs to improve readability.
An effective way to integrate legal design is by incorporating visual elements into legal documents or other forms of legal deliverables. For instance, a chart or a diagram can be used to explain the structure of a deal including the relationship of parties and the requisite legal documents. A visual timeline or a flowchart, on the other hand, can be used to illustrate the key milestones or processes outlined in a contract.
When communicating legal advice or updates to non-legal stakeholders, consider using methods that allow the stakeholders to quickly grasp essential information. For instance, a complex, voluminous contract can be accompanied by a deck of slides using infographics, charts, and diagrams to incorporate the overarching objective and salient terms of the contract or a plain English summary document at the beginning of the contract, providing a quick overview for non-legal stakeholders. The summary can highlight key obligations, milestones, liability, termination rights and other critical points. Additionally, a playbook can be used as a guide accompanying contract templates that are used regularly. These tools help simplify the complex concepts in the contracts, making information more digestible for non-legal professionals. They also serve as navigational aids, minimising the risk of miscommunications, mistakes, and compliance risks.
Legal design principles can facilitate better collaboration with colleagues. For instance, interactive presentations or collaborative platforms with visually engaging features can be employed during meetings as well as to streamline the review and approval process. This fosters a more dynamic and participatory approach, ensuring everyone’s input is considered, and all stakeholders are on the same page.
Incorporating legal design is not only about the visual appeal but also about creating user-friendly legal communication. Develop a consistent and intuitive document structure, making it easier for readers to follow the flow of information. This can include incorporating the tips shared for simplified contracts above, as well as considering a logical organization of the structure of a legal document to enhance its readability. For example, in a contract, a well-designed one ensures parties involved can easily understand their rights, obligations and overall structure of the agreement. Integrating schedules and annexures enhances the document’s functionality. These supplementary components allow for the inclusion of detailed information, such as specifications, timelines, or lists of deliverables, without cluttering the main body of the contract. This approach not only reduces the risk of misunderstandings but also facilitates efficient referencing and future updates. In essence, good legal design not only makes a contract aesthetically pleasing but, more importantly, enhances its functionality and usability, contributing to a more effective and enforceable agreement.
Benefits of Legal Design for In-House Counsels
Embracing legal design helps enhance an in-house counsel’s professional effectiveness. By positioning themselves as a team who are willing and able to adapt to evolving communication preferences and being able to provide a user-friendly and accessible legal system, the legal arm of an organisation can cultivate a positive perception, positioning themselves as valuable partners in the overall success of an organisation.
Overcoming Resistance and Implementing Change
While the benefits of legal design are evident, resistance to change within legal teams and the industry may exist. Legal professionals often operate within well-established traditions and conventions, and introducing a shift towards legal design may face scepticism. Concerns could include the fear of disrupting established workflows or the misconception that adopting design principles might compromise the precision and formality traditionally associated with legal documents.
Offering training programs which showcase real life and day-to-day examples can help dispel scepticism. Providing readily available resources, including templates and style guides, can act as a tool and catalyst in helping the legal team make the transition to legal design thinking without feeling overwhelmed.
Legal teams can also be involved in the design process to foster a sense of ownership and engagement. Seeking input from other colleagues in the legal team during the creation of templates helps ensure that the tools developed are aligned with the expertise and needs of the team, making it more likely that the tools will be used and relied on by the team.
In conclusion, legal design offers a paradigm shift for lawyers, providing the tools and mindset needed to transform legal communication. The benefits extend far beyond the aesthetics, empowering legal teams to communicate effectively, build trust among stakeholders and position themselves as indispensable partners within an organisation. By breaking free from traditional norms, lawyers can revolutionise their day-to-day work, saving time and cost and contributing to organisational success. The call to action is clear – it’s time for lawyers to embrace legal design and lead the way in shaping the future of legal practice.