One of the reasons design thinking has been slow to catch hold in legal is that some of the underlying mindsets are counter-intuitive for lawyers.  It is not that lawyers can’t embrace and practice these mindsets.  Rather, their training, incentives and environment have often encouraged the opposite attitude or behavior that is needed to innovate in this way.  

I facilitate Design Thinking for Legal© workshops for lawyers, legal professionals and legal operations leaders in law firms and legal departments.  The workshops consist of an introduction to the concept of design thinking in the legal environment, mindsets and tools for the process, and an intense hackathon where participants learn the entire process by doing it step-by-step.  Here are a few examples, and some insights on how to change one’s mindsets.

Stanford’s dSchool (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford – where design thinking originated) has a list of six mindsets that support the design thinking process:

  1. Human Centered
  2. Radical Collaboration
  3. Show, Not Just Tell
  4. Prototype
  5. Bias Towards Action
  6. Trusting the Design Thinking Process

Let’s take a look at each of these mindsets in the context of the legal environment.

Human Centered 

We design for the benefit of people, who have preferences, emotions and insights that may not be apparently rational to legal professionals.  Starting in law school, lawyers are taught policies and procedures.  Associates and young professionals are mentored to follow checklists and processes that are long established in order to get it “right.”  Work quality, accuracy and avoiding mistakes are paramount on how lawyers are evaluated.  

Innovation through design thinking doesn’t negate these standards, but it does emphasize another facet of delivering legal service.  Is the client delighted?  Is this process the most efficient? How can we redesign the process to reduce frustration  and inefficiencies while maintaining high work quality standards?  How can we best leverage technology to reduce time-intensive (i.e. boring and duplicitous) tasks?  How might we redesign our work systems to engage and challenge young professionals who have different expectations of professional life than those 50 years ago?

Design thinking requires legal designers (lawyers, legal operations leaders, and law firm leaders who are focused on innovation and client service) to “see with new eyes” and look for ways to improve the experience for people (humans).  To be more human-centered, we need to engage in dialogue and improve our observation skills to see beyond our preconceptions and be open to changing our view of reality.  

One doesn’t have to look far to find problems to solve.  For example:

– Ask clients about what irritates them the most about how legal work is done in their area of expertise.  Where is there a waste of time, money or resources?  What resource, tool or feature would make their life easier?  What part of the process doesn’t make sense to them?  If they had a magic wand to fix one thing to make their work life easier, what would that be?

– Ask associates about what drives them nuts the most about working in the firm or department.  Where do we waste the most energy?  What systems or processes baffle them?  What makes them want to pack it up and go into a different career?

– Ask law firm staff members about their ideas on how to improve client service and value. 

– Ask someone outside of the legal ecosystem how their company or industry is changing how they serve clients, streamline processes or manage their business.  This can be a source of ideas and inspiration.

– Observe behaviors of the people around you and ask, “why are they doing what they are doing?  What irritates them?  Is there a problem we can solve here?  What “wows” them?  Is there a lesson we can apply elsewhere here?”

Radical Collaboration

Design thinking requires a high level of collaboration between legal designers, users, outside experts and other stakeholders.  However, many lawyers in law firms and legal departments often operate in silos or within small, protected groups.  Design thinking requires us to get out of our comfort zone and work with outside experts, clients – both in legal departments and in operating units, and other legal professionals to develop innovative solutions to wicked problems.  The diversity of these collaborative groups often are the “magic” that leads to true innovation.

When leading an innovation initiative, ask yourself, “What perspectives might we be missing? Who might have an insight on this problem that is different than mine?”.   Be curious.  Ask questions.  Expand your network.  This mindset is critical in each phase of the design thinking process.   Consider how you will engage diverse perspectives when gathering information, crafting the design problem/point of view, brainstorming ideas, selecting ideas for prototyping, development and testing.  Can you see how involving users, outside experts, colleagues and other stakeholders could be beneficial at each stage?

Try practicing collaboration as a daily habit.  Rather than doing something just by yourself, how could you invite someone else on a project and share the work (and the credit).  Be aware of what contributions the people bring to a project and check your negative reactions to collaboration.  What you might initially see as a threat might not be so in reality.  Try to understand that collaboration might take a little longer and require some diplomacy, but in the end the contributions and insights of others will make the innovation initiative more successful. 

Show, Not Just Tell

Lawyers love words.  Lawyer are taught to write and speak clearly from one’s first law school class and embark on a life long journey to improve these skills.  Drawing pictures, diagrams, process maps, journey maps, and Gantt charts are not natural for most attorneys.   Actually building a physical prototype can be even more challenging.  The design thinking process works best when we communicate our ideas with both words and images.  These visual representations often reveal insights, ideas and solutions that well-chosen words might conceal.

Try thinking in pictures and processes more frequently.  Just for kicks, practice drawing process maps of activities that you are involved in now.  What would a process map of “getting ready for work” look like?  Try drawing it out.  Then dig deeper and ask yourself if you have missed any steps.  Where are the opportunities to improve this process?  Try mapping out a process at work, like preparing a contract.  Dig deeper.  What are the opportunities for process improvement?  Try mapping a process that affects you or others at work, like a new attorney onboarding process or implementation of a new policy.  Dig deeper.  What are the opportunities for improvement?  

Journey maps are process maps on steroids.  With a journey map, we try to better understand a person’s experience with the process to provide insight into the problem we are trying to solve.  Try taking one of the process maps you’ve designed and below it, ask questions, “What was I feeling at this stage?  Was it energizing or did it sap me of energy?  Did I get a good result, or was it mediocre at best?  What are the risk factors at this stage?”  Add factors that are most relevant to the user’s experience.  

Take some time to practice sketching ideas.  You won’t be graded on your artistic talent.  Rather, practice communicating in a visual medium to communicate your ideas.  Try adapting your presentations to use more images and diagrams. 


A critical element of design thinking is developing prototypes for empathy (learning from the user) and for testing (feasibility).  It is tempting to skip over this phase and go right to a final solution, but when we do that, we miss an important opportunity to learn from the user’s reaction to the idea.   

Prototyping is challenging for some attorneys because it goes against their grain.  There is a temptation to only show work product that is 100% perfect.  Showing an idea that is half-baked in order to get feedback shows that we might not get it right the first time.  In fact, we never do.  This try-learn-fix-improve cycle is natural when developing software or consumer products, but it is often a challenge to those of us in the legal world.  We need to embrace the reality that to innovate is to learn from failure.  By prototyping early and frequently, we can save effort and money and develop a more effective solution in the end. 

Prototyping, indeed engaging in innovation itself, requires the legal designer to be more comfortable saying, “let’s try this on a small scale and see what we learn from it”.  Try experimenting more.  It may mean developing a small community of trial users or groups – those who might be more naturally inclined to experiment with you and give you structured and valuable feedback.  

Product designers often use a “maker’s shop” to make physical representations of a product for prototyping.  Software designers will develop a prototype and recruit “early adopters” for beta testing.  Legal designers would benefit from creating a formal or informal group of lawyers, users, experts and staff that have diverse skills in process design, graphic design, project management, financial analysis, legal operations, technology and automation, and human resources/professional development.  Such a prototyping team could collaborate to design new legal or operational processes, test the prototype and analyze the results.

On a personal level, if you struggle with the concept of prototyping, try experimenting by doing a few things differently, and asking others for feedback.  Pick a personal design project, develop a few different ways of solving a problem, and engage others to evaluate each solution.  Practice prototyping.

Bias Towards Action

This design thinking mindset encourages designers to focus more on action – listening, analyzing, focusing, brainstorming, prototyping, evaluating, prototyping more, testing, and doing it all over again.  Not that there is anything wrong with thinking and talking, but action around a prototype (even if that prototype is a process map or test program) reveals more than thinking about what might happen.  Sometimes we’re wrong about how we think users might react to an idea.  We have a tendency to talk ourselves out of a truly innovative idea because we don’t think it would fly, even before we test it.

Legal designers need to be aware of the natural tendency to over analyze and “group-think” solutions to death.  Designers need to create a sense of urgency and focus on activating the next step in the process.  Otherwise the innovation team will be at risk of analysis paralysis.  

Legal designers might want to consider taking management tips from the software or manufacturing design industries, such as using “design sprints” to quickly move through a design iteration cycle, creating artificial deadlines if necessary.  This does not mean that a firm or legal department should rush a new process improvement or innovation initiative to launch.  Rather, it means creating a momentum of discrete tasks that contribute to the design process to prevent the initiative from getting stalled or people losing interest.   Designers need to ask, “what’s next? How soon can get move towards that benchmark?  What are the outcomes or feedback we expect from this task?  What is next after that?”

Project management tools such as project schedules, Gantt charts, sub-team assignments, and quick check-in meetings can help a team stay focused on action.  

Trusting the Design Process

The design thinking process is not one that works well if you skip or skimp on a step.  Legal designers need to respect and trust the process and mindsets to deliver an innovative result.  If you find that your design team is not coming up with true innovation, it is probably because you didn’t trust the process.

This happens all the time. A design team is energized by the brainstorming phase, and identifies two or three brilliant ideas to test.  But they don’t develop prototypes and go through the arduous task of testing, getting feedback, revising and combining the prototypes, and repeating, the team (or team leader) goes right to production.  

“Why can’t we just do this tomorrow?  Bias towards action, right?  Let’s just do it.  Everyone will love it!”  Until they don’t, because by skipping the iterative feedback and revise step,  you’ve missed critical information that can determine the full potential of the innovation.

Trust the process.  Respect each step.  Challenge yourself and your team on how you can get the most out of each mindset and step.  Don’t prolong the process, but understand that the design thinking process is self-correcting, human-centered, creative, authentic, collaborative, diverse that relies on a lot of moving parts that leads to an innovative solution that garners broad acceptance.  

The process usually leads to an innovative solution that truly delights the user or client.  By being collaborative and involving many diverse stakeholders, it helps you prepare your script for a successful launch.  The legal designer knows from prior feedback what the distractors will say and understand who they need to win over to gain support for the initiative.  Skip a step or two and your launch strategy may be flawed.  

Don’t Give Up

Here’s a bonus mindset.  Don’t give up.  Innovation in the legal world is challenging for many reasons.  We operate on a precedence system, which by natures assumes that somebody has done it before.  Innovation isn’t like that.  Lawyers by nature are more risk-adverse and change-conservative than any other profession.  That’s probably a good thing, given that we help people and companies act according to the law, but it is a challenge when it comes to being innovative.  

Still, our market and profession is changing rapidly.  Some might call it a disruptive market environment with new entrants (“alternative service providers”), new competitors (Big 4 Accounting firms and others), new technology (AI and automation), new models (virtual law firms), and increasingly intense client pressure to lower costs, improve service and be more strategic (can’t just choose two – you need all three).   Innovation is an imperative.

Legal designers need to be relentless evangelists of design thinking.  Trust the process.  Show early success.  Elevate successful innovation initiatives.  Illustrate how early and limited failures led to increased awareness and better solutions in the end.  Legal designers are responsible for leading change in their organizations that will eventually change the culture to be more open-minded, experimental, client-focused, technology-savvy, employee-engaged and ultimately a better place to work.  

A version of this article appeared in the book, “Design Thinking for the Legal Profession”, published by the Ark Group.  You can purchase the entire book at


Mark Beese is President of Leadership for Lawyers, a consultancy focused on helping lawyers become stronger leaders and business developers. He provides training, coaching and consulting in the areas of leadership development, innovation and business development. Mark also facilitates workshops on design thinking for legal. 

He has recently published two chapters for the book, “Design Thinking for the Legal Profession”, published by the Ark Group.  Mark is an adjunct faculty with the University of Denver Sturm School of Law and former adjunct with the Center for Creative Leadership.  He is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and an inductee in the Legal Marketing Association Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement.  For more information, go to  and