Improving Client Service — by Design: A Conversation with IDEO’s Rochael Soper Adranly

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How can we best serve our clients? It’s a decades old business question that has taken on a palpable urgency in the halls of law firms and corporate legal departments alike. But how do you go about answering the question? Welcome to design thinking!

The literature on design thinking is voluminous, and the process is defined in a multitude of ways. But simply put, design thinking is an approach to problem-solving that begins and ends with a laser focus on the needs of the people you’re designing for. The beauty of the approach is its emphasis on people — human-centered, in design thinking parlance. The power of the approach is that it eschews generic solutions in favor of bespoke ones.

So how can this human-centered process be successfully applied to improving how law firms and corporate legal departments serve their clients? For the answer, I turned to one of the leading practitioners and teachers of design thinking in the legal industry: Rochael Soper Adranly, General Counsel and Legal Design Lead at IDEO, the renowned design and innovation consultancy firm and a pioneering force in human-centered design. More specifically, I asked Adranly to share how design thinking has shaped how her legal team serves its clients at IDEO.

Focus on People & Culture

In 2004, Adranly joined IDEO’s recently hired general counsel, her predecessor, Paul Livesay. “IDEO had never had an internal legal team before,” explains Adranly, “and the firm’s designers had limited contact with lawyers before our arrival.” So, Livesay and Adranly were the new kids on the block — lawyers whose clients were all designers. Could there be two more diametrically different mindsets? “In the beginning there were growing pains,” remembers Adranly. “The designers had questions about how to work with legal, and we had questions about how to best work with them.”

Rochael Soper Adranly, General Counsel and Legal Design Lead at IDEO

To get on the same page as the designers (note: not to have the designers get on the same page as the legal team), Livesay and Adranly sought the guidance of IDEO’s then-named Transformation by Design practice to launch an internal project to design the legal function at IDEO to fit with and support IDEO’s creative and innovative culture. Their methodology was the human-centered approach that has been the secret sauce behind IDEO’s designs of everything from products (e.g., the Apple mouse) to entire ecosystems (e.g., Peru’s K-12 learning model).

The first phase was the design research phase. “Every project begins with a design research phase to uncover what the stakeholders — here, designers, business development, finance as well as legal — need from a newly designed product, service or system,” Adranly explains. The interviews were structured to uncover what the stakeholders were struggling with, or frustrated about, when working with the legal team or legal processes. Adranly remembers the difficulty in hearing how interactions with the legal team or processes were frustrating or negative. But she is quick to add that the process taught her “the value of getting out from a behind a desk, asking the right people the right questions and above all having empathy for all users within the system.”

After digesting the feedback — the good, the bad and the ugly — the design team began the next phase in the process: Iteration. Here all stakeholders engaged in brainstorming, testing and refining ways to work well together. Some solutions that came out of the process centered around how the legal department communicates with the designers. At IDEO, legal documents are written in plain English with the minimum use of legalese. (Hallelujah, anyone?)

To respect the aesthetics of design, IDEO’s communications designers ensure that legal documents are visually appealing. In keeping with IDEO’s collaborative culture, the legal team uses a consultative approach when it talks to designers about a new law or regulation that affects the latter’s work. “Our goal”, says Adranly, “is always to get ‘buy-in’ from the designers versus compliance because it’s a ‘mandate from legal’.”

The Big Win

The design journey that Livesay and Adranly took 11 years ago has created a legal team that is a true partner to the creative teams at IDEO. In the process, it has accomplished something remarkable. It has designed a way to work that eliminates the “us vs. them” tension that often rules the relationship between legal and its clients. How? “We designed the legal department to serve the human beings at IDEO and our culture,” explains Adranly.

It sounds simple enough. So, can law firms and in-house legal departments change their “us vs. them” paradigm by copying how IDEO works? No. “The legal team model that works at IDEO is not replicable,” says Adranly. “What’s replicable is our human-centered process.”

Lucky for us, Adranly and her team recently launched IDEO’s Legal Design + Innovation Practice, and can teach us how it’s done.