Legal design helps make the law easier to understand for its intended audience. It is also a growing trend, in everything from employment contracts to privacy policies. Emily Allbon and Dr Matthew Terrell look at how it is being used in practice, and how it can help both clients and solicitors
Legal design is the process of applying design thinking to complex legal information, to make the law more accessible and easier to understand for its intended audience. Legal design combines the disciplines of human-centred design – where problems are solved by including the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process – and information design – which aims to present information in a way that fosters efficient and effective understanding of it.
In this article, we look at how legal design is being used in practice, and how it can help both clients and practitioners.
When lots of information needs to be displayed, icons and consideration of the hierarchy can make a big difference in helping the reader understand and navigate the information. Design patterns help us display content in a way that allows users to grasp information more effectively. Passera and Helena Haapio describe these as “repeatable best practice solutions to communication problems in contracts” (‘Contracts as interfaces: Exploring visual representation patterns in contract design’, 2017). The duo recently teamed up with the International Association for Contract & Commercial Management to create the Contract Design Pattern Library, giving everyone access to 10 patterns they can draw upon to arrange information within a contract. The library shows examples of each pattern in practical use for inspiration.
Applying human-centred design in a legal context can also be seen in online services in the legal sector. JustisOne’s Precedent Map shows the relationships between cases, and the treatments applied, and even identifies cases that are relevant to the point of law being researched. Traditionally, this would often require ploughing through multiple judgments, and reading each judgment and the subsequently cited passages to see how a case has been treated.
Legal design in practice
There are many real-world examples of legal design, but none perhaps that have captured attention more than comic contracts. These are contracts in visual form: not simply a comic-strip ‘explainer’ adding value to the contract, but a binding contract agreed upon by both the employer and employee, where the images are as important as the words. Leaders in this field include South African lawyer Robert de Rooy, who created an employment contract for ClemenGold, where he was legal counsel. This contract was developed for the business’s fruit-picker employees, many of whom spoke English only as a second language, and as such would have difficulty with formal legal language. De Rooy has spoken of how this method shifts the power balance and empowers employees.
Legal design is growing in dominance, and starting to engage multiple international audiences
Professor Camilla Andersen from the University of Western Australia is working with global infrastructure firm Aurecon to create its visual employment contract, cutting a massive 4,000 words from the contract in the process.
The ideology of communicating legal information in a fair, efficient and simple way has also been embraced by creative professionals, including artist Candy Chang. Chang took those laws commonly violated by street vendors in New York, and turned this information into an accessible visual information guide to give over 10,000 street vendors better access to the law, and empower them to operate within it. The guidance even gave them the confidence to challenge police officers who tackled them in relation to infractions.
Previously, the street vendors were required to navigate myriad documents on the law, including a 58-page city guide. Relevant information was not all available in one place, and regulations were contained within densely worded documents in complex language, leaving vendors in a vulnerable position. The guide produced by Chang and the Center for Urban Pedagogy, called ‘Vendor Power’, was also translated into five languages, providing further assistance to the vendors when English was not their native language.
This kind of innovative design is not limited to countries outside of the UK; one of the most exciting ventures to emerge on our shores has been RightsInfo. Developed by barrister Adam Wagner (who also created the excellent UK Human Rights Blog while at 1 Crown Office Row chambers), this resource uses a range of visual tools to engage users in its content, from infographics to videos, and collector cards to timelines.
Other examples of legal design
Given all these examples, the concept of legal design should not be too unfamiliar. Its appeal and commercial use are expected to increase, with independent projects, organisations and education-led initiatives starting to appear around the world. For example, if you are in the Palo Alto area of California, you might want to visit the Legal Design Lab, an interdisciplinary venture based at Stanford Law School and d.school, which aims to train law students and professionals in human-centred legal design. Legal design agencies are popping up all around the world: Fournier Legal Design in Amsterdam, Dot. in Helsinki and Paris, and Wavelength Law in the UK are all legal engineers for whom design is just one element of their work.
Last summer in London, the City Law School and Justis hosted the Legal Design Sprint for students, to give the next generation of legal practitioners an opportunity to apply legal design thinking to real-world problems presented by organisations such as Jisc, Browne Jacobson LLP and the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England and Wales. Participants were given guidance on design thinking from global design agency Method.
These examples demonstrate that legal design is growing in dominance, and starting to engage multiple international audiences. However, one could argue that legal design has been in the making for a number of years. At the City / Justis Legal Design Sprint, the chief innovation officer for Jisc, Dr Phil Richards, suggested Lord Woolf’s 1995 review of the civil justice system was the first step towards legal design. The merging of the White Book and the Green Book, and the order to simplify the language used within the new Civil Procedure Rules to make the civil justice system more accessible, fair and efficient were possibly signs of what was to come.
Aims and benefits of legal design
It may be clear now that the aim of legal design is to help an individual understand legal information. However, legal design is doing much more than enabling people to understand unfamiliar legalese.
Legal design has the power to provide access to justice for millions of people around the world, by communicating information in a fair, efficient and simple manner
When you translate a legal document, such as a contract, into an easy-to-understand format, you increase access to justice for all those affected by that contract. You remove the need for a lawyer to translate the legalese into simple terms, and the associated cost, which is often far beyond what many can afford. You empower members of the public with knowledge of the law.
Access to justice has been battered by legal aid cuts. Legal design cannot, of course, plug this gap single-handedly; access to a lawyer and to the courts, or some form of alternative dispute resolution, should be an option for everyone, regardless of their financial situation. However, legal design does have the power to provide access to justice for millions of people around the world, by communicating information in a fair, efficient and simple manner. If people understand initially what they’re agreeing to, the likelihood of disputes is lessened; it has a preventative role. Similarly, if information is available to help them take a first step in understanding that their problem is indeed a legal one, and what the possible routes for its resolution might be, that would be a huge step forward.
We’ve seen examples of privacy policies designed to help users navigate important information; city regulations visualised and translated into different languages to help street vendors; handy explainer guides to human rights; and you can even access an online legal design toolbox for those unable to visit the Legal Design Lab in person. So what’s next, and how will this impact solicitors?
This is an opportunity for practitioners and law firms to work with designers and legal design specialists to ensure that the legal information, contracts, and terms they produce can be understood by the intended recipients. Solicitors and law firms can add legal design to their service catalogue, which could then help many more people if the contracts firms create are for public-facing businesses, or are intended to be distributed by their clients.
Law firms need to be much more open to engaging the services of those outside the business, whether they be designers, psychologists or technologists, and, of course, embrace working with clients themselves. Universities should also be looking to include legal design as part of their offering, fostering a new wave of legal practitioners for whom empathy is a vital part of their skill set.
Emily is planning to run a legal design module for City students on the LLB in the future; if anyone has a challenge they would like tackled, contact her.
This is an amended version of an article first published in the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers in September 2018.