By: Kate White is the co-founder of Design Build Legal, and contributor to


In an era in which Amazon Prime sets the bar for the speed, ease, and satisfaction with which most of us expect to receive services, law departments are being held to a higher standard. Law firms serving clients and in-house teams serving the business are expected to clear paths, provide transparency, and make the lives of those designing, launching, marketing, and selling the products easier.

Design thinking methodologies and mindsets can be powerful tools for legal teams striving to be strategic partners, contribute to business outcomes, and get high marks from their clients. Listed below is the design thinking process:

  • Empathize: Gain a greater understanding of your end user's pain points, needs, and emotions;
  • Define: Carefully define the problem you're setting out to solve. This will be your "north star”;
  • Ideate: Bring together a cross-functional team to brainstorm potential ways to solve the problem;
  • Prototype: Rapidly build something you can test with your user to get feedback; and
  • Test and refine: Gather feedback from your user and refine the solution as necessary, possibly going back to ideation.

Thankfully, you don’t have to host a hackathon or an all-day workshop to innovate your services or implement design thinking. Here are eight tips for how you and your team can start using design thinking principles today to launch solutions that solve your company’s greatest challenges.

1. Start with empathy

Empathizing with your end user in order to gain a greater understanding of his or her needs is a core principle of design thinking. When is the last time you asked your business team if they feel like they’re recreating the wheel? Or what they would focus on if they were able to free-up 40 percent of their workday? By engaging in new kinds of conversations with your stakeholders, you’ll uncover opportunities to innovate your services in no time.

2. Carefully define the problem and make the business case

By spending more time upfront defining the problem, you’ll save your team time and resources in the end. It’s easy once you start designing and gathering feedback to get derailed — some stakeholders might ask, “Well, that’s great, but can it do X?”

Or bring up a pain point that’s related, but not the same as the one you set out to solve. Document, upfront, the business case for investing in solving this problem, including the outcome you hope to achieve, so that you’re able to stay focused and demonstrate success.

3. Involve people outside of the legal department

Another important lesson from design thinking, particularly for legal professionals who tend to work in homogeneous groups, is the importance of bringing together a cross-functional team to ideate on your problem statement.

Who from finance, HR, IT, marketing, or the business’s frontlines can you bring to the table to brainstorm? Give everyone some Post-its and Sharpies, share your problem statement, and be open to hearing unconstrained ideas from people with different skills and backgrounds.

4. Bring the user along for the ride

Once your team has settled on an idea or solution, get it back in front of your initial stakeholder group. Do this again after you have a first draft of a prototype, and again before you finalize the prototype, and again... you get the idea.

Lawyers, in particular, tend to want to present something polished and perfect, and nothing less. Design thinking encourages us to gather feedback from our users early and often, evolving the design based on the feedback we gather throughout the process.

5. Think about integrated services

For so long legal service providers were focused on pointing out risk, or solving discrete legal issues after they arose. Legal teams should be thinking more like the Big 4 in terms of how they can provide integrated services that evaluate portfolios of matters, and focus on process improvement, automation, risk mitigation, and self-service. Work to design a solution that makes your users’ lives easier! Pure and simple.

6. Be scrappy

Generally, you don’t need to bring on enterprise software to solve problems. Look at the tools you already have on hand: How can they be used in new ways? Do you have access to company-wide software but can’t get someone in IT to help you use it?

Look into bringing on a contractor who specializes in designing on that platform and can focus exclusively on your project. Or, come up with a low-fidelity version of your solution first, and get your stakeholders using it.

A prototype should give your idea enough shape to get feedback from your stakeholders, but not take a lot of time or money. Once you’ve proven the concept, then look for budget to bring a tech solution to life.

7. Use the data!

Regardless of what you’re designing, there will likely be data involved that can help inform how to improve your solution, where else you might use it, or help you teach your stakeholders something they didn’t know about their process.

On a macro level you can use data to determine where your team should prioritize its design time as it sets out to innovate. Are you logging the requests your team receives to identify areas of high demand? Are you gathering broad feedback from your business stakeholders to determine where they think your team is slowing down business processes or missing opportunities to better serve their department?

8. Look for opportunities to scale

While it might feel like you’re using a lot of resources to solve for one problem, or one stakeholder group, there’s a high probability that the processes you improved, tools you adopted, or lessons you learned can be scaled to other areas. Refrain from putting energy into scaling until you’ve launched a solution with your initial end user in mind. This will help you avoid the temptation to design for your team’s benefit rather than your users’.