In this episode Alix Devendra explains why lawyers need to learn and apply design thinking in their law practices. Design is just a process for creative problem solving, and lawyers building client-centered law practices need design thinking as well as legal thinking to build successful client-service models.
Download the Practice Model Canvas to follow along.
Alix Devendra is a cofounder and design strategist at Start Here HQ, a purpose-driven consultancy that helps lawyers harness the tools of modern entrepreneurship to build more scalable and sustainable law practices. Alix’s superpower is her strategic mind. She can quickly sort through the clutter, determine the best path forward, and help others connect the dots.
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Speaker 1: Welcome to the Lawyerist Podcast with Sam Glover and Aaron Street. Each week, Lawyerist brings you advice and interviews to help you build a more successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market. Now, here are Sam and Aaron.
Sam Glover: Hi, I’m Sam Glover.
Aaron Street: I’m Aaron Street. This is episode 133 of the Lawyerist Podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today we’re talking with Alix Devendra about why lawyers need to think like designers when it comes to lawyering and law practice.
Sam Glover: Today’s podcast is sponsored by Ruby Receptionist, and its smart, charming receptionists who are perfect for small firms. Visit callruby.com/lawyerist to get a risk-free trial with Ruby.
Aaron Street: Today’s podcast is sponsored by Cleo, legal practice management software. Cleo makes running your law firm easier. Try it for free today at cleo.com. Sam, yesterday we were up in northern Minnesota for the Minnesota Solo Small Conference, otherwise known as strategic solutions for solo and small firms.
Sam Glover: It’s a mouthful, yeah.
Aaron Street: We did a couple of different sessions about how small-firm lawyers can get great law firm websites. We did some workshops and some presentations. It was really fun. It was cool to kind of live-test a few small-firm websites and give them feedback and some tips on improvement. A couple of takeaways from that. One is we have been talking a fair amount in the last couple of years about our 10 or 11 or 12 best practices for good law firm websites. One of the things I think you and I both realized yesterday as we were preparing is that the tips for making a great law firm website kind of bubble up to three big categories, which we’ve framed as strategy, usability, and design.
Sam Glover: Strategy is the most important thing, perhaps. A lot of lawyers just want a website, and there isn’t a whole lot of strategy and thought that goes into it. We talked a lot about that. Usability is just making sure that your website does the things that it needs to do so people can use it, like being mobile responsive, meeting accessibility standards. Then it should look nice, which is design.
Aaron Street: I think a related thing we talked a lot about yesterday was how those concepts can tie together as part of your website marketing, but broader, your kind of consistent client experience so that your website looks and feels like the interactions they’re going to have when you do intake or consultations or a welcome kit with them will look and feel like your letterhead, and business cards will look and feel like your office so that when they are getting to know you through your website, they are getting to know what it will actually be like to work with you.
Sam Glover: I kept using the phrase promise, or the word promise. Your website makes a promise to the visitor about what kind of experience they’re going to have with you. If you have a slick, well-produced website and your office is a disorganized dump with falling-apart furniture, you’ve created a discordant message there. You haven’t delivered on the promise of your website. On the contrary, if both your website and your law office are a dump, you’ve delivered a consistent client experience, but I think you should really reconsider that whole thing.
Aaron Street: I mean, someone would probably hire the dump lawyer, but that’s a different question. Another interesting thing is we got into talking about law firm websites specifically at this conference because of the expertise we’ve developed over the years with our annual best law firm websites contest where we try to identify truly the best law firm websites in the country, or even around the world. One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is we have identified the kinds of things that would get you the best law firm website, but most people don’t need the best. They don’t need an A plus. Most lawyers would do much, much better with just a B. Getting a B is easier than getting an A plus. Focusing on some of the low-hanging fruit of good practices is often just as useful as striving and working really hard and spending a lot of money to follow all of the best practices.
Sam Glover: To be clear, our contest is weighted towards design, not … It’s hard for us to go, “Is this a well-converting website?” We don’t really know that unless we did extensive audits of the companies or the firms. If you go through the 10 things that we’ve outlined and try and check each of those boxes, if you haven’t forgotten those things, you’re going to be doing better than most of the websites out there. Even some of the contest winners don’t have very clear calls to action, you know? Even in the top 10, some of them are missing some of the 10 things that we’ve identified.
Aaron Street: That ended up being a lot of what we talked about yesterday, was too many lawyers build their website because they need a website or want to rank high in Google because they’ve heard they should rank high in Google rather than building their website for the purpose of accomplishing a business goal, which for most lawyers is getting potential clients to call them. Different firms have different goals, and making sure you’ve clearly articulated what yours are, and that you then set your website up to focus on achieving that goal and preferably clearing monitoring and measuring whether that’s actually happening or not so that you can see if your investment in your website is achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself.
Sam Glover: I think I want to segue to my announcement that I have just finally finished the work on updating our website design guide, which I’m really proud of.
Aaron Street: Yay.
Sam Glover: This is its third edition. I think the second edition was two or three years ago. I put in a lot of work, and we talked a lot in prep for that about the things that we’ve learned. There are some things that we’ve pulled out of the guide. There are some new elements that we’ve included. It’s 10 things that the best law firm website designs have in common. You can get it now at lawyerist.com/guides. If you have previously purchased it, check your email inbox. I’ve sent you a coupon to get 50% off of the new one. If you previously got it for free, check your inbox. I’ve sent you a coupon for 20% off.
Aaron Street: Yay.
Sam Glover: I’d love for you to get that and see it and let me know what you think. Here, continuing on the design theme, here’s my conversation with Alix about why lawyers need to become design thinkers.
Alix Devendra: Hi, I’m Alix Devendra. I’m co-founder and design strategist at Start Here HQ. We are a purpose-driven consultancy that helps lawyers harness the tools of modern entrepreneurship to build more scalable and sustainable law practices.
Sam Glover: Alix, before we start talking about design and law practice, what is Start Here HQ? You gave us the elevator-pitch version of it, but what do you actually do for lawyers and law firms? How did you come to get involved in this sort of thing?
Alix Devendra: I’d say what we do is help lawyers. You’re familiar with the people processes tools trifecta that people talk about?
Sam Glover: I’m a little familiar, but I bet our listeners aren’t.
Alix Devendra: Basically, it’s just a philosophy that the three legs of the tripod or whatever are your people, your processes, and your tools. Tools seem to get a lot of attention. I think a lot of legal tech companies are essentially developing new tools for us to use. My partners and I think that there needs to be an equal amount of attention paid to the people and the processes that are needed to innovate as well. We’re trying to round things out a little bit in the legal innovation space.
Sam Glover: That is a huge thing that you just explained. We dig into that all the time. At TBD Law, people keep getting distracted by oh, well should I use Cleo or My Case or Rocket Matter? We’re like no, wrong question. There’s a time and a place to talk about tools, but let’s keep an eye on the big picture and on the other things you should be thinking about. I think you’re totally right. Lawyers just get distracted by tools all the time. There’s so much more to it in terms of business and work flow and everything.
Alix Devendra: Exactly. Well, it’s not just lawyers. It’s very easy to get caught up in the things that you think are either going to be a magic bullet or the things that feel actionable, so you want to say, “I need a new website, or I need this.” It’s really hard to stop yourself and say, “Okay, wait a minute. What am I trying to accomplish with the new website? Who am I trying to reach?” There’s some questions that need to be asked first before you can decide what the best platform is.
Sam Glover: I’m glad to hear you say that, because I just got done revising our web design guide, and I backed everything off to start with what are your goals and what’s your value proposition and things like that. Totally, that’s awesome. Start Here HQ is built to help lawyers do that, it sounds like.
Alix Devendra: Yes, exactly. We recognize that it can be scary to even know where to begin with these questions. That’s how we chose our name. You just got to come to us, come to startherehq.com, and we’ll help you get started.
Sam Glover: Alix, you deal in the intersection of law and design, at least, you’ve graphed those things together. How did you wind up doing those two things?
Alix Devendra: I had no formal training in design. I was not an art student or anything like that. It was something that came to me, or that I came to after I was already in law practice. Once I started unpacking what design was and stumbled into it and its vocabulary, it was like a light bulb went on for me, because it made so much sense. When I started reading about it, it gave expression to all these ideas I’d kind of intuitively been thinking, and things I’d intuitively been doing in my practice but I didn’t know why. To me, it was just a no-brainer. Oh, the law needs better design, and I’m going to make that happen.
Sam Glover: Before Start HQ, you’ve been doing this, I think. You’ve been working with lawyers and law firms. What does a typical job look like for that?
Alix Devendra: It’s really been a growth process for me. I left law practice just about two years ago, so maybe I should back up and just explain a little bit how I got into legal design. My entre was reading typography for lawyers. I know you’ve had Butterick on the podcast.
Sam Glover: We are big fans.
Alix Devendra: Yes.
Sam Glover: When the show notes appear on lawyerist.com, they will be set in Matthew Butterick’s fonts.
Alix Devendra: Yes. That was the light bulb moment for me, was reading his book. When I initially started getting into this, it was through the lens of typography and then graphic design, visual communication design more generally, and as applied to legal work product. I focused particularly on written documents that lawyers produce. Not lawyer marketing materials, but how can these same principles be applied to the actual legal documents themselves.
Kind of similar to what we were just talking about with the focus on the tools, I realized that just focusing on the document was ignoring some of these other, bigger-picture questions that we needed to be asking about the future of the profession. Design can apply equally there as well. I started getting into design thinking, and talking with others about how design can be applied on a systems level to rethink how we deliver legal services.
Then from there I started talking with folks like John Grant who have been doing similar work using tools of Lean and Agile, Jeena Cho, who does the Mindfulness and Meditation for lawyers, and Cat Moon, who does project management, legal innovation as well, and we realized that there was so much overlap in these different disciplines, and really at their core it spells a lot of the same ideas. We thought it would make sense to join forces and really figure out how to harmonize all these different conversation that are going on about what the law needs and what’s lacking and figure out a way of doing that in the broadest way possible so that we’re all taking advantage of all the possible tools that are out there.
Sam Glover: I feel like design made its way into the public consciousness between Ted and Apple’s rise in popularity. Somewhere in there, everybody started worshiping at the altar of design. You know, I have wound up doing a lot of design, because I design our website, I design our publications and our materials and things like that, and I’ve tried to learn how to get better at that. Now, design is kind of an intuitive way for me to approach problems in the same way that my legal training is an intuitive way for me to approach legal problems. Both of those feel really natural to me, but I worry that people who think about law and design wonder why are we sticking design on top of law? What is it about that that makes sense? Why should we all be thinking about law and design instead of law and high-pressure sales tactics? Why are we adding design on? What’s your pitch for doing it?
Alix Devendra: I think the term design can be a little challenging. People have preconceived notions, or they just associate it with fashion design or something and they haven’t been exposed to it in other ways to see how broad of a term it really is. For me, design really just means designing. It means just being intentional about how you’re doing something regardless of what it is that you’re doing, delivering legal services, or creating Apple devices. I think the power of it is that when you stop to actually think about what you’re doing and try to make better choices about how you’re going to go about doing it, whatever you do is naturally going to be better because you’re putting more thought into what you’re doing.
I think the research is starting to bear that out. There’s a group called the Time Management Institute that did a 10-year study from 2004 to 2014. The results of their study showed that businesses that are design-driven or design-led companies such as Apple end up out-performing the SAP by over 200%. They’re really trying to make the business case for why design matters. I think as I was saying with how I got into design, I definitely found that once I started paying attention to typography and layout of my briefs that it made my writing better. I think the same is true of legal services on a broader scale.
Sam Glover: Fundamentally, it’s essentially you ask why are we doing everything that we’re doing? Why are we doing? Why are we doing it this way? Why are we doing it this way? Can we make it better? Is there a better way to be doing it? I think maybe that’s an oversimplification, but that’s almost really what design is plus a set of tools to do that methodically.
Alix Devendra: Exactly. That’s where I think the folks who coined the term design thinking, they basically just added the word thinking to what design already is, but people had such preconceived notions about design that they couldn’t really see what it really was. Once we started talking about design thinking, and talking more explicitly about it being a process for problem-solving or whatever, people were like, “Oh, it’s design thinking. Now I get it.”
Sam Glover: Right.
Alix Devendra: Essentially, that’s what it is.
Sam Glover: You know, if you think about design as being design-y, like if you look at a product and you think, “Wow, that’s really design-y.” The parts of it that make you say that are more of the art and the craft of building a product than the actual design process. It’s almost design are the parts that you don’t notice but that affect you anyway, I think. Maybe that’s just because I’m more of I like minimalism and clean design and things like that, but I feel like it’s more the work that goes into it and the functional bits than the pretty parts.
Alix Devendra: I think the dictionary definition of design can actually be helpful here as well, because one of the definitions of design is simply a specification of an object manifested by an agent intended to accomplish goals in a particular environment using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements subject to constraints. Which I know is a mouthful, and when you think about it, it really is just saying that anything man-made is designed. I think the idea is that you design for specific environments and contexts and limitations. You can say, “Oh, I don’t like that design. It’s too design-y for me. It’s not my style.” It really has to do with the people who made that thing, whatever it is, what were they trying to accomplish? Is that the look they were going for? If so, then that’s fine. It just has to do with being intentional about choosing your approach.
Sam Glover: You know, if you break all that down, I think one of the reasons that the idea of marrying design and law makes a lot of sense, to me anyway, and I assume probably to you too and to others who think about it, is that that definition or my simplistic why do we do it this way and can we do it better is really at the core of what delivering legal service is all about. It’s not a complete wholesale reworking of what it means to deliver legal services, although once you start being more intentional instead of just doing things the way they’ve always been done, it may mean that you do them completely differently, because there may be better ways to do it. I think opening your mind up to the fact that we may be doing wrong is at the heart of what design is, because you’re always open to the idea that there’s a better way to do it, and we may be doing it wrong.
Alix Devendra: Right. I think that’s where it’s very useful too. I kind of like to break it down. Design thinking, I think some people have come across that term now. One way of describing it is talking about the process of design thinking. That’s part of what I love about it. It gives you a framework to go through the messy process of problem-solving and trying to come up with creative, new solutions to a difficult problem. It involves some grappling, but at least if you have this framework to tack your ideas and thoughts on to, it can help you navigate through that process. At the same time, design thinking is also kind of a set of mindsets that you have to cultivate in order to successfully engage in that process.
One of the poor mindsets is the idea of the beginner’s mindset, or cultivating curiosity. I think that gets back to what you were just saying about how it’s about saying, “Hey, why do we do it this way? Is there a better way to do it?” That’s the beginner’s mindset question. I feel like that can be at odds with the way we’re trying to think as lawyers and value precedent. I’m not saying you have to completely throw that out, but it can be helpful to just be a little bit intentional. Okay, I’m going to be putting on the curiosity hat now, and engaging in a little bit more curiosity and question asking than I might otherwise in other parts of my life or work life.
Sam Glover: How about that design process? Can you break that down for us into the stages of design thinking?
Alix Devendra: Yeah. It’s generally described as a five-step process, though people have different terminology that they like to use. I like calling the first step discovery. It’s really where you’re going out and gathering information before you start problem-solving. Again, like we were just saying earlier, it’s kind of like stopping yourself from going out and building a new website and first asking questions about who is it for and what am I trying to do. That’s what you do in the discovery phase. You interview clients, get their perspective, unpack your insights about them.
Sam Glover: This is like the don’t presume that you already know how to do this. It’s force yourself to go and investigate, especially with the people for whom you’re trying to solve the problem, said clients.
Alix Devendra: Exactly. Oftentimes, they will have a very different idea of what their problem is than you do. That can be really surprising, is that you think you’ve identified a problem that needs solving, and when you talk to the people who are the ones grappling with it on a day-to-day basis, they might have a totally different conception of their reality than you see from the outside. It’s not to say one is right or wrong, but you have to unpack that and figure out what’s going on and what people-
Sam Glover: Because the legal issue is only one aspect of the problem that your clients usually need solved, right? Think of a start-up, a fast-moving start-up company. The problem they need solved is to move past this obstruction to their business if somebody’s threatening them with a lawsuit, for example. Maybe there’s even more to it, or maybe it’s different, but often the winning the copyright battle is not the problem they need solved, it’s getting this thing, putting it behind them so they can keep going on their product, which is actually what they care about. If it’s a divorce, what the problem they need solved may be is getting the separation done with a minimum of trouble with their spouse or something like that. You may think you know it, but until you really talk to your clients about it, and that’s such a critical step, you won’t know for sure.
Alix Devendra: Exactly. There’s a great example of this. There’s the firm in Seattle called Foundry Law Group. I love their website, because they use the same language that I think their clients probably do. They do IP law for small businesses. On their website, they don’t say, “We do IP law.” They say, “We help protect your business assets.” Which is really the ultimate goal, you don’t go out and register trademarks because that’s what we do, you do it because you want the protection that goes along with that.
Sam Glover: Let’s be clear, most people don’t go around talking about intellectual property. Lawyers do, but other people don’t.
Alix Devendra: Right, right. Just kind of reframing how you’re talking about it or thinking about the end goals can really change how you describe things.
Sam Glover: Step one is discover.
Alix Devendra: Yes.
Sam Glover: Interview your users, your clients, your customers. Find out the nature of the problem and their pain points. Number two is … ?
Alix Devendra: Then you have to synthesize all that information, all the observation you’ve been doing, unpack your notes from your interviews. If you’re familiar with design thinking or you Google it, you’ll see lots of post-it notes and people putting things on walls and stuff like that. Part of the reason for that is that it’s very helpful in the synthesis process to make your ideas visual, get them out of your head, onto paper, and on sticky notes so you can move them around and say, “Hey, this insight I had during this interview is similar to something I jotted down over here when I was talking to this other person.” You can move those closer together on the wall and start clustering things around themes that you’re noticing. Our brain is really good at pattern recognition. To make these thoughts visual helps you start connecting the dots.
Sam Glover: I think the important thing to notice is we’re on step two and we have not started trying to solve the problem yet, which we’re not going to do in step three either, right?
Alix Devendra: Right. Brainstorming, you can start basically the transition from synthesizing to brainstorming is where you’ve unpacked your ideas, you’ve kind of started to home in on who your target client is or what their problem is, and what you want to do is then formulate a question at the end of the synthesis phase, which is the jumping off point for your brainstorming. You’re going to ask yourself how might we help so-and-so client with X problem that we’ve identified. You have to leave the question broad enough or open-ended enough for there to be more than one possible solution.
The whole point of brainstorming is to get possible solutions out on the table to consider. It’s not about critiquing the solutions yet or picking the “right” one. Again, that’s where I think it can be challenging, because as lawyers we’re so good at issue-spotting. As soon as we say an idea, we start thinking why it’s not going to work, or what the flaws are. Really, that’s not the point of brainstorming. You want to try and just tell yourself, “Okay, that’s not the type of thinking I’m supposed to be engaged in right now. I’m going to set that aside. That’s for later. Right now it’s about going for volume, getting all the ideas down.” Then you can move on.
Step four is prototyping. In that step, you do have to choose one or more ideas to carry forward. The transition from brainstorming to prototyping, that’s when you put on the hat of critical thinking and trying to identify which of these possible brainstorm ideas should I pursue first.
Sam Glover: One of the things I like about this process is it really lays out there like there are a bunch of steps before you start criticizing things. It’s really important, because you need to throw ideas out there and see what they really look like. We try to do this a lot at TBD Law by taking the ideas out, flushing them out, seeing what they look like, and then once you have a really good idea of what the idea is, then you can start criticizing it and deciding whether or not it might be something you want to do. It’s not fair to criticize an idea that you’ve thrown up in a brainstorming session. It’s not about safe spaces or anything ridiculous like that, it’s about let’s actually just give our brains the room to play and come up with crazy ideas and see what may or may not work. Then only in the final step do you actually start picking some things. The final two steps you start picking things to try and then trying them out.
Alix Devendra: Right. It is an iterate of process. We talked about it being five steps, but really-
Sam Glover: It’s a circle.
Alix Devendra: It’s a circle, because you end up going back. For example, prototyping you start building out a couple of your ideas and you may in that initial prototyping realize, “Oh, that’s not actually as great a solution as I thought it was.” The devil’s in the details, I’m not sure how that would actually work in practice. You can scrap that and move on to something else. Maybe you built a prototype and you think it’s really great, and then you take it into step five, which is testing. You take it back to your potential users, your clients, and ask them for feedback.
That’s where it might encounter reality, and you’ll say, “Oh, it’s actually not … People don’t even know what it’s for. They don’t know how to use it the way I thought they would.” They might have other criticisms for you that you then need to take back to the drawing board. Really testing then takes you back to that first discovery phase, because you’re learning new things about your clients that they might not have told you during that first interview, but now that you’ve presented them with a possible solution they’re saying, “Actually, I said that’s what I wanted, but what I really want is this other thing.”
Sam Glover: In other words, the design thinking process is never really done. You have to keep circling back to the beginning and starting over. It’s a process of continual improvement. Is that right?
Alix Devendra: Yes. You’ll come across that term of continuous improvement or incremental improvement in other disciplines as well. That has a history in the Lean and Agile context too. It’s finding these bedrock principles and carrying those forward.
Sam Glover: Very cool. We need to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors. When we come back, I’d like to try and make this a little more concrete and introduce a tool that you have to help lawyers do design thinking. Maybe we can just introduce a hypothetical where we’ll kind of walk through it and give you some tools to start thinking about how to do this in your own practice. We’ll be back in a few minutes.
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Sam Glover: We’re back. Alix, we are going to be including in the show notes a link to download the practice model canvas, which is a tool that you’ve developed with your partners at Start Here HQ to help lawyers apply design thinking in their own practices. Is there an example that we can use to walk through some of the design thinking steps, or pull it out and use the practice model canvas to think through a problem?
Alix Devendra: We talk about using the practice model canvas as a way to design a new legal product or legal service. Even that concept of designing legal products, what does that even mean? How do I do that if I’m in a firm? If you start thinking about how you practice, what your clients need, how you could do that better, I think ideas will naturally start to bubble up for people. It’s not about just creating some new thing that didn’t exist before. It’s about looking at what you’re already doing and improving on it like we just talked about.
One example that comes to mind is a lot of firms that do employment law, like management side employment law, they still tend to bill by the hour, have pretty traditional practices. For certain things like employee handbooks, they may already kind of be doing it on a flat-fee basis sort of, because they’ve realized that their clients only want to pay so much for it, or it generally takes X amount of time and that times my hourly rate is Y amount, so I’m just going to quote them that.
Sam Glover: I call this fake value building.
Alix Devendra: Exactly. I was talking to a firm that wanted to bring us in to do some consulting, and sure enough in their employment group different partners kind of had their own sort of flat-fee model for employee handbooks, but it was not consistent throughout the group. They’d also-
Sam Glover: It’s more like we just always bill two hours for that, or 10 hours for that or something.
Alix Devendra: Right. Even I think different partners were billing different amounts, maybe.
Sam Glover: Sure.
Alix Devendra: It was based on how long they thought it would take them to do it, or their associate to do it. That’s a great place to start, because it’s something you’ve already kind of thought about packaging as a service or a product, but there’s a lot more work that can be done to make that successful.
Sam Glover: Because you’re basically half-assing it at that point, you’re not really committing to let’s deliver this thing as a product.
Alix Devendra: Right. That can hurt you, because you don’t know if you’re actually getting what you need from it. It’s maybe not great for the client either. Why not spend a little time refining it?
Sam Glover: How did you start thinking through that? What should people do? I’m doing something this way, how do you start unpacking that and starting over, or doing it differently?
Alix Devendra: On the practice model canvas, there’s a lot of different boxes, and they’re numbered. The funny thing is we have two number ones. We have the problem box and the customer box. That’s because we think they’re both equally important. You have to talk about the customer problem pairing, and figure out … Learn about your customer, your client, also learn about their problems, in this case what they need out of their employee handbook or what their challenges are. Another thing you have to do when you’re exploring the problem is also think about what other solutions exist out there.
I know with employee handbooks there’s a lot of resources online that claim to sell state-specific handbooks for $400 or something. That’s a legitimate thing you’re going to have to research. I’ve never paid the money to download it, but I’m really curious to know what the quality’s like. I’m sure somebody has. I’m sure there’s reasons why you might prefer to go with a real, live lawyer that can totally customize your handbook as opposed to the $400 one you can get online, but as the lawyer, you have to know what that competition looks like so that you can describe what your value add is and why you’re charging more than that and what the difference is. Maybe for some people the $400 version is what they need, or they can’t really afford more if they’re not really at a stage of their business where it makes sense.
That helps you hone in on your ideal client too. You say, “These people in this stage of business, I shouldn’t actually be trying to sell them my handbook, because I’m not selling at their price point.” That helps you get more clarity on who you’re helping and helps you think about what channels to market to them in, what’s the most effective way of reaching them. That’s another box on the canvas, is thinking through how am I actually going to find my ideal client, what am I going to tell them about my product and how it’s different than the other things out there. Also on the financial side, maybe is there a way for you to charge less? How could you routinize your processes so that it doesn’t take you quite as much time to make each one?
Sam Glover: These boxes are numbered, but I can see myself going back and forth, right? As I learn more about the customer and the problem and the way those fit together, I’m going to test out some ideas for solutions and what the value is. As I get to revenue streams, maybe it’s starting to look like a flat-fee product, but maybe that requires me to go back and edit some of the other boxes. Does that sound right? Is this generally kind of a linear thing that you expect people to do?
Alix Devendra: No, no. It’s exactly what we were talking about earlier with it being an iterative process. I mean, right at the top of the canvas we have a box where you can note what version you’re on, because you are going to make more than one of these, and you’re going to tweak it over time. We have a box for key metrics, and that’s really important too. You have to figure out what you’re going to track in order to know whether this is working or not and if you’re making enough money off it.
Sam Glover: I guess it occurs to me that, as we said earlier, everybody has already designed the way they deliver legal services, even if they didn’t do it very intentionally. Maybe if people aren’t sure how to get into the design process with the stuff they’re already doing, step one is actually to figure out how you measure what you’re already doing, because you’re basically in between the prototyping and the test phase right now.
Alix Devendra: Yes.
Sam Glover: Is that crazy? I’m trying to figure out what’s the entry point.
Alix Devendra: That is a great point. Yes, you should. It’s true that a lot of lawyers don’t actually know the metrics of their practice as it currently is, or don’t have a lot of … It’s not top of mind, anyway. They’ll be like, “Oh, I can look that up for you,” if I ask them a question.
Sam Glover: Right. You know how much revenue you bring in in the month, but you’re not actually paying attention to how much do you make from a given client for this type of a service versus how much did it cost you to acquire that client in the first place.
Alix Devendra: Right. I think a lot of times we just have assumptions about it. Figuring out how you’re going to track it so you can know whether it’s a success or not, and then experimenting like I’m going to tweak this, and see if it gets more profitable, that is definitely one of the first things you have to do. We had another client where they kept talking about something similar to handbooks kind of being a loss leader. They were like, “Oh yeah, we charge a really small amount for them, but it’s a loss leader.” We’re like, “Do you even know what loss leader means?” First of all, are you losing money on them? Do you even know? How much time are you spending on them? Are you tracking whether those clients come back to you for more business or bring you referrals? That’s what a loss leader is. If you’re not actually tracking the referrals and the lifetime value of the client, how do you really know? Maybe it’s not a loss. Maybe it’s profitable, it’s just not as profitable as some other lines of work.
Sam Glover: Maybe your loss isn’t leading to anything.
Alix Devendra: In which case, maybe you should stop doing them.
Sam Glover: I mean, that’s a possible outcome. Every time you start measuring and testing and going through the discovery and synthesis process, one of the possibilities is we should not be doing this, or there’s no way for us to do this profitably, or there’s no way to fit this to our client’s needs within the kind of value that we can get out of it.
Alix Devendra: Right. I think there was a Seth Godin blog post recently that was on a similar theme, like the idea that you should never quit. I think people hear that a lot, like oh, if you just stick with it, it’ll work. In reality, successful people quit a lot of times. They don’t quit the overall strategy, like the main goal, but they quit the little things they’re doing, the tactics they’re trying. They measure them, and if they’re not working, yeah, quit that tactic. Try something else. Try a different way of reaching it.
Sam Glover: Quit it as soon as possible. If it doesn’t work, you want to know that as soon as possible. You mentioned the responsive organization when we were prepping for this. Tell me about the responsive org movement, and what that means, and how it might intersect with firms.
Alix Devendra: Evolution of my study into design like I said started with typography and graphic design, went through design thinking, and more recently I’ve been focused on organization design. I’ve been doing some reading by org design consultancies about the importance of marrying design thinking with org design, because even if you are successful at using the design thinking process and thinking creatively about how you’re going to change the way you deliver legal services, unless you’re a true solo, you work with other people. In order for you to implement that new idea successfully, you’re going to have to bring them along with you on that journey and work with them to implement it. That’s where these principles of org design and how we communicate as team, how we delegate decision-making authority, without that, you can’t do much with the results of your design thinking process. The two really go hand in hand. I’ve been really fascinated learning more and more about org design and how those principles could be applied to help law firms, legal departments, any sort of group of lawyers that are working together as a team do better.
Sam Glover: Anybody listening can see the natural progression here. You print out the practice model canvas, and you spend weeks thinking about how can we maximize the value of our employee handbooks and minimize the time it takes us to put into it, but we make them better and faster and easier to deliver, and you bring this back in to your boss or your partner or the managing attorney or whatever, you say, “I’ve figured it out. Look at this amazing thing.” They basically just shrug, or they’re like, “Screw it. We’re not doing that, then we make less money.” Something like that, you know? You can’t change the organization one legal service solution at a time. You need an organization that supports this way of thinking from the bottom up.
Alix Devendra: Right. I think the other part of it is that traditional organizational structures that were developed over the last century or more were developed with certain goals in mind, namely referred to as control and command hierarchy, the idea that you want the organization to be predictable and you want to have control over it. The reality is that in the 21st century the world in which we live is so different and so much less certain that that organizational model doesn’t really work with the type of work we need to do now. We need to be more nimble and more able to respond to changing conditions. If you have a very hierarchical, controlling environment where there’s a lot of planning involved in making any minute change, that set up isn’t really going to work for this iterative, incremental improvement approach.
Sam Glover: The old business structures don’t even work for normal people, right? This idea that everyone can be at work 40, 60, 80 hours a week and not have family responsibilities or a life or anything like that, there’s a reason why firms are so lopsidedly male. They’re a reason why firms are having a hard time reaching out to millennials. There’s a whole host of reasons why business in general, but law firms in particular, need to change the way they do things. This is a way to think through how you restructure a law firm so that everybody who works there can be happier, all the clients who it serves can be happier, and the value that you produce and the value of the legal solutions that you deliver can increase.
Alix Devendra: Well said. I totally agree.
Sam Glover: Thank you so much for being with us. I guess I can climb off my soapbox here and help you down. I’m so glad that we finally talked about design and law on the podcast. If people are more interested, like I said, we’ll include the practice model canvas in the show notes for today. Alix has been writing about this on her own blog, and we’ll include a link for that, or you know what, we can just geek out about it in the comments. Thanks, Alix and everybody else. I guess we’ll see you in the comments or in your responses or whatever.
Alix Devendra: Thanks, my pleasure.
Aaron Street: Make sure to catch next week’s episode of the Lawyerist podcast. If you’d like more information about today’s show, please visit lawyerist.com/podcast or legaltalknetwork.com. You can subscribe via iTunes or anywhere podcasts are found, both Lawyerist and the Legal Talk Network can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. You can download the free app from Legal Talk Network in Google Play or iTunes.
Sam Glover: The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own, and do not represent the views of nor are they endorsed by Legal Talk Network. Nothing said during this podcast is legal advice.