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Better legal service by design

How a passion for out-of-the-box solutions led one law grad down an innovative professional path

Margaret Hagan, co-director Legal Technology and Design, Stanford University
Margaret Hagan, co-director Legal Technology and Design, Stanford University Photo by/par Yves Faguy

Margaret Hagan is a fellow at the Stanford University (Institute of Design) where she experiments with making law more accessible and engaging using legal design. National senior editor Yves Faguy spoke with her at the ReInvent Law conference in New York.

National: Why the interest in legal design?

Margaret Hagan: The thing that keeps me up at night is how we can make law more accessible, more engaging and more user-friendly, whether it is for the traditional corporate client or for the consumer. This is my real passion: normal people with legal problems that are itches or rashes that they probably know have legal consequences but would rather not deal with because lawyers are tough, intimidating and make for a rather painful experience. My general hypothesis is that the missions of law and design are not that separate and quite powerful if you bring them together. So if law is all about making society more fair and just, design is really about making things that people want to use and that they can use to empower themselves.

N: Explain what you have been doing at Stanford

MH: We are trying to get interdisciplinary teams together — engineers, behavioural scientists, political scientists, lawyers, doctors — because our basic assumption is that lawyers by themselves cannot solve these problems alone, even if they are quite smart. If you put four lawyers in a room with a tough problem, they are not going to come out with a breakthrough type of answer.

This year my partner Ron Dolin and I launched the program for legal tech and design where we focussed on building access to justice tools for consumer law. We are also focussed on training a new generation of lawyers. So our goal really is to develop these breakthrough models and new types of legal services, to do this training and to start a legal pipeline of start-ups from Silicon Valley and beyond.

N: You talk a lot about the process of design. What does that mean?

MH: Design isn’t just making things look pretty or making the web design a little bit sharper or the PowerPoints a little bit nicer. It is really about going back to the drawing board, to think about the kinds of services we want to provide and how we fit those inside people’s mental models. It’s a new way of problem-solving.

You can’t just, as a person, research a problem and then figure out a solution. I think the design process is something that is tried and tested. You have to be testing with users right away. Any idea is not worth anything unless you can get a use case of someone who actually really wants that and then testing, iterating and then finding the right kind of technical and design partners to help you realize it. A lot of what happens in innovation training is just an echo chamber inside of a boardroom where you are just making a lot of assumptions about how people operate and who they are.

N: Can you give us an example?

MH: We bring actual people in. Through our estate planning [project] we had 12 different people in their forties and fifties, all different technical levels, all different asset levels, and the students have to build something specifically for this 45-year-old divorced woman who is very Christian and has Chinese cultural norms in her head. How can we make this person’s relationship with the law more empowered and clear instead of just making broad assumptions about the general consumer on the street?

N: So is this focus group testing in a way?

MH: Well, it is starting with the user and the goal is having human-centered design process. If you are going to design a new iPhone app or a new legal service, you need to find someone who actually needs that, and understand everything not just about their legal needs, but about their technological preferences, what frustrates them, what makes them love a product. Like, what other analogous services do they really love and spend money on? Then we try to use those kinds of insights to feed what a legal service should look like. So we don’t define the problem or the solution until we really understand you and what makes you tick.

N: Your path after law school is an unusual one. What advice would you have for students thinking about em­barking on a career in law?

MH: The obvious one is learn how to code, obviously. But beyond that, there are so many other professional paths. I just kind of sat on the words law and design and just decided that this is going to be mine. I tweeted about it. I drew about it. I am not trained in this at all. I just decided I care about this and I am going to stake out a presence around that. And it is amazing the opportunities that come out if you can figure out either the niche or the phrase or the something to tag yourself with and then start building a network and blogging. You can open a new professional path for yourself. You don’t need to wait for somebody else to give you the kind of job that you want. Just figure out what your passion is and then create your presence around that and people will buy into it. It is surprising.