5 Tips for Law Firms From Two Expert Design Thinkers

Written by Teresa Matich7 minutes well spent
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If you want something you’ve never had, you’ve got to do something you’ve never done. In the digital age, operating a competitive law firm means experimenting with new ideas, refining processes, and, above all, taking a client-centered approach to meet the expectations of modern consumers.

What better way to experiment than to take a cue from professionals outside of the legal industry?

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, authors of the #1 New York Times Best Seller, Designing Your Life, spoke at the 2018 Clio Cloud Conference about using design thinking to craft a better life and legal career. They also sat down to share some ideas about using design principles to create a client-centered experience.

Below are the top five tips to apply at your law firm.

1. Consider your client’s perspective first

“First of all, it’s important to remember we’re talking about human-centered design first and foremost. Step one is empathy, and empathy means you come from the client point of view,” Dave said.

Consider: Are you focused on how your client is feeling? Or are you more focused on yourself and whether you’re providing the best advice? Of course, providing competent legal counsel is paramount, but, as Dave noted, subtle variations in communication can make all the difference for helping your client feel empowered—or helpless.

As Dave explained, there’s a subtle but important difference between a lawyer telling a client what to do and presenting them with several options, explaining the consequences, and letting the client make the choice. In the former scenario, the lawyer is the authoritative person at the center of the experience—in the latter scenario, the client is the focus.

“Apply your expertise. Don’t be an expert,” he added.

2. Collect feedback thoughtfully

To better serve clients, you’ve got to collect feedback about what’s working and what changes you need to make. However, it can be difficult to initiate and make time for rich conversations about how your approach is affecting your clients. It’s important to find opportunities to collect feedback, while always keeping the client’s experience in focus.

“Empathy is a skill,” Bill said. “It involves an artfulness, and if lawyers are anything, they’re clever. They craft words all the time, so most can get good at clever, empathetic word crafting that gives clients a chance to respond with feedback.”

For example, Dave shared a story in which he and his wife, as a blended family, needed to make some difficult decisions for their will. After their lawyer, Rob, shared several options with them and they’d made their decision, Rob commented that they’d made a good choice that indicated a high level of trust within their blended family.

Dave shared that trust was very important for their family, and that this attentiveness was one of the reasons they continued to trust and work with Rob as their lawyer. In other words, by listening actively and commenting on his client’s experience, Dave’s family lawyer gathered valuable information about what keeps his clients coming back.

Of course, it’s also fine to ask for feedback more directly. Bill suggested taking the time to get coffee with a few past clients to ask about their cases—whether they knew what was happening, and whether they felt like they were getting updates often enough, for example. “You may get answers you don’t expect,” Bill said. “They may say, ‘Actually, I didn’t understand what this meant on my bill. Could you tell me what this means?’”

Also, while ensuring you focus on your clients in conversations and look for opportunities to collect feedback, it’s also worth taking a data-driven approach to measuring feedback—by measuring your firm’s NPS®, for example. This will give you an objective view of how well your firm is serving clients.

3. Reframe, reframe, reframe

As we covered in this post on what lawyers can learn from designers, thinking like a designer means reframing problems so that they’re more manageable. If you’re stuck on a problem related to the way you run your practice, try looking at things differently.

“You’ll know it’s a good reframe when it leads naturally into ideation,” Bill explained. “The way you know you’ve got a reframe is all of a sudden you can start brainstorming a bunch of ideas, just by looking at the problem differently.”

With a bit of reframing, even the most difficult problems become solvable. For example, if you’re a solo firm, a small firm, or just a busy firm lacking the resources to devote time and energy to exploring ideas to better the client experience, Bill suggested that with a bit of creativity, there’s a way to work around perceived limitations (for example, taking on fewer clients and taking a loan to cover expenses for a short period of time can create the space to experiment with ideas, improve the client experience, and lay the groundwork for long-term growth).

“If you want to argue for your limitations, you’re going to get to keep them,” he said. “It’s not you can’t do something: It’s just it might be more expensive than you want to pay. If that’s too expensive, then it may not be worth it to you.”

4. Think of the whole client journey

When should you start thinking about your client’s experience with your firm? The moment they sign an engagement letter—or much sooner?

From your client’s point of view, an experience with your firm starts the moment they discover your firm online, or hear about you from a friend or family member. The entire experience of assessing your firm, reaching out, going through an initial consult, and signing your firm could color their experiences later on, so be mindful of the entire client journey when looking for ways to create better client experiences.

“If you have a really clear idea of what that experience is like, you’ll discover dozens of opportunities for redesigning the way your firm offers services,” Bill said. “That includes never asking for the same piece of information twice, never assuming the client knows what’s going to happen next, and being attentive to clients through unfamiliar, high-stress situations such as going to court.”

5. Think outside the box

When looking at the client journey as a whole, Bill and Dave acknowledged that, in addition to discovering opportunities for improvement, lawyers may also come across points of friction in the client experience that need to be addressed.

This is where reframing problems and thinking outside the box can be helpful.

For example, following up with clients can be time-consuming for lawyers and frustrating for clients who need to wait days for an answer when they’re used to instant support from modern, customer-obsessed companies like Amazon.

Clio customer Nicholas Hite has an interesting solution to this problem: Rather than spend more time responding to clients, he’s removed much of the need to reach out by giving clients access to their case information via a secure client portal. This helps Nicholas keep costs down so he can keep his prices affordable and reach more clients—and it also helps his clients feel empowered in terms of their legal situation.

“Every time I’ve offered it, folks have been super excited about the opportunity,” Nicholas said.


Overall, Bill and Dave’s most important tip for improving the client experience was simply to start somewhere.

Start small. Keep the bar low. Meet with one client for coffee or lunch, talk about whether they understood everything in their last invoice, and take action to improve future bills if they didn’t.

Sometimes, doing nothing is the riskiest thing you could do. Consider: Bill told the story of an Italian liqueur company that refused to innovate because it had been successful in the past. The problem was, it created a product whose appreciation demanded an acquired taste, and while one generation raved about it, younger, newer customers had no interest.

The case is the same for law firms—client expectations are evolving, so it’s critical to pay close attention to your clients, listen for feedback, and reframe impossible problems. With this type of client-centered approach, you’ll create a thriving practice that’s competitive for years to come.

On that note, keep this thought from Bill in mind as you prioritize your time and resources within your practice:

“Can you think of anything you would spend your time on that’s more important than understanding how clients respond to the service you gave them?”

Bill and Dave were just two of the incredible speakers at the 2018 Clio Cloud Conference. Join us for another incredible lineup in San Diego on October 21-22 2019: Get your passes today!

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