Richard Mabey

Legal design: the experts speak

Legal design
December 19, 2019

The popularity of legal design has increased significantly in recent years. We caught up with some of legal design’s leading lights to find out more about legal putting the end-user first.

This is a chapter from our Modern Contract Handbook, featuring insights from expert authors on every stage of the contract process. 

1. Contracts are first and foremost for clients

Margaret Hagan is the Director of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford University and a lecturer at Stanford Institute of Design. Helena Haapio is a contract coach with Lexpert Ltd and a member of the advisory council of the IACCM.

Users who aren’t lawyers should be the main concern when drafting a contract. From their perspective, what’s a contract for? It’s for securing the business objectives and performance that the parties expect. The templates, style guides and preferences that transactional lawyers use to make their job easier are really useful for those lawyers; but who cares about the lawyers? Clients are the reason contracts exist, not lawyers.

But behind those clients, there are stakeholders from finance, HR, project management and operations management. There are technical, financial and implementation concerns to consider, as well as legal. The legal team is a key piece of the transactional puzzle but it’s just one piece – alongside the boilerplate documents, contract language and templates, there’s deal-specific information and considerations that come from the business, with managers and engineers assigning and designing roles.

Business users want usable contracts that achieve the maximum operational efficiency, with reasonable risk allocation, at an acceptable cost. They need to know what the contract requires them to do, where, and when. Your lawyers’ eyes might see a contract as legally perfect, built on such nuanced and sophisticated language as to be a work of art; but if the business users are bamboozled by dense jargon and complexity, the contract is failing in its primary duty.

2. Most legal documents don't engage users

Stefania Passera is an information designer specializing in contract design and legal design, helping organizations make their legal documents user-friendly, clear, and effective.

Legal documents don’t communicate why they should care about the information they contain, nor how they can use that information to their advantage. In B2B contracts there’s been a growing demand for this kind of redesign, as it is in the interest of the parties to avoid disputes and collaborate more easily.

Lawyers feel their duty is to limit the risk for the customers, and there’s an implicit assumption that simply adding more words to these documents will lead to the desired behaviour. But just having words dumped there doesn’t ensure compliant behaviour.

We need to reach a point where the burden isn’t all on the readers, who are just made to read lengthy documents because they have to. As citizens, consumers and professionals, people simply don’t have the time to engage.

Digital media allows us to use layered information, visual interfaces, and other formats that make a lot of sense when you’re communicating digitally. We need to adapt to the medium and to users’ expectations, and not be anachronistic – by failing to do so, we don’t take advantage of the expressive opportunities offered by new media.

3. Complex contracts that are hard to negotiate are an area that is ripe for legal design

Marie Potel-Saville is the founder and CEO of Amurabi, an innovation by design agency, that makes law accessible, actionable and engaging. 

The difficulty with such documents is the technical detail buried in them, which often induces lengthy negotiations. Worse, the terms often go unimplemented once the contract is signed because the business people simply do not understand it.

Instead, take a design approach to help you structure the contract according to the needs of the user, rather than just following the order of the legislation. Make sure you ask and answer the question ‘how do we want this contract to “live” - i.e. be implemented’, rather than only focusing on termination or litigation.

4. Businesses are growing aware of how important employee wellbeing is

Lieke Beelen is the founder of Visual Contracts, a platform for lawyers and designers to learn and apply legal design thinking with the aim of improving access to justice in a more human-friendly way.

If your employees are happy, productivity and success usually follow in the end. If you create contracts that are easier to understand and bring the company values in dealing with employees through in those contracts, this can be a catalyst to driving business growth, economic growth, and employee happiness.

To make your contracts accessible, avoid dense text, bad structure and layout and small fonts. Make sure there’s differentiation between titles and paragraph, and enough white space. Summarize the complex parts in infographics, or even using navigation; and as far as the language itself goes, avoid using too much legalese.

The use of visual contracts is related to proactive and preventive lawyering, which is centred around collaboration; that’s different from the typical approach of drafting defensibly, caveating hugely and protecting risk. It’s a shift in mindset that is hard to achieve, but really valuable commercially, because it builds open communication, trust and collaboration, which is essential to innovation and success.

This is a chapter from our Modern Contract Handbook, featuring insights from expert authors on every stage of the contract process. 

Richard Mabey is the CEO and co-founder of Juro

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