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Connecting Legal Education: The Legal Design edition

Emily Allbon (City, University of London), Tina McKee (UCLan) and Michael Doherty (Lancaster University)

Margaret Hagan, director of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford University, argues that ‘We can make the world of legal services and legal practice better through design’ (Law by Design). The eighth Connecting Legal Education hangout explored the potential of design thinking for legal education. Michael Doherty and Tina McKee outlined how a team at Lancashire Law School, UCLan, had used service design methods to re-think and re-design the first year of the LLB programme, and Emily Allbon (City) discussed how she uses design sprints to get students to creatively apply law to problem solve in real world scenarios, before introducing participants to tl;dr – her Less Textual Legal Gallery.

Legal design

Legal design is still a relatively novel field within legal education, so Michael started with a whistle-stop tour of the development of design thinking; from designers designing material things, to the move into designing services and the application of the design mindset and toolkit (innovation, prototyping, usability, and user-centredness) to more and more fields and service sectors. Rather late in the day, design thinking started to be applied to legal issues. Pioneering work by Helena Haapio and others used visualisation and information design to try to make commercial contracts accessible and useable by those business people who commissioned them. Innovation and access to justice labs in the US started design initiatives to more effectively communicate rights to vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, and to help unrepresented litigants navigate legal procedures. From these initial innovations in the early part of the decade, legal design has flourished and there are now exciting projects happening in legal systems around the world. The legal services sector, at least as much as academia, has driven these changes it will become increasingly important for students to be aware of the potential of design thinking to make legal services better.

Michael’s takeaway message was that if any element of design thinking strikes you as potentially useful then the first stop on your design journey should be a) Margaret Hagan’s Law by Design free e-book, to get an accessible overview of the objectives and methods of human-centred legal design and b) M Stickdorn et al, This is Service Design Doing an immensely practical toolbox of service design methods that you can pick and choose from and start to apply in your own practice.

Using service design methods in a curriculum redesign

Michael and Tina described how the redesign of the Year 1 LLB curriculum at Lancashire Law School in 2018-19, had drawn on mainstream service design methods. This was, as far as they could see, the first time that service design had been used in legal education in this way anywhere in the world.

Placing user experience (UX) at the core, the team aimed to develop a connected curriculum with common approaches and themes across the programme.  We wanted to get away from ‘silos’ of practice within individual module teams and to give the students a more coherent and structured experience through their student journey with us.  Examples of how we started this process include embedding active learning and team-based tasks (both inside and outside the classroom) across all modules; and scaffolding skills and knowledge development from one module to another e.g. mooting skills taught in one module were practiced again in later modules.  We worked hard to integrate structured opportunities for students to build relationships both with their tutors and, more importantly, their peers from the outset of their courses.

At LSS we have an extremely diverse cohort of students and we knew from previous research within the School[1] that we had an ethnicity attainment gap; and that our black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students described their experience of studying law with us in less positive terms than their white counterparts. We wanted to address this as meaningfully as possible but were aware that we are a predominantly white teaching team.  As a starting point, we arranged staff training[2] for our year 1 team.  This proved a catalyst for discussions about de-colonising our curriculum and led to creative collaborations in designing more inclusive learning materials and experiences.  One of our drivers was to get students asking questions about who makes the law and who benefits (or not) from the way in which it works.

The team used the Stanford model of design thinking as a guiding structure and started with user experience research to empathise with the lived experience of our students and define the particular issues we had to address. We supplemented the previous research with user experience interviews of Year 1 students that explored the relationship of their studies to the rest of their lives.

One method that we felt was particularly useful was ‘user personas’. These are archetypes of users with a name, face and whole back story. They enabled us to collate a diverse range of characteristics around educational background, health and caring issues, work commitments, demographics, motivations, etc. By keep them visible in the decision-making process as constant touchpoints and test cases we were able to keep the users present in the design process even when we were not able to consult directly with students. The personas were also able to represent a wider range of characteristics than those of the types of students who normally volunteer for curriculum consultation groups.

To pick out just one more example from the range of design tools we used, we found ‘brain writing’ to be very useful in the ideation phase of the project. One mantra of design is that to get good ideas you must start with lots of ideas. Brain writing involves all of the team sat in silence separately jotting down lots of ideas, on Post-It notes, on a particular subject or challenge. The silence aspect promotes more democratic decisions as all of the team is generating ideas (at the same time rather than on a turn-by-turn basis) and it reduces the common effect of dominant voices drowning out other contributions. Ideas can then clustered, prioritised (or rejected) and turned into actions.

As a team we met each week for an hour and did much more joint decision-making and development of ideas and prototype materials than we had previously experienced in teaching and learning projects. This deep collaboration is a feature of design thinking. Legal design is not a magic bullet – it doesn’t take away the hard graft involved in creating class materials, inspiring students to learn, and winning over staff to try new things.  However, it is a great way to start doing things differently and to use design approaches to evaluate how well the changes work.  At LSS we have delivered our first iteration of the curriculum with the year 1 students – some things worked, and some things didn’t.  However, using design thinking gives us the opportunity to test and adapt and to continue to develop.

What is a design sprint?

Emily explained the nature of design sprints to participants. They are fast and furious ways of addressing a challenge – similar in nature to a hackathon, as often used for technology issues. In a legal design sprint, the solution won’t always be a tech-based one. Sprints emerged from places like the Stanford and IDEO, and offer a tantalising prospect: the chance to cut through all of the painful months of meetings that preface any decision-making (something we know all about in HE!) and hammer out possible solutions to a problem in an intense period of time, supported by a sprint process framework.

Emily has run a number of sprints over the last few years for law students (including these with Justis & Method) as well as for law firms and charity organisations doing amazing work such as Advocate.

Last year she worked on a project around women’s reproductive rights in Nepal with her colleague Mara Malagodi, where a sprint format was employed to gather insights into challenges for women needing legal help, and those organisations who support them.  The first phase of resources to come out of this project should emerge later this summer.

What kind of ‘challenges’ are seen at design sprints?

I ran a sprint with the Bar Council for Justice Week in March of this year with student teams from all over the UK addressing exciting design challenges from a range of organisations. There were 8 teams involved: 2 teams from the City Law School, 2 teams from the University of Kent and single teams from Kings College London, University of Birmingham, the University of Exeter and the University of York. The challenges were:

  • Disability Rights UK – raise awareness within the judiciary around institutional prejudices against disabled people.
  • School Exclusions Project – materials to support parents whose children have been permanently excluded from school.
  • Equality Advisory & Support Service (EASS) – materials around how to build an equality employment case.
  • Public Law Project – accessible explainer for people who are going through the judicial review process.
  • UK Centre for Animal Law – convey to the legal profession that animal interests should be taken seriously as a discipline.

You can read more about the event on the Lawbore blog, Future Lawyer.

Why should we be interested in them?

I’m going to employ the three characteristics of design-based approaches to law highlighted by Amanda Perry-Kessaris (‘Legal design for practice, activism, policy and research’ 46:2 Journal of Law and Society 185-210): Communication, Experimentation and Making things visible and tangible.


Sprints are exciting because they involve collaborative work, often across professional divides. At the Advocate sprint we involved service users (litigants in person) as well as the Advocate team, and those from other agencies e.g. Support Through Court. At law firm sprints, those across the firm, at different levels, both in practice and support services will take part. When our students become involved it means them getting the opportunity to communicate with and carry out detailed user research with those both delivering and using legal services. The client contact that students so benefit from is often difficult to secure for those at undergraduate level and this offers another option to traditional pro bono work.


For legal education, sprints are an amazing device to get students thinking creatively, to help them to think closely about who their user is, to problem-solve and to give confidence to them to experiment with different ideas. They can prototype solutions and test without worrying about being ‘wrong’: something which is not common in the legal psyche! Law firms are increasingly employing these techniques, with the numbers of legal engineers and legal designers going up by the year. Simmons & Simmons acquired Wavelength, the world’s first legal engineering firm, last year. Introducing students to career paths they might not have considered, is always beneficial.

Making ideas things visible and tangible

Giving students the opportunity to express themselves in ways that don’t pivot around words is a definite advantage – they have to share ideas, sketching, constructing, making quick-and-dirty prototypes, as well as undergoing rounds of testing. This takes quite a leap of faith for law students. As one of the feedback sheets from the Bar Council sprint participants said ‘It is more creative, interactive and engaging which makes a refreshing change. Welcomes our ideas and stimulates critical and creative thinking’.

The Less Textual Legal Gallery

Emily also introduced participants to tl;dr gallery, a showcase for legal learning and communications materials that have alternative modalities – less text and more visuals (and sound, and video). Please consider showcasing your own fantastic materials by submitting them to the gallery, have a wander around the gallery and click on the orange ‘Open Resource’ buttons for further information. Additionally, if you have a great idea that you’re not sure how to bring to life, please get in touch.

Further, if anyone (particularly property lawyers) wants to ‘adopt a property’ in Coltsfoot Vale (the site’s virtual village) Emily would be delighted to get you involved. The aim is for the village to be a real collaborative effort, with lecturers and practitioners creating content for all our students to learn from.

If anyone wants to read more about visual learning in law and the creation of the tl;dr site – have a look at the article in the JOAL (2020) 8:1.

Next hangouts

By the time you read this blog, we will have already held our 9th  #ConnectLegalEd hangout on wellbeing with Emma Jones (Sheffield). On Tuesday 9 June we have a session on alternative approaches to using legal problem scenarios with Cormac McGrath, Annelie Gunnerstad, Christine Storr, and Åsa Ornberg (Stockholm). Future sessions will include student perspectives on online provision in 20-21, online personal tutoring, engaging with the work of the Law Commission, and a whole community reading group session on online learning. As ever, if you wish to join the CLE Teams space for  future #ConnectLegalEd hangouts, please drop Michael Doherty (, Lydia Bleasdale (, or Emma Flint ( a line.


[1] The Participation Puzzle was a research project run by Rachel Nir and Tina McKee exploring factors affecting student attendance, participation and outcomes in LSS, UCLan.

[2] Delivered by Dr Deborah Gabriel, University of Bournemouth, Founder and Director of Black British Academics

1 thought on “Connecting Legal Education: The Legal Design edition”

  1. Amazing blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere? A theme like yours with a few simple adjustements would really make my blog stand out. Please let me know where you got your design. Bless you|

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