Design Thinking in Action

Lawton Penn presenting at SoLI

Lawton Penn presenting at SoLI

Last week I participated in the Summit on Law and Innovation at Vanderbilt University Law School. The theme of the conference was Breaking Down Silos and Building Connections—particularly between legal educators, practitioners and technologists. My role was to guide the 127 participants through a design-thinking sprint at the end of the conference, together with my amazing co-facilitators Cat Moon, Nicole Bradick and Tony Threatt

Nicole introduced design thinking to the audience as “structured problem solving,” which really helps lawyers wrap their heads around it. It’s a tool you can learn so that when you approach a problem, you have one more option at your disposal. I like to emphasize the mindsets of design thinking. To fully unlock the power of brainstorming and prototyping, we must cultivate empathy, curiosity and collaboration—among other things!

Fittingly, each and every speech at the conference illustrated that point. Dean Chris Guthrie kicked off the conference by identifying five barriers to innovation in law schools. He then reframed those obstacles as opportunities. For example, one of the challenges Guthrie identified is the tight budget that many law schools face. But in his eyes, this “problem” is actually an opportunity for innovators to present their ideas as a new revenue stream for the school—for example through the development of a new degree program or even a non-degree program. 

Patrick Palace of Palace Law illustrated the power of radical collaboration by describing the partnerships his firm has forged with marketing agencies and technologists to create client-centered tools such as a free case-value calculator and a chatbot. As a result, the firm has seen a wild increase in case volume and revenue.

Lawton Penn of DWT De Novo illustrated the power of rapid prototyping. Her team prototyped new solutions for the firm’s clients using the tools they already had on hand—such as Microsoft Word or Excel. Through that process they refined what they were trying to do and were better able to articulate their goals and understand their own needs. That way, when they began speaking with outside vendors and purchasing specialized software, they didn’t waste time and money on unnecessary technology. 


So, when it came time for the sprint, we were able to point to the speakers’ own stories as real-life examples of design thinking in action. We then organized the 127 participants into small groups and ran them through a series of time-limited exercises. We asked them to (1) reframe the challenge statement, (2) brainstorm and prototype solutions to the challenge, and then (3) storyboard their most promising solution. 


My takeaway from the day is that many of us already are innovating in the legal space, which naturally means drawing on the tools of design thinking—whether explicitly or implicitly. And for those who are just dipping their toe into these waters, spending time cultivating your empathy and curiosity should naturally lead to creative thinking and action.

As I said, all of the speakers’ talks were impactful, and I’ve only touched on a couple of them here. For more in-depth coverage of the conference, read Christy Burke’s article on, Brett Burney’s guest post on the LawSites blog, or Mary Juetten’s Above the Law article.