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Redefining the Law School Experience for the 21st Century User

As part of the coursework for Legal Problem Solving (LPS), all students contribute a post to this course blog. Students develop posts from a weekly journal entry, which also is required coursework. The purpose of journal entries is to invite deeper, personal reflection on the subject matter in LPS, reflection being a key component of content understanding and mastery. This course explores how human centered design and other creative problem solving methods and mindsets inform three areas: (1) the delivery of legal services, (2) how we solve clients' (legal) problems, and (3) how law students can intentionally shape their professional journeys. Each student post will touch on one or more of these three areas.

This LPS post is by Kendra Arnold, Vanderbilt Law School class of 2019.

Vanderbilt Law has recently increased its credit requirement for “Professional Skills” courses, based on revised ABA requirements. Consequently, this fall I enrolled in Legal Problem Solving. Throughout the semester, the course has opened my eyes to the possibility of redefining the legal profession and law school experience by training future lawyers to employ Design Thinking.


Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.


– Tim Brown CEO, IDEO

Design Thinking is a method used as a strategy of innovation to solve complex problems and find desirable solutions for clients. Often described as human-centered innovation, design thinking begins with developing an understanding of customers’ or users’ unmet or unarticulated needs. It minimizes the uncertainty and risk of innovation by engaging customers or users through a series of prototypes to learn, test and refine concepts. Design thinkers rely on customer insights gained from real-world experiments, not just historical data or market research. For more background on Design Thinking, click here.

Design-thinking firms stand apart in their willingness to engage in the task of continuously redesigning their business…to create advances in both innovation and efficiency—the combination that produces the most powerful competitive edge.


—Roger Martin, author of the Design of Business

In Legal Problem Solving, we put our understanding of Design Thinking to the test while taking part in a “Design Thinking Bootcamp.” There, we paired up with a partner and were tasked with reimagining the law school experience based on any problems or concerns our partner had about through the use of Design Thinking. The bootcamp laid out several steps for us to follow:

1. Probe for Empathy

Here, we asked our partner several questions relating to what they valued in relation to the law school experience. These questions ranged from:

● Whether they would maintain the current third year curriculum or find a way to redesign it;

● Whether they would like improve their ability to “think like a lawyer” or tap into their sense of empathy and;

● Whether they would rather implement technology advances into their legal practice or perfect the value of time based billing.

2. Empathy Deep Dive

We then tapped a bit deeper into our partner’s sense of empathy by:

● Following Up

    ○ Asking our partner follow-up questions about something that stood out to us during initial questioning.

● Uncovering Emotion

○ Asking our partner how they felt about a certain issue or problem they discussed during initial questioning.

● Seeking Out Stories

○ Asking our partner to reveal more about their emotions relating to a certain issue or problem discussed during initial questioning.

3. Realizing New Insights

Here, we attempted to gain insight into what the deeper meaning might have been about something our partner discussed.

4. Reframe the Design Challenge and Brainstorm

We then relayed to our partner what we took away from our discussion and brainstorm session framed by:

How might I leverage [blank] to reimagine the [blank]?

5. Prototype

After choosing an idea, we then put it to paper and created a prototype.

6. Capture Feedback Using Your Prototype

Finally, after our prototype was created, we sought insight and feedback from both our partner and other law students.

After the Design Thinking Bootcamp, I began to realize how useful Design Thinking could be to the legal profession. Instead of a lawyer’s success being measured by the highest amount of billable hours, what if the most successful lawyers were those that most satisfied their clients’ needs?

If lawyers employed Design Thinking throughout their practices, client satisfaction would rise, and law firms would naturally be more successful. This is because satisfied clients are more likely to return to the same firm for any future issues, whereas this might not be the case if the client felt that their lawyer was dragging on billable hours in order to achieve a higher priced bill. This is what we refer to in Legal Problem Solving as hourly based billing vs. value based billing.

After studying Design Thinking for the past ten weeks, I began to wonder how it would be possible to widely implement this theory of value-based billing over hourly based billing. What if every law school made it mandatory for students to enroll in a course that focuses on client-based needs? We at Vanderbilt have the option of taking Legal Problem Solving, but what if it were required? Who, if anyone, requires this type of work? Harvard does.

Harvard requires their students to take a similar course. There, students devote their entire winter term strictly to problem solving curriculum. If other schools followed their lead and required this type of course, students would leave law school with a greater understanding of how to tackle legal issues with a client-centered approach. This in turn will set students up for greater success at their job after graduation. Whether students plan on going to a law firm, public interest group, etc., students will show up to their first day of work and have a good understanding of how to address a client’s needs and how to manage clients skillfully.

How can the law school experience be redefined in order to implement empathetic thinking in future lawyers?

As discussed above, Harvard requires that students devote their winter term to a problem solving course and Vanderbilt offers a course in Legal Problem Solving. But this got me thinking, “is this really it?” Are students at other schools missing out on the opportunity to learn about design thinking and problem solving?

In order to solve this problem, my opinion is that the ABA should implement a requirement that all students enroll in problem solving course before they graduate from law school. That way, upon graduation, students will have already have experience tackling many of the issues that they are sure to confront in practice.

So, what should this requirement look like? Should it reflect the course offered at Harvard, look more like Legal Problem Solving at Vanderbilt, or reflect something else? My idea is something else.

In my opinion, the ideal course that should be required of all law students would be two semesters long. During the first semester, students would learn about the world of design thinking and how empathy can be incorporated into their lives as an attorney. Students would then spend the second semester of the course participating in a clinic. They would help provide legal services to people, thus gaining real world experience. However, students would approach this legal assistance with an empathetic mindset. Students would be graded on their innovative approaches to solving their client's’ problems, and whether they are able to do so with an empathetic approach.

If this were a requirement of the ABA, I think it would transform the future of the legal profession. Students would not only have real-life legal problem solving experience, but would also have training in how to approach their clients with an empathetic mindset.

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