ABA Journal

The New Normal

Simplicity bias: Lessons for lawyers from industrial design

By Roya Behnia

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Roya Behnia

When I was a young lawyer, I was asked to draft an important brief for a major client. After days of research, I wrote my masterpiece (really a tome) that would anticipate and destroy any possible avenue the plaintiff would have for evading summary judgment. When I hit “print,” I was convinced that my draft would impress the partner on the case (let’s call him “Roger”) with its intelligence and wit. I left the brief on his chair, all 40 pages of it.

A week later, Roger came to my office, glasses low on the bridge of his nose and brief in hand, and asked, “Roya, tell me, were you on law review?” I preened and said no. Roger responded: “Well, you sure write like you were,” dropped the brief on the floor and left. (Apologies to law review editors everywhere.) I wasn’t sure what just happened, but I knew it couldn’t be good.

When I met with Roger later that day and over the years, what became obvious was that unnecessary complexity didn’t serve the needs of our clients who came to us for forceful but clear advocacy. In drafting my epic brief, I forgot to adapt to the intended audience, who—not having the time or the stamina to follow the intricate logic trails weaved throughout the document—would just give up. In losing the judge, I would lose the client.

A few years ago in the New Normal, I described the value of simplicity and clear communication as part of a new agile manifesto for lawyers. In the New Normal, where our clients are under pressure to move with alacrity in winning business or managing risk, unnecessary complexity in the delivery of legal services adds no value. The “voice of the customer” has been telling us for years that lawyers, with our preference for complex language and arcane processes, make it hard for our clients to engage.

Recognizing the value of simplicity is nothing new. While its most celebrated proponents, Steve Jobs and Apple’s design chief Jonathan Ive, led the revolution in personal computing, the field of industrial design has championed simplicity for years. Industrial designers believe that the customer shouldn’t be burdened but helped by a design that makes it easy to use the product in question. As Ive put it in 2012:

“Designing and developing anything of consequence is incredibly challenging …. Our goal is to try to bring a calm and simplicity to what are incredibly complex problems so that you’re not aware really of the solution, you’re not aware of how hard the problem was that was eventually solved.”

Ive understands that eliminating complexity in the service of customers is hard and requires thinking and experiencing always like a customer.

But what does industrial design have to do with the practice of law? In the New Normal, the lessons of good industrial design teach us to keep in mind how the client experiences the delivery of legal services. That means taking the noise of complexity out of our interactions and changing how we require clients to interact with us in a legal process that usually is designed for our ease as lawyers rather than the client’s.

Let’s take the example of how sales contracts were reviewed and approved at my last company. It was a cumbersome process that was characterized by repeated back-and-forth between the legal team and a global sales force; unclear lines of responsibility for commercial, risk and legal review; and inconsistent negotiating positions across business units. This process, familiar to many in-house legal departments, resulted in unnecessary delays and confusion in highly competitive bidding situations. Rather than focus on selling, the sales force was burdened with keeping track of multiple workflows in order to ensure that a contract went through the system.

It turns out that like a lot of legal processes, the way in which contract review developed at the company was in reaction to “bad” outcomes. So rather than tailoring review to the risk posed, it was more comfortable for the legal team to make everyone go through the same level and type of review. Rather than focus on what was best for the company’s customers and our own internal sales clients, we made it easier on ourselves.

Something had to change. With our new focus on making it easier for the sales teams to engage with us, the legal department began by mapping out the current state. It turned out that in order to get a sales contract through our “system,” a typical salesperson had to go through about 40 different steps before a contract was approved for execution. In any other customer-facing scenario, we would have been out of business. Over the next several months and with significant input from all stakeholders, the legal team reduced the number of sales touch points to about five. While the review process remained rigorous, through a combination of automation, standardization and tailored risk review, we took the sales force out of the review workflow so they could focus on the company’s customers.

This process was not easy, and the review process continues to evolve. However, with a new guiding principle of simplifying the interactions with sales, the legal team’s efforts to deliver value were met with enthusiasm by the business.

Roya Behnia most recently served as senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Pall Corporation, based in New York, until September 2015 when it was acquired by Danaher Corporation. Prior to Pall, she was general counsel of a publicly held Internet marketing company in Chicago. She started her legal career at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, where she was a litigation partner.

Editor’s note: The New Normal is an ongoing discussion between Paul Lippe, the CEO of Legal OnRamp, Patrick Lamb, founding member of Valorem Law Group and their guests. New Normal contributors spend a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about the changes occurring in the delivery of legal services. You’re invited to join their discussion.

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