Chelsea Davine: Key Takeaways from the VSCL Panel on Redesigning Legal Services for Better User Experience

On 28 February 2019 VSCL ran a panel event where VSCL President Priyanka Nair moderated a discussion between Madeline Oldfield, Sam Flynn, and Reuben Stanton on what design thinking is and how it can be utilised by lawyers to improve legal services for end users.

Sam Flynn, enterprising lawyer and co-founder of Melbourne legal tech start up Josef spoke about his experience building the MYKI Fines website, and more recently, co-founding Josef.

MYKI Fines, a website dedicated to helping people be aware of what rights they have when faced with the controversial on the spot fines from MYKI inspectors, received a staggering 60,000 users in its first month. The service demonstrated a demand for good, affordable legal advice for everyday issues – and a willingness to get this from technology. Although very few people thought of their fines as ‘legal issues’, essentially fines are just that, and the MYKI Fines website filled a latent demand for access to justice for an issue where a lawyers fees would completely over-shadow the original fine.

Josef started out with a similar premise in mind, as a tool for both community legal centres and commercial enterprises, such as law firms and companies. Sam stressed that the role, as he sees it, of legal tech such as Josef, is ultimately to create a beautiful end user experience – a friction free and easy experience firstly for the client, but also for their lawyer. By automating what can be automated we allow time and space for lawyers to empathise with their clients, and have the headspace to develop and utilise our ‘human skillset’.

Have you asked your client?
Sam raised that as lawyers, we aren’t often in the mindset of asking our clients how they want their services delivered. Whilst borrowing design thinking from other industries is common in other parts of the corporate world, lawyers have not typically been known for venturing outside how legal services have traditionally been delivered. Sam said that the idea behind platforms such as Josef, in his mind, is to build a legal industry that works well for everyone – both clients and lawyers – and utilises the developments happening in design thinking from multiple industries to achieve this.

Reuben Stanton, Design Director and Co-Founder of Paper Giant, spoke to his experience as a non-lawyer building finefixer.org.au, a community legal centre powered website on how to take action in response to fines.

Exploration mindset
Reuben preferred to think of the design thinking mindset as more of a “doing” or exploration mindset. He sees design thinking as a process where you situate yourself within an understanding of what’s happening in the system you want to change, and then look to investigate where you can make changes/what changes need to happen to lead to a better (social) outcome. Similarly to Madeline’s experience with the VCAT pilot (described below), Reuben emphasized the importance of learning iteratively from what you’re doing – real time learning from testing a hypothesis, and only seeking to scale the project after successful tests.

Access to legal info
Reuben emphasised that “If you just write or communicate in the language your audience is receptive to and wants to understand you can immediately increase people’s ability to access justice on their own.” The proposition underlying Fine Fixer is that many people are actually able to help themselves with many of their legal problems once they have access to the information they need. Community legal centres have limited time and resources, and clients who actually require their in-person assistance (beyond the service of providing information) often miss out if community legal centres spend all their time repeating the same information to clients.

Fine Fixer aims to free up some of this valuable resource. Fine Fixer takes a mixed approach of providing information for people who are able to help themselves, and redirecting those who can’t help themselves to a community legal centre that can give them in-person assistance. Reuben spoke about how much of the process of building Fine Fixer involved taking information that was already on Legal Aid and Community Legal Centre websites and putting it into plain, instructional English.

Much as Sam described, Reuben spoke to how people are generally not concerned with what the law says – they just want a solution. For this reason Fine Fixer doesn’t mention the law until the final stage where it lays out your options – one of which could be going to court. Reuben also spoke about their user testing phase, where numerous testers read every single page of the website, having been completely unaware of most of the information before.

Having been exposed to the law for several years by the time we get to working as lawyers, it’s a great reminder that most people haven’t spent years being trained in legal research and generally don’t know where to find their rights – regardless of how accessible this information may seem to us. Plain English and access to justice are terms that get thrown around a lot, but it’s a great reminder to lawyers of how much responsibility we hold as the gatekeepers to legal information for the community, and how improving access to justice can be as simple as the way we write the articles we publish.

Madeline Oldfield, Independent Management Consultant, Adjunct Fellow at Sir Zelman Cowen Centre and former Director of Resolving Disputes Digitally @ VCAT, spoke about how VCAT applied human-centred design on the VCAT Online Dispute Resolution Pilot to improve access to justice for Victorians.

A key point Madeline raised was that the pilot was less about the 7,000 cases per year VCAT currently hears, and more about the 630,000 claims going unanswered due to limited time and resources. Whilst the prioritisation of access to justice and the volume of people coming through is likely to be different for many firms, Madeline raised several points about the process VCAT’s pilot program went through which could be universally applied to many firms and businesses handling disputes.

Be biased for action
Lawyers are often described highly ‘risk averse’ in their way of thinking – we are trained to think through all the potentialities and the risks of options. This way of thinking, along with the perfectionist tendencies which lawyers are often known for, can hold us back from embracing and trialling change.

The VCAT pilot demonstrates an example of learning by trial – with the original hypothesis and pilot seen as a success, particularly given VCAT was able to double the number of cases which participated during the pilot period. Madeline pointed out that testing a small change enables you to measure the data and then develop the idea in an informed way, rather than blindly scaling an idea that may not work as well in practice. A key takeaway for lawyers may be to embrace change and see the risk of failure as a learning opportunity, rather than a dead end. Making small incremental changes to test ideas before scaling them also protects you from the risks of large-scale failure.

Blended service offerings
Similar to the mixed approach used by Fine Fixer in providing information for people who are able to help themselves, and redirecting those who can’t help themselves, VCAT is seeking to take a mixed approach with both online and in person dispute resolution. Madeline’s view is that that there will always be people who need the physical infrastructure – much like many of us bank on our phones, some people still prefer to go to a branch.