Carrel on the Stanford Law + Design Summit

FOI Alyson Carrel (Northwestern) sends this dispatch from the Stanford Law + Design Summit at Stanford last week.

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to attend the Stanford Law + Design Summit hosted by their Legal Design Lab. Although I was invited to attend because of my new role at the law school in legal technology, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between design thinking, a human-centered approach to the process of product design and innovation, and dispute resolution. A few other ADR folks, such as Colin Rule and Dan Linna (who teaches negotiation at Michigan), were there and I wondered if others in our field have discovered design thinking and are using it in their teaching and practice. 

Design thinking and its application in the legal profession is trending. The Stanford event was one of THREE (unrelated) legal design events that took place on the same day last week (the other two were host by Cat Moon of Vanderbilt Law for Wake Forest Law School and J. Kim Wright and her organization, Lawyers as Changemakers – notably both Cat and Kim are also mediators).

While design thinking is not necessarily new, it is being adopted in new industries, including law firms (see Baker McKenzie’s Whitespace Collab), as a way to tackle old problems. The trend to incorporate design thinking into other industries isn’t surprising when you look at the success of products derived from design thinking such as the iPhone or AirBnB. What makes them successful is that the products are not only useful, they are desired. To find that desirability point, designers learn to follow a process of discovery before invention. First, they spend time exploring, gathering information, and using empathy to truly understand the user’s needs and wants. Once those needs and wants are fully understood, designers use brainstorming techniques to generate ideas for how to meet those needs. Then through rapid prototyping, designers create sample products to test and get feedback determining how well the product actually met the needs of the user before going to market.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? Don’t we teach our students to first create empathy and learn to understand the other perspective? To then get creative, brainstorm without judgement, and explore solutions that meet parties’ needs? Even when these strategies aren’t similar, design thinking presents some interesting insights we might consider in our own work. The use of rapid prototyping encourages parties to try new ideas out without fear of failure. The solution becomes an earlier part of the process and not just the end goal.

One of the reasons I love my new role in legal technology is that I often meet new people outside the ADR field who, like us, are looking for ways to help our clients effectively solve problems. They seek to be creative. They tend to be optimistic (and they tend to have a lot of fun). In some ways, they are jumping on the bandwagon we have been pushing for decades. And that is a good thing for us. It could lead to more interest in practical problem solving, conflict resolution, and mediation. And it might help us refine our processes and discover new tools in our teaching and our practice as well.

I recently presented on design thinking at the Dispute Resolution Board Foundation annual conference and many of the concepts seemed to resonate with the neutrals. I’d love to talk with others who have explored how design thinking relates to ADR. Feel free to reach out @alysoncarrel or

And if you are interested in learning more about design thinking, I would recommend checking out the following resources:

IDEO’s Introduction to Design Thinking

Stanford Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking:

99% Invisible (podcast) “about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.”

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