Better Legal Innovation part 1: Brainstorming with Lawyers

How do we brainstorm well in the legal world?  I know plenty about what Ideal Brainstorming might look like, from my time at the But the truth is that this Ideal is not practiced in most legal innovation events I’ve gone to. And rather than leading a 1-woman crusade to transform brainstorming culture in all legal organizations I know, I’m thinking of ways to work with the Legal-version of Brainstorming and harness it into a productive, healthy design process.

I have several proposals for better innovation practices in the legal sector, that I’ve made while an audience member in several design days, hackathons, and innovation sessions among legal people.   I’ll be documenting my proposals point by point in this multi-part series.  This is part 1.

What goes wrong in Legal Brainstorms?

One trend that I’ve seen is the difficulty in changing how we generate & sift through ideas for legal innovation.  Lawyers don’t brainstorm like designers or engineers would — and this hurts the quality of the process.  But even if it doesn’t work now it can be improved.

A central problem: The brainstorm itself usually happens around the table, with different legal experts voicing their stories, their ideas, their opinions on what could be a useful innovation. It’s a ‘popcorn’ style session, with lots of different opinions, voices, ideas popping up from anyone who raises their hand — each with their own agenda, their own challenge, their own background.  Each person voices their concerns & ideas, while a facilitator takes notes about them.

Why is this brainstorming mode a problem?

The contributions rarely build on each other, mostly they are each expert giving their own story or opinion about what’s needed.  The ideas that come out may have promise, but most often not many ideas do come out — it’s more the problems that the experts are having in their practice that are voiced.  And, inevitably, after one person voices an idea for an improvement, two or three subsequent people will raise their hand to explain why this idea won’t work, how it’s been tried before and failed, or why there are serious liability issues.

Legal Design Innovation - around the table brainstorm with lawyers

While sitting in this style of brainstorm, the d.schooler inside of me is typically yelling furiously:

  • everyone should be standing up!
  • we should have several small groups instead of a single huge one!
  • we should be directed towards specific design briefs and not general problems!
  • we should have ground rules that prevent monologues & shooting-downs!

Legal Design Innovation - dschooler in a bad brainstorm

But putting those yelps aside, I know that style brainstorming doesn’t work for all groups.  Even if I would try to cajole legal experts into another method for brainstorming, the around-the-table style seems to be the default that most legal brainstorms will end up in.

A plan for better legal brainstorming

So taking as a given that most lawyers will brainstorm around a table & in expert monologues, I’d propose that these around-the-table brainstorm sessions be made only one part of a two-stage brainstorming.

Essentially, what happens at the around-the-table session is needs-finding.  The different lawyers & professionals are telling their stories.  They are making their eeds explicit — whether it’s detailing what’s going wrong in their practice, or what they really want to see happen.  This is not the session when the best designs will be proposed.  This is the session in which the needs & opportunities come to the fore.

We can still call it brainstorming, but really what’s happening is a collective brain dump of legal professionals’ needs, experiences, and constraints.

So how do we make this Around-the-Table brainstorming useful?

Legal Design Innovation - expertise brain dump

First: we have someone responsible for taking all of these findings down in all their detail.  This is not the time for someone at the whiteboard to write down 6-word sentences summing up a user’s 8-minute monologue.  Someone should be writing down the monologue in all its little details.  We shouldn’t be over-generalizing this person’s story, we need its richness still.  The documentation must be thick, not thin — specific, not general.

Second: a core group takes the documentation after the session & groups it into categories that will be useful for the second brainstorming session.  These categories should be something like the following:

  • Emotional Needs of the Professional,
  • Functional Needs of the Professional,
  • Emotional Needs of the Client,
  • Functional Needs of the Client,
  • Past things we’ve tried as solutions to these needs,
  • Ideas we have for new solutions to these needs,
  • Factors that block possible solutions,
  • Factors that support possible solutions

We should take the experts’ detailed stories and unpack them into these categories.  Some extrapolation can be made, reading into the stories to identify the needs, the blocks, the advantages.

Third: an interdisciplinary group of makers (professional engineers & designers), users (people who will use the legal system & its services), and experts (legal professionals) — who have all been prepped in design mindsets & process — do the 2nd Stage Brainstorm.  The unpacked, categorized stories should be posted around the brainstorming space, like a constellation of voices, to be drawn upon to fuel the creativity.

Legal Design Innovation - better brainstorming - on your feet

The group should reframe the needs into design briefs:

  • How might we solve this need?
  • What kind of technology could we build to address these two needs?
  • How could we seize this opportunity?

The ‘past things tried’, the ‘ideas for solutions’, and the ‘blocking factors & supporting factors’ should be called into the brainstorming around these need-based design briefs.  These other categories can be drawn on for inspiration or constraints, but the main brainstorming should be around the needs.

For example:

  • How do we meet this need in light of this block-factor?
  • How do we take advantage of this support-factor to meet this need?

If the interdisciplinary group (1) knows ground rules for good brainstorming, and (2) are placed in a lively, open atmosphere, then more ideas should flow about how to solve these needs.

This on-your-feet 2nd Brainstorm Session should be more productive than the first, coming up with more breakthrough & unexpected ideas for innovation.  It harnesses all the great stories & opinions from the legal experts, but then transforms them into innovative ideas to pursue.

Let me know what you think of my Two-Stage Legal Brainstorming idea — or other things that have worked for you & your group to generate great ideas!


I think this is a useful model, but it would help me (a practicing attorney on the nonprofit governance, compliance, and transactional side of things) to know to what sort of problems and environments you envision applying this model.

At a mulit-day conference, with the intention of addressing systemic knowledge gaps between clients and counsel? Makes a lot of sense. In a board meeting at a law firm, with the desire to improve the firm’s approach to internal management? Could make sense, especially if there is already a designated core group (like an executive committee) that is charged with developing ideas raised by the partners collectively — but it could also be viewed as Process-Over-Practicality (a phobia whose name I’ve just invented, but I see it all the time among my partners). Among a team of partner(s) and associate(s), working to structure a transaction to address a client’s needs? Probably not the best deployment.

If there are elements of this model that could be deployed even in the smaller, narrowly focused environments of client meetings, deal-structuring, etc., I’d love to hear more.


I have been thinking about this model for larger “What is the New Generation of Legal Tools” initiatives that are springing up in the legal world — larger undertakings that are about building new tech-products for a broad group of lawyers and/or clients. So more for a conference or on-going working group that’s trying to figure out what to be building.
Brainstorming for a very particular kind of situation, for a single client — most likely needs a different model — I agree. Let me ruminate on that, and ask around for others’ models. My instinct tells me that a lot of the same tools — visual thinking, quick spurts of brainstorming around specific questions, hunting for analogous inspiration from other industries & models — could be used in this smaller setting to good effect too.
But if the question is not how to design a tool but rather how to design a strategy — there should be a more tailored process for that. Send along any thoughts you have!

I don’t think the problem is a difference between lawyers and engineers; I think the problem is that the brainstorming sessions that you’re describing are attempting to propose solutions for which there isn’t necessarily a problem. I have spent too many hours in “brainstorming” sessions with environmentalists and engineers, attempting to devise permitting practices or protocols for licensing small renewable projects, or financing offshore wind – lots of notes on a whiteboard with no results at the end. When engineers tackle a problem they know what their goal is – they brainstorm on how to get it done. Likewise, I have seen (and engaged in) brainstorming with other lawyers on a particular brief – what to focus on, how the structure should be set, etc….If you want to see lawyers brainstorm, give them a definitive problem, and you will see them arrive at a solution.