CURIOUS MINDS: A Discussion with Margaret Hagan of the Stanford Legal Design Lab

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Curious Minds

We continue our new column, “Curious Minds” created and written by Rose Ors to tap into the minds of legal innovators, disrupters, and out-of-the-box thinkers and learn what influences and inspires their work. In this installment, Rose speaks with Margaret Hagan, Director of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford Law School and a lecturer at the Stanford d.school. She is also the co-author of a new book, Rituals for Work (Wiley 2019).

Rose Ors: Who are the thinkers and influencers outside of the legal industry that have influenced your work?

Margaret Hagan: Ezio Manzini, a design professor at the Politecnico de Milano, has been a huge influence. I first heard him speak in 2011, when he discussed how communities in Sweden, Australia, and Italy have created better public services by using design-led practices that involved local citizens, experts, and government. Coming from a social science and legal background, I thought improving public services was best achieved through lobbying, legislation, or litigation. His talk gave me a different lens on how to achieve social change.

Rose Ors: How has Manzini influenced the work you do?

Margaret Hagan: Manzini helped cement my interests in how design processes and methods can make the law more accessible to more people. I realized I could better improve the legal system by using designed-based methods and tools rather than using the approach I learned in law school.

Rose Ors: What roadblocks have you encountered in your work?

Margaret Hagan: In the legal profession our obedience to precedent is both good and bad. It’s good because it provides stability in the courts and allows lawyers to give meaningful advice. It is bad because it creates a fixed mindset that never questions how things can be different.

For example, I work on projects where we propose ways to change how courts send notices to people who are facing a debt collection lawsuit. Simple, right? But there is so much fear of diverging from existing methods. A better approach is to learn from precedent but be open to new ways that also empirically work better.

Rose Ors: What books have influenced your work and your thinking?

Margaret Hagan: Another early influencer was Jane Jacobs. Her classic book, Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a kind of anthropological take on what it means to have a good “civic city.” That is, a city designed for the public and for civic participation. In the book she talks about what it means to build community and how policy, spacial design, and architectural choices impact the quality of our social relationships and our sense of community. It was a foundational book for me.

Curious Minds

Margaret Hagan

Another book was Jonathan Zittrain’s, The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It, which I read before going to law school. In the book, Zittrain, a law professor at Harvard Law School and director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, presents his vision of developing new technologies and social structures through open collaboration — think Wikipedia.

It really inspired me and influenced how I approached law school and what kind of projects I got involved in. I have also committed to being open about my work process, sharing best practices and creating products that are open-source and usable by others.

Rose Ors: Where do you get your most creative ideas?

Margaret Hagan: I consume all types of culture and content. I read lots of long fiction, go to movies and art museums. I go to libraries and bookstores and browse. I do a lot of sketching and doodling on my iPad. I also schedule white-boarding sessions where for an hour I just doodle and see what comes out. These activities energize me and give me the room to play, get inspired, and find new connections.

Rose Ors: How do you instill the concept of play in how you teach and what you do?

Margaret Hagan: We try to be very intentional about the way we use the space and the flow of a class. Of course, I have the privilege to be teaching in the d.School, a space designed for play. We start every single class with a small warm-up involving movement. We have short little spurts of activities almost designed like a game show. We have music playing in the background.

Rose Ors: What do you hope the students take away from your class?

Margaret Hagan: I hope the students in my class leave more intentional about their careers and their day-to-day working environments. I hope they will leave more empathic in life and in work.

I hope they leave as a new generation of leaders who use design-thinking to solve the hard problems of government and civic life.

Rose Ors: What’s a key big picture question facing the legal industry?

Margaret Hagan: There are a number of questions centered around the sustainability of our work culture and our business models — two areas of great interest to me. I am really interested to see more experiments with both.

We need creativity and innovation in how we legal professionals approach our work, our relationships with our clients, and our interactions with each other. The good news is that we are seeing more law firms rethinking how they work and what culture they want to create. There is also experimentation with the types of business models law firms can use to deliver value to their clients.


This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.