Designing Your Way to Better Legal Writing

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Can you become a more persuasive writer by changing the way you think? Vanderbilt’s Cat Moon believes so.

As Director of Innovative Design at Vanderbilt, Moon pulls inspiration from industries outside the law. She knows that legal writers aren’t the only people trying to change others’ minds. Product manufacturers, salespeople, and politicians all aim to persuade.

Caley Newberry Photography |

The wisest of these, Cat argues, use a collection of principles known as “design thinking.” During our interview as part of the Insights series, I asked Cat how lawyers could apply those principles to their writing.

The Starting Point of Design

Professor Moon began by explaining the principal assumption of design thinking and its application to legal writing:

At its core, design thinking requires the person creating – in this case the writer – to put herself in the shoes of the person she’s writing for.

Empathy is the first step in any design-driven process. As one explainer put it, “When you sit down to create a solution… the first question should always be what’s the human need behind it?”

This human need comes in the form of one person’s desires and how a designer will work to fulfill them. This is as true in legal writing as it is in manufacturing a chair. Professor Moon expanded on this idea:

That’s the fundamental role of effective communication, right? If you want to move someone to the position you are taking, then you need to put yourself in the shoes of that person and craft your communication from their perspective.

But empathy is just one step in designing better legal writing. Let’s explore the others.

The Five Stages of Design Thinking

Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (also known as the is at the forefront of mainstream design thinking. Their introduction to the process describes five broad steps:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Each of these stages offers wisdom for the legal writer trying to improve her craft. Let’s apply them…

Improving your Writing Design

Pull out a writing project that you’ve let sit too long. We’ll apply the five-stage process of design thinking to improve the project and make sure it accomplishes your human-focused result.

  1. First, Empathize by taking your reader’s perspective. What is the state of mind of your reader? What is his starting point?
  2. Second, Define the end result you want for your reader. Where do you want him to end up?
  3. Third, Ideate a few paths to get your reader from the starting point to the finish line. Are there emotional barriers in between? Are they biases of legal reasoning? What hurdles has your client’s behavior created? Map out the paths on which you might lead your reader to get him to the end you’ve defined.
  4. Fourth, Prototype by creating the roughest possible outline that maps out the journey. Don’t overburden your outline with details. The only thing you should do at this stage is create a plausible path and get it on paper.
  5. Fifth, Test by sharing your journey with someone else. In fact, share it as widely as you can while staying within the bounds of ethics. You’ll get feedback that you can incorporate in your next round of creation.

Although this process may seem burdensome, what you’ve actually done is reduce your argument to its core before testing its viability. You didn’t spend hours staring at a blank screen or writing words that don’t work. You either mapped out a viable path for moving your reader from one position to another, or you didn’t.

Use this design thinking framework to improve the impact of your legal writing. If you constantly take yourself back to the beginning of this five-stage process, you’ll write in a way that is more persuasive.

Want to Learn More about Writing Well?

To see the entire interview with Cat, check out the video below…

And take a look at the other articles in this series on better writing for lawyers. We’re happy to support the development of good writing habits and would love a chance to explain how you can incorporate Casetext’s AI-enabled research tools to enhance your skills.

Please take a moment to schedule a demo of Casetext’s research tools, and take advantage of our free trial. As you’ll see, we aim to help good lawyers like you improve their craft.