Designing a Legal Career

A problem-solving technique used by product designers and engineers known as “design thinking” has produced some truly innovative solutions for tough challenges, from the catalytic converter to the mini computers we call mobile phones. Newer though is the idea that this way of thinking can be applied to our lives. Newer still is applying design thinking to legal careers and legal practice.

“The legal profession is changing and so, too, are the opportunities that are available,” says Susan Robinson, associate dean for career services at Stanford Law School, where she focuses on private-sector career services for students and alumni. In a profession where there are many options for the practice of law—from firm positions, government assignments, in-house counsel, nonprofit law, startups, and more—she thinks design thinking tools can help attorneys of all ages better navigate their careers.

Robinson and members of her team have become keen supporters of Designing Your Life, a book based on one of Stanford’s most popular undergraduate courses, which was first conceived of and co-taught by Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans in 2015. The course is now offered to graduate students as Designing the Professional. And alumni can take a shorter workshop. Robinson and members of her team have taken both—and encourage law students and alumni to do the same.

“The first step in designing your career is figuring out what you like to do. Many of our students arrive here thinking they’ve already figured out that they want to be a lawyer, so there’s no need for self-assessment,” she says.

Robinson highlights key aspects of the course when she talks to law students-—encouraging them to explore different areas of the law, to take a clinic or a policy lab, to talk to alumni and other practitioners, and to attend the many events at the school that focus on various legal specialties. “Get out there and explore the law. And ask a lot of questions about what that area of law is like. Now is the ideal time to do that,” she says.

“Get curious, talk to people, try things, and tell your story” is how Kathy Davies, lecturer and managing director of the Life Design Lab at Stanford University, puts it.  Davies, who teaches both the undergraduate and graduate course, studies job trends and thinks that the idea of one permanent job is outdated for most graduates—in any field. So understanding what makes you happy, what kind of job you’d like to do—and having the tools to explore and experiment to get those jobs—will be key to a successful career, or careers.

Katelyn Quinn Masket, JD ’21, took Designing the Professional soon after starting at Stanford Law.

“In the first year of law school, we are required to take doctrinal courses that expose us to a narrow view of legal paths, and I knew I didn’t want to work in those areas. So it was hard to get a grasp on legal careers available to me outside of those areas,” she says. An important aspect of the “designing” course was the weekly exercise, which forced her to first think through what she wanted to do and then “iterate”—looking at different possibilities and prototyping.

“This is easier to do with a product. You can’t actually build a life direction for yourself and test-drive it. But one of the best ways to get an idea about what a real job is like is to talk to a few people doing that job—and to ask the right questions so you get an honest assessment,” she says. “We were taught to do that.”

Masket’s experience before law school piqued her interest in innovation and human rights. “I was part of the research team at the International Rescue Committee’s R&D lab, where we used human-centered design to develop solutions in the humanitarian space,” she says. Last summer, she again went to IRC, this time to work with the innovations lab employing design thinking. “I developed an ethical framework and review process for the innovation projects using a design-thinking approach. I also worked to develop guidance on how to implement access to justice programming in conflict and crisis settings,” she says.

Illustration by Brian Cronin

Masket now can see a possible career path combining design innovation and law.

“I didn’t know how to connect the two fields, but was very lucky to land here for my legal studies. Stanford is the only law school doing this kind of work with design thinking and the law,” she says, noting that NGOs, nonprofits, and governments are increasingly using design thinking to come up with solutions to big challenges. Last year she took the Human Rights Advocacy policy lab practicum with Professor Robert MacCoun, which incorporated some of this. “Margaret Hagan, [JD ’13, director of the Legal Design Lab at SLS] led a design session for us as we were trying to concretize our final deliverable. It proved incredibly helpful. There’s a lot going on in this area. Look at Oakland—it has a civic design lab.”

Masket is unsure of her place in law firm culture, but has employed the design thinking process to find a summer position for 2020 at Debevoise & Plimpton’s New York office that she’s excited about. It’s in a new practice area, the business integrity group, set up to help companies comply with international standards for environmental and social issues. But another important lesson from the designing course is that it’s a life journey. “The process of iteration—updating and trying things-—is important. I’ll need to check in with myself periodically,” she says.

“What I really relate to in design thinking is this notion of starting from today—don’t worry too much about what you’ve done before—the sunk cost,” says Robinson. “This is often the challenge for mid- or late-career professionals who are looking for a change.”

Michelle Greer Galloway, JD ’89 (BA ’86), of counsel at Cooley, LLP, has found a high degree of job satisfaction and has had a successful legal career by any measure, rising to partner at the Palo Alto firm. She was introduced to the Designing Your Life book and an accompanying workshop in 2018 through the Stanford Alumni Association, when she was asked to host an evening workshop—complete with a video by the co-authors and lots of exercises. While not actively looking for a career change (along with legal work she also teaches at Stanford Law and Santa Clara Law), Galloway says she and her husband found the book and workshop useful as they were contemplating their next phase of life.

“This is the kind of exercise that you should do on a regular basis, at each phase of life. You take the time to look at what you’re doing, what makes you happy, what you find fulfilling, what motivates you. And you draw up an action plan to do more of those things,” she says.

Arjuna Dibley, JSM ’17, JSD ’20, was finishing up his JSM studies at Stanford Law and at a crossroads: to join his wife back in Australia (she couldn’t remain in the U.S. because of visa restrictions) and return to private legal practice or stay on at SLS for what might take several years to pursue a JSD. He took the designing course to help him think through his choices.

“The course kind of provided a structure and a new way of thinking about career and personal things like family. It culminates with what they call an odyssey plan—a five-year plan. You draw it up but then have to test it out—going out and talking it through with colleagues so you can evaluate the plan and think through options.” Those conversations made all the difference.

“After talking it through with students in the JSD program, I realized that I didn’t have to physically be on campus the whole time—I could design a hybrid program,” says Dibley, who has gone back and forth between his home in Australia and the U.S. while pursuing his JSD—as well as doing research as a graduate fellow with the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance. “I found I could have my cake and eat it too.”

Teresita Gonzalez, LLM ’17, an environmental lawyer in Chile, has used design thinking in her career planning.

Gonzalez, like so many design thinking students, refers to her “odyssey” plan often and hopes, that with these tools, she’ll look back at her life and career in 10 years with satisfaction. “A career in law can be all consuming, but there’s a lot I’d like to do in my personal life. So, I need to act on those goals too,” she says.

The bias toward action is a key part of design thinking, says Davies.

“We teach people of all ages to continually evolve. People get stuck—in design problems and in life. We offer tools to navigate change,” she says. “For most of us, that’s what life is.”