Empathetic Problem Solving

October 28, 2019
Students practice design thinking in Cambridge program

In a profession in which the primary goal is problem solving, a new concept is taking root. Design thinking is “a problem-based approach to thinking about how to understand societal challenges and create solutions that are focused on real-world scenarios,” according to Associate Dean for Library and Technology Roger Skalbeck. But just what does that mean for legal education? 

Students in the Law School’s Cambridge summer program found out the answer to that question first-hand in the Legal Design Sprint. Student teams were assigned a topic and challenged to use design thinking to offer a solution to a prospective client. For the purposes of this challenge, design thinking had several different components: To develop a deep understanding of the client. To use that knowledge to ask the questions that matter as they related to the client’s experience. And to think creatively when it comes to prototypes for a possible solution. 

So just where does the “sprint” part come into play? It’s a concept “borrowed from a process of problem-solving in the product design and computer science field,” said Skalbeck, in which “you’re quickly iterating ideas.” 

But the actual approach to design thinking is not, at its core, about technology, explained Skalbeck – although many of the solutions might involve technology. Instead, design thinking is “a human-centered approach to problem solving,” said Skalbeck. “You’re trying to develop empathy by working through a real-life scenario.”

That’s why Professor Andy Spalding’s Intro to Human Rights course was a natural fit for the challenge: Students were tasked with taking on issues with personal and human impact, from religious freedom to the freedom to marry. 

Lizzie Mahoney, L’21, and her team took on the topic of employment discrimination – but it was left to their discretion just how to approach the broad field. “At first we were a little overwhelmed until we realized we would be better off narrowing down,” said Mahoney. So they focused on a single area and a single persona experiencing a single problem: a young woman, newly pregnant, working in retail, worried about potential employment issues. 

“They wanted us to think of the ideal client – how that ideal client would come about this information, how they would see it,” said Mahoney. And for her, that practice was something of a radical approach: “Changing the way you think, and thinking about the client first … was rewiring the thought process,” said Mahoney. 

Grace Bowen, L’21, took on the topic of the death penalty with her team. “To present such a touchy subject … in simple terms … and get something positive out of it was a challenge,” said Bowen. Her team also started with their persona: a grandmother of a man who’s been charged with a capital crime, living in Georgia. “What is she going to be looking for as somebody who’s not going to be on trial, but who will likely go to the trial and support her grandson through the whole process?” they asked themselves. 

The team’s first round of research resulted in a dearth of information on the subject for their particular audience. Their solution? A comprehensive map that breaks down “everything you want to know about the death penalty in layman’s terms” on a state-by-state basis. 

“It was most challenging to figure out how to word something in a way that somebody who has no legal education could understand and to present it in a way that would be appealing to others and engaging as well,” said Bowen. 

For Professor Spalding, that concept is one of the core benefits of the exercise. “The sprint concept was aligned with my pedagogical view that we should teach lawyers to talk to non-lawyers,” said Spalding. “I was first of all astonished by how much energy and creativity they put into the projects, far in excess of what I had expected or required, which showed to me that the project really appealed to them. It struck a chord with them.” He explained, “It gave them an opportunity to think and act like the kinds of lawyers they imagine becoming when they decide to come to law school.”

For Bowen, that level creativity was one of the most rewarding parts of the exercise. “As somebody who has a creative side, it was nice to get that creative aspect in the law.” And as Spalding explained, using their expertise in that creative way for a client in desperate need of help “is very satisfying.” 

“It all comes back to the concept of empathy,” explains Skalbeck. “As lawyers, we need to know how the law is applied, but we need to appreciate the context in which people experience the law, the way in which the rights and the restrictions of the law play out in everyday life.” 

Two UK-based experts led the workshop and competition for this Legal Design Sprint. Thanks to Emily Allbon, City University of London and Matthew Terrell, Justis/V|Lex. Thanks to our hosts and the subject matter experts who judged the students’ final presentations.

This project was funded in part through the Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship initiative created by the Office of the Provost at the University of Richmond. This initiative supports courses and projects that foster creativity and entrepreneurial ingenuity across all five distinguished schools at the University of Richmond.  

Pictured: Students present their personas and solutions as part of the Legal Design Sprint at Cambridge University.