Does good design have anything to do with law firms? 

Maybe, depending on how you think about design. In the New York Times today, Design Rivals Technology in Importance, we learn that when it comes to consumer technology products, design exceeds technology in importance:

“The worship of design has also taken designers out of the back offices and into top executive jobs. Engineers are still in the mix, to be sure. But they don’t rule the roost in product development, which may also be why tech products are easier to use, more human.”

Keep this in mind and consider the just-released Hildebrandt-Citi 2013 Client Advisory (The Boom Years Are Not Coming Back, Get Used to It in AmLaw Daily, PDF of report, courtesy of WSJ). The report forecasts continuing economic challenges in store for BigLaw and offers excellent advice, including listening to clients and focusing on efficiency.

The reports notes that partners are not “inclined to shift the discussion to their client’s business to learn about strategies, priorities, risk concerns, pressure points and other factors driving their legal spend decisions.” No wonder then that we see limited uptake of cost reduction strategies such as outsourcing or using centralized resources in low cost centers such as in Wheeling and Dayton. Or that “some firms have learned the hard way, mismanagement of AFA engagements (including miscalculations in fee estimates) can prove costly.)

For me, listening to clients and deploying efficient practices are a kind of design. For too long, lawyers sold their services the way computer makers used to sell PCs. Remember when all you heard about was processor speed, how much RAM, hard disk size, and the video chip. Never mind that it always came in a black, gray, or beige, clunky box. Just think of that tech horsepower.

When clients hear about their lawyers’ pedigrees, their long list of matters, their fancy office addresses, and their great victories…. are they thinking “this is great, just what I needed”? Perhaps. But they may also be thinking “ugly beige box”.

Clients likely care more often about how the service is delivered: do lawyers keep in touch, give the client options, make good business decisions, know about their company and industry, and offer cost saving approaches? Just as consumers now assume technology – cars, computers, appliances – will work, clients increasingly assume accomplishing the legal objective is a given. They think more about delivery than about content.

To be sure, some computer users will always care about tech horsepower. High-end gamers and serious quant jocks must. Similarly, clients in very high stakes matters will focus more on the legal outcome – so more on the pedigree and great prior victories. But lets not fool ourselves. Most matters are “bread and butter”; for these, design matters more than innards.

The Hildebrandt-Citi report does not talk about good design per se. But it could just as easily have. Time for firms to think about service delivery design.