Dan Jackson has directed the NuLawLab at Northeastern University School of Law since 2013. Dan is a 1997 graduate of Northeastern Law and a 1990 graduate of Northwestern University. Following a postgraduate clerkship with The Hon. Hugh H. Bownes at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, Dan worked for 13 years with the law firm of Bingham McCutchen, ultimately serving as the firm’s director of attorney development after practicing in the employment law group. Prior to law school, Dan worked as a designer for theater. He continues to do so, most recently with the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival and The Provincetown Theater.
Tell me about the NuLawLab.
The NuLawLab is the interdisciplinary innovation laboratory at Northeastern University School of Law. We've been around since 2012 - 2013. When we opened in 2013,we were the first staffed innovation laboratory at a US law school, although the idea for the NuLawLab had been incubating with a couple of faculty and staff since about 2008 2009. We work both on grant funded legal empowerment projects for external clients, and student facing courses, independent studies and other initiatives. Some of our project work includes RePresent, which is the first digital game to teach people how to represent themselves in court. You can download it on your phone and play it in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine. We also have a program called Stable Ground, which is a housing security and stability program where we are looking at the traumatic impact of chronic housing insecurity through participatory community based art and culture programming structured to inform the work of the city of Boston Office of Housing Stability. Those are a couple examples of our project external grant funded project work. The RePresent project was funded by the Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiative Grant Program and Stable Ground is funded by The Kresge Foundation. Most of our program / project activity is grant funded - soft money coming into the Lab to support community and student involvement.
Our student facing work looks like a couple different things. First is our Laboratory Seminar in Applied & Critical Legal Design. That is an introduction to legal design as applied to a specific design question or problem which changes every semester. An example of a design question from summer 2021 is “how might we embed core concepts of the law of evidence into public discourse to promote informed collective decision making?” The course then introduces students to basic concepts of design - inspiration in terms of design research (both observational field and other design research methods), ideation, prototyping, prototype testing (which takes up a huge part of the course itself) and a couple other design methods. We’ve been teaching that class for eight years now, and just recently re-designed it to incorporate critical (or speculative) design as a core component. We also offer the Master Class in legal design, which is where we embed law students into a class at the College of Arts, Media + Design. This coming spring, 2022, that course will be the Experience Design Studio that is run by our design director, Professor Miso Kim. And we also sponsor independent studies so students can either participate in activities that support Lab projects, or pursue their own ideas. We have a lot of that going on right now - that's actually our biggest growth area right now - students who have identified the NuLawLab as their in-house laboratory or maker-space, where they can play with their creative ideas that just don’t fit anywhere else at the School of Law.
We are a staff of two – myself, with a background in theater design and large law firm practice, and our creative director Jules Rochielle Sievert, with a background in social practice art and activism. We also have several faculty directors, such as Martha Davis, who is our founding faculty director, and Miso Kim who is our design director (and a professor of experience design in the College of Arts, Media + Design. Emily Spieler, who is our former dean here at the law school, and who gave the original green light to start the NuLawLab, is our strategic advisor. We also have a wonderfully diverse advisory board. And we recently started sponsoring research residencies. Sankalkp Bhatnagar is with us for a year to further develop a vision for critical legal design, and Mariana Costa Oliveira Morais and Victoria Dandara da Silva Toth are embedded with us during summer 2021 as they work to launch the first law school legal design lab in Brazil. You can learn more about the NuLawLab and our work at www.nulawlab.org.
What is legal design?
It is inaccurate to say it is a new discipline or movement. NGOs, community organizers, and public practice artists have been practicing co-design for decades in pursuit of solutions to longstanding socio-legal problems. Legal technologists like Marc Lauritsen, Ron Staudt, and John Mayer have been leveraging product design methods since they first built law-centered digital tech products decades ago. It is only in the last 10 years that the term “legal design” has come into focus and the discipline has formalized.
Legal design is lots of different things right now. At first it was really the application of product and service design methods to rethinking or re-imaging aspects of our legal system. Initially, a lot of legal design was being practiced by legal technologists making productivity tools for lawyers. But as the law school laboratory movement got started, the focus of this emerging discipline shifted to making our justice system more accessible to self-represented litigants – addressing the Access to Justice crisis. At its core, legal design remains primarily the application of design methods to the legal field to innovate and come up with new approaches to the ways people access, understand, and activate their legal rights. I think a lot of legal designers – myself included – feel that our legal institutions and systems aren’t really doing a very good job of delivering justice to the majority of folks who engage with them. This observation is underscored by the small percentage of people with legal problems who actually seek the help of a lawyer, or turn to our courts for conflict resolution. And I think just about everyone in the legal profession can agree that our courts are not user friendly for people who can't afford to hire a lawyer. Given that we now have over 80% of litigants going through our state courts representing themselves, that is a fundamental failure of the judicial branch of government, despite the many efforts our state court Chief Justices are making to address the problem. So our legal systems actually call out for innovation, especially user centered innovation. There's a whole area of design that is user centered design, including co-design, where you work directly with the intended end user of the product or service to design the product or service itself. Co-design is a great way to come up with very user friendly tools and resources because the designers themselves are the intended users. This collaborative design approach is what much of legal design has been about since its inception less than 10 years ago.
Legal design is, however, evolving as more initiatives take it on and more programs are born. In the United States it's largely in academia - law schools. In Europe it's almost exclusively a commercial affair - there's only a handful of law schools in Europe teaching legal design. Instead you see commercial shops, including law firms and dedicated legal design studios starting up. A lot of the work in Africa in Asia around legal design is fundamentally legal empowerment work. This is generally community led co-design tackling longstanding socio-legal inequities.
But as I mentioned, legal design is evolving beyond the four corners of “design thinking”. Practitioners and educators are exploring other structured creative processes that can be broadly categorized as legal design. For example, in our shop, we are exploring service design and experience design, which are design sub-categories. We think those are relevant to the law, and so we are examining how those might be drawn into the field of legal design. Here at the NuLawLab, that effort is being led by our design director, Professor Miso Kim, whose work focuses on how service and experience design can enhance human dignity. Right now we also have a research resident – Sankalp Bhatnagar - who's embedded with us for the better part of the last year and who is looking at applying critical design theory into legal design to promote design as a structured method for critique and creation.
I’m always reluctant to describe the NuLawLab as exclusively a legal design shop. I talk more in terms of “creative law” or “creativity in the law”. We like to say that we're working at the intersection of creative arts and law, and creative arts is much broader than design. We feel that the greater the distance between disciplines when you're doing interdisciplinary work, the more potential for a transformational outcome.
What are your thoughts on the state of legal education?
When the NuLawLab got started 2012 - 2013 we were at the height of post-Great Recession crisis in legal education. One aftermath of that recession was a huge drop off in law firm hiring and law firm positions, including very significant reductions in force. This had a cascading effect on law school applications, which saw double-digit percentage decreases year after year at most U.S law schools. Our shop was actually born of that crisis as an exercise into whether we can innovate in terms of our educational offerings and thus differentiate ourselves in the market. Basically a research and development lab focused initially on legal education, while also looking towards the profession more broadly, given the clear need at the time for innovation across the legal profession.
On the whole, I think we have been relatively successful influencing the current state of legal education. On the one hand, we do have this growing movement for legal innovation and legal design specifically. More law schools are setting up an innovation lab or legal design initiative. Right now there are about 12 such initiatives launched and still in operation in the 8 years we’ve existed. Still, legal education remains trapped in its own success because it hasn't had any competition, and therefore has not needed to innovate and evolve with the changing times. Most law schools have a largely similar pedagogy and structure. Indeed there are only a handful of law schools that have deviated from the classic first year curriculum.
Northeastern, for example is the only law school that has created a cooperative legal education model where we actually embed our students for a full year into legal organizations doing legal work.
Legal education can go a lot further to get creative with the way we teach our content and skills. For example, we've been teaching this lab seminar for eight years now, and I have to say that students who take it universally say they were drawn to it as an opportunity to exercise their creativity, which they feel has been crushed in their law school experience. Every human has inherent creative potential and law school has a way of just grinding that out of us in service of teaching people how to “think like a lawyer.” I think that's a huge mistake.
I think that we are actually entering an age of legal invention. Digital technology, which is your area of expertise, is playing a very big part in that. We are just at the very beginning, and law schools either need to learn how to teach law students to be legal inventors, or we will fall behind the computer scientists. Law school are missing out on a huge market opportunity to differentiate their graduates in the job market as innovators and as technologists and as creative thinkers and not just creative problem solvers. Law has always been a creative problem-solving field. But creativity in building a better world - in terms of making new things, coming up with new systems, new processes, new ways of doing things – that’s where we're focused. This is the dawn of a new era of creativity in the law and if law schools don't teach creative methods and give their students a chance to apply their inherent human creativity to the legal content they're learning, they will fall behind other disciplines.
It also remains the case that people have been sounding the death knell for American legal education for decades now. It hasn't happened, it's in good shape, I think it will continue to be in good shape. But I still think that we're gonna get lapped by other disciplines if we don't do more to develop new methods and new ways of thinking within legal education. We should not be requiring students to go out and get another degree in something else to move their ideas forward. We can, and should, make that available as part of every juris doctor program.
What are your thoughts on legal tech, and should law schools be teaching aspects of legal tech why or why not?
First, yes, all law schools should absolutely teach aspects of legal tech, for the reasons I just described. For law schools that are part of large research universities like Northeastern, it is easy to do this, because we have a computer science school that does a great job of teaching people how to code and core aspects of digital technology. So why not partner with those schools and offer joint courses? Doing so will require universities to rethink their budget models to do a better job of sharing tuition dollars across schools, but it can be done.
Every law student and every new lawyer should understand the basics of how a digital product is put together. At a minimum, we need that knowledge to effectively communicate with digital tech clients. However, it goes further than that. Digital tech is transforming our profession, and that transformation will accelerate. Lawyers need to be in that game or we risk losing our influence over all things legal.
Your one piece of advice to law students?
The law as a discipline, regardless of how it is practiced or how you engage with it, is an inherently creative pursuit. It is about creating how our society operates collectively, with evenhanded rules that apply to all. Law students should not leave behind their inherent human creativity when they walk in the door of their law school. The more you can apply creative methods, creative abilities, and creative confidence to your law school experience, the more you will get out of the experience by articulating new ways around old problems.