‘Too long; didn’t read’? An Interview with Emily Allbon

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Screengrab from tl;dr

tl;dr – the less textual legal gallery

 

Way back in the pre-Covid era, I recall watching Emily Allbon’s emerging work in an area that she called legal design with great interest. As I understood it, legal design was a relatively new approach to tackle the challenges of teaching a subject that was heavily reliant on text-based resources, by bringing resources and the teaching of law to life via more visual than textual methods. Of course, there’s an awful lot more to it than that, so when she announced the launch of a legal design-focused website called tl;dr late last year, I asked Emily (City Law School) to tell me a little more about the website, and the ideas behind legal design in general. In the interview below, Emily explains about tl;dr and the thinking behind legal design. 

What is tl;dr and why the name?

tl;dr was launched at the end of October 2019, aiming its resources squarely at the international law school community – both the academic staff who teach and the students who are learning. Its purpose is to showcase alternative ways of communicating the law (usually visual) and inspiring others to be more creative about their own methods. tl;dr is internet shorthand for “too long; didn’t read” which seemed to sum up the feeling of many of our students when we set them reading to prepare for class!

What was your motivation behind creating this resource?

I’ve been researching in a reasonably new field called legal design for a couple of years now and was keen to put to the test the principles, but in an academic teaching and learning context. Law is a text-heavy discipline, whether in practice or in academia, but there have been bold steps towards a recognition that for people to be able to get access to justice, the law needs to be truly accessible (so not just in a physical sense, but that it needs to be understood). This is of course about the words themselves (we can all think of examples of horrifically complex legal language), but also about the way they are presented.

Can you describe some of the challenges you faced in putting this resource together?

As ever, time was the enemy. It is so difficult to find the space to take on new projects and even harder when you are trying to encourage others to collaborate with you! Lawyers are a little scared of creativity outside of language and so this project was a hard sell. I also wanted to ensure that not every resource was some highly polished specimen – it was important to show that artistic or technical prowess was not essential to how successful your message is. It launched in mid-October and heavy Term 1 & 2 teaching, marking and the impact of the pandemic has meant I’ve not been able to progress it further since then. I am finally starting to see a bit of space in mid-June before more marking in early July.

What is legal design, and where do you see tl;dr as fitting in to the field?

LeDA (The Legal Design Alliance) describe the field like this:

Legal Design is an interdisciplinary approach to apply human-centered design to prevent or solve legal problems.

It prioritises the point of view of ‘users’ of the law – not only lawyers and judges, but also citizens, consumers, businesses, etc. The people who use legal information, documents, services, and policies are not being served well by their current design.

As legal designers, we believe that the legal system can be more straightforward, more engaging, and more user-friendly. We aim to make the legal system be more human. This includes how information is presented, how processes are set up, and how policies have been established.

There has been some fascinating work done in this area, focusing on legal documentation like contracts, privacy policies and terms and conditions. Post-GDPR, there is now of course an obligation on companies to ensure that information given on how personal data is processed is clear and transparent. Article 12 emphasises the need for it to be conveyed in an accessible form, ‘using clear and plain language’. Language is only one element of this however. In the area of contracts, you can see examples of visualised contracts, and there is even a Contract Design Pattern Library to help those wanting to design their own. Comic contracts (…yes really!) have been popping up in employment situations where employees may be of low literacy or working in a new country with limited language capabilities, but there is growing usage elsewhere; the global infrastructure company Aurecon has deployed one across their business.

Law firms and corporates are slowly realising the significance of legal design too; with international law firm Simmons & Simmons acquiring Wavelength, the UK’s only legal engineering business. In September 2019, Linklaters pushed out publicity about their use of legal design to look again at the training contract letters they send out to new recruits. Only problem was – they couldn’t show it to us! (Grrrr…law firms and their NDAs). I had fun facilitating an away day for a magic circle firm at the end of last year on design and its transformative impact in the legal sector.

The Bar Council asked me to run one for university teams to help celebrate Justice Week 2020 in February – students from across the UK were set challenges by organisations such as Disability Rights UK and the Public Law Project, and had just a day’s training from me before embarking on just under 4 weeks of research, ideation and prototyping and finally presenting their solutions to myself and a panel of judges. You can read more about this via the Lawbore blog.

Perhaps the most-needed use of legal design is for people who need legal help and are unable to afford a lawyer. The decimation of legal aid by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 has meant most people are now ineligible for legal aid. Shockingly, in the family courts, only 19% of cases now go ahead with both parties legally represented. This was 41% in 2013 (before LASPO came into force). This, twinned with the fact that funding for advice centres has been slashed so severely, means that many people have to fight the hardest battles of their life (where they don’t understand the process, language, rules..) without help. Remember this is despite the recommendation from multiple reports (e.g Amnesty: Cuts that hurt and Bach Commission: The Right to Justice), stating that offering early intervention and support could ease the crisis, by resolving legal problems early and stopping escalation.

Of course, the niche of legal design stems from much broader disciplines – service design and information design being the two key ones. ‘Human-centred design’ and ‘design-thinking’ are pivotal.

How do you see tl;dr as benefitting or fitting into your teaching?

I created the Lawbore website for UK law students back in 2002 and that resource has undergone many changes over that period. What however, has remained important over those 18 years, is that the visual is vital to making law accessible and engaging. Learnmore (part of Lawbore) won the Routledge/ALT Teaching Law with Technology Prize back in 2012 for this aspect of its features and tl;dr really takes this to the next level. I will certainly be using the resources on the site in my teaching and will also be encouraging students to get involved too (there are various resources on the site which have been produced by students). In an extension of this, I hope to run a Legal Design module for students in the second year of their law degree in the future.

How do you see it as benefitting others in terms of legal education?

The site is open to all to use and I welcome contributions from across the legal community. I’m envisaging the Coltsfoot Vale project (discussed below) being something that both academics and practitioners can play a part in – with perhaps law schools and chambers ‘adopting’ a property. I hope the site will inspire lecturers to see where they might be able to incorporate different methods into their own teaching, and of course for students to pick up ideas in how they might gain a better understanding of their lectures and reading materials. This might be by thinking differently about how they compile their notes and test their understanding.

How would you like your school to make use of this resource?

I hope that resources created for the site will be used interchangeably across programmes and also that it will prompt colleagues to pool ideas and work together on developing useful resources. Creating stimulating content to use in online teaching has obviously become a very pressing priority thanks to the pandemic. This will also become particularly important as both the professional and academic ‘sides’ of the school come together in our new building later this year. Students can only benefit from having resources which are designed to make the law they study more accessible and comprehensible. It should also be a big part of our outreach to students thinking about studying law at university.

What can teachers of other disciplines get from tl;dr?

A great deal! The principles are the same whatever the discipline – learning effective ways of communicating complex ideas and principles is something that is relevant across the whole of HE. As lecturers we are always looking to learn new ways of engaging our audience. I believe it’s also important that we can show we are evolving in how we teach and also to lead students by example; helping them to discover how they can improve the way that they work. Anyone interested in how design might play a role in their teaching may like to take a look at the Service Design in Education Network.

How and why have you applied principles of ‘openness’ to this project?

All resources are open in the sense that anyone can use them, with appropriate attribution. They are not repurposeable in terms of people being able to add their own logos etc, but few resources are heavily City branded.

It’s also an integral part of the site that all resources are described in terms of the tools and methods used, so that if people want to have a go themselves they have the support they need. This practical help was essential and I felt really strongly about providing it. I didn’t want the site to be something where people think it looks ‘wow’ but they also feel a bit down-hearted that they couldn’t do something similar (because of ability, expertise, funding etc). Sometimes the simplest visuals can make a tremendous impact; the short explainer about consent ‘Tea consent’ uses very basic illustrations (stick men and women) with a lively commentary to great effect.

What are your plans for tl;dr?

I have a significant number of new resources at various stages of planning – some with colleagues in the law school, some with lawyers in practice, some with students and others with organisations. I will be working on these over the coming six months to populate the site with new and exciting content. I hope that in time tl;dr will become something that the City Law School is known for worldwide!

Resources spotlight

Coltsfoot Vale

'Coltsfoot Vale' screenshot

‘Coltsfoot Vale’ screenshot

The most complicated of our resources, Coltsfoot Vale is a virtual village where students can learn more about one of their core subjects, Land Law, via the buildings and those who inhabit them. Clicking on a building will show you the people who live there, give you a brief story with some legal issues and then provide a commentary with questions interspersed throughout to help you scaffold your learning. We’ve launched with a small proportion of properties available and will build on this in the coming year. We’re hoping to engage both academic colleagues at other law schools and property practitioners to ‘adopt a property’ and provide a storyline.

The RACER

'The Racer' screenshot

‘The Racer’ screenshot

Developed by our Assessment and Feedback Working Group in the summer of 2018, the RACER acronym sought to highlight to students the criteria we used to mark their work in a much clearer way. It was acknowledged that we needed more than just a textual document and so a one-page bold, visually appealing explainer was developed which clarified the meaning of the 5 elements – Relevant legal knowledge, analysis, communication, evaluation and research & ethics. This is embedded in the Assessment box on every Moodle module at the law school. Feedback from our students and teaching staff has been so positive in relation to this document.

A history of equity in land law

'Equity In Land Law' screenshot

‘Equity In Land Law’ screenshot

The historical basis for equity within the study of land law is often skipped over by students, keen to get to the nitty-gritty of the subject but it is vital to an understanding of how the law has developed. I worked with a graphic novel artist to put together a one-page introduction that would pique student interest enough to want to find out more. I’m looking to extend this with another one in the series to show why equity is still so crucial in modern times when learning land law.

 

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