Why the Law Relies on Bad Design

Legal documents are often full of antiquated jargon and are badly designed to boot. How did we arrive at this state of affairs? It has to do with the fact that legal services are, in economists’ words, credence goods.

One of the features of a credence good is that the buyer is unable to judge the quality of the good for herself. So, what is a person to do when she needs to find a good lawyer? If she can’t judge the quality of the lawyer’s work directly, she instead relies on “spurious indicia” of quality such as the lawyer’s office décor, academic credentials, tough talk, or punctuality. (Gillian K. Hadfield, The Price of Law, p. 972)

For the same reasons, bad design has become a spurious indication that a legal document is high quality. Take a contract, for example. If the reader can’t judge the quality of the legal provisions for herself, at least she can compare the contract to other contracts she has encountered in the past. If the new contract looks too “different,” she might doubt its quality—even if it’s actually better written.

The historical reasons for our reliance on bad design in the law are manifold. But we have reached a turning point. We now have the technology to develop tools to measure the true quality of credence goods such as legal services. One example is the AI-based Legal Robot platform. With Legal Robot, a consumer can take a picture of a contract with her iPhone and get instant feedback about the complexity and relative favorability of its terms. With tools such as these, consumers can make more informed decisions and their reliance on traditional spurious indicia of quality will wane.

While consumers are gaining knowledge and power, lawyers should start taking baby steps toward the future. They don’t have to draft contracts in computer code and execute them in the blockchain (although that is coming). For now they can focus on their use of typography and good graphic design. These tweaks will improve a contract (or a brief) without making it look too “untraditional.” And a lawyer’s ability to deliver well-designed documents will only become more important as consumers’ demand for good design extends to more traditional services, and they are given the tools to independently judge the quality of those services.