Guest post by Katie Sloan, Legal Technologist at Valla
Three years ago, I was a practising employment lawyer at well-known firms. Today, I’m a Legal Technologist at Valla and use that legal experience to build products that help our customers run their own employment cases. In this piece I’ll share some insights into this process, how I use my transferable skills from my previous career as an employment lawyer, and what I’ve learned along the way.
Our legal templates at Valla
Valla’s legal platform is built for consumers who can’t afford the services of a traditional law firm. Our platform “unbundles” legal services, and allows the consumer to take on the work of running their case themselves with ad-hoc support from legal professionals, or even fully self-representing.
One of our key product ranges is our legal template documents. We have 15 and counting self-serve template documents which we’ve developed from initial concept through to revenue-generating product. For example, users who buy our grievance letter are taken through a guided questionnaire to have their letter generated in minutes.
How we build our templates
Before we start
Before settling on the idea of building our first legal template, we spent time using Miro to map out the key stages of the process of dealing with an employment law issue.
From this, I was then able to compile a list of the common template documents people need when dealing with employment cases, at each stage.
I then started working through the documents one-by-one to build out an initial wireframe of each. The initial wireframes were very simple, word-processed documents.
For each template, the ultimate aim was to guide the user through a set of questions, and take their inputs to produce a customised template for them. I used my employment law knowledge to consider the common inputs that people might have. For instance, what are the common reasons someone might want to raise a grievance?
Being able to code (I learned software development at CodeClan) also meant that I was able to design the wireframes in such a way that they could be easily understood by the designer and engineers who picked them up for the next stage of the build process. For example, I designed the wireframes whilst using conditional logic to think about how we could take the user’s inputs to produce a letter or document tailored to their situation.
Designing the template
Creating a template isn’t as simple as working backwards from the legal document – documents are full of jargon, rules, and assumptions that need to be either translated or abstracted away for our users.
To understand how to do this, once we had the wireframes ready we were able to start providing all of our templates manually. This means having a call with the user, taking details from them and customising the template for them.
I have now spent hundreds of hours working through these documents with our users, and we now know the key things that users get stuck on, and what their main questions will be.
The skills that I learned from working as an employment solicitor were really crucial here – without specific domain knowledge, I wouldn’t have been able to help our users navigate the templates and get the most out of them. In turn, working with the users in this way gave me an understanding of where they commonly need a little more guidance or explanation.
Based on this, we have created a number of “design patterns” for different types of inputs for our template, generally asking one question per page, and we’ve identified where users need an example or some short guidance about what to write or select.
Building out the templates
Our entire team feeds into the process of making our legal templates a success. We have accessible content guidelines that we work to for the wording of each template, and our designer upgrades the wireframes to create a full user journey using Figma, before our engineers use this to build out the template in our platform. I get involved to provide feedback along the way and a final legal review, and then it’s ready for our marketing team and the users.
The “human” element
We recognise that, whilst users can often do a lot themselves, very often they need a little extra support, whether that’s from one of our own experienced Tribunal coaches or an external lawyer. If you buy a template from us and need a little more reassurance, you can pay for a “peace of mind check” where we will proof-read the document and check it is structured and formatted correctly.
Simplicity trumps detail
There are other templates for legal documents out there on the web – many of them free. A couple of years ago when I started thinking about legal templates, my view was that the key aim for Valla should be to provide more detailed templates – this was how I thought we would better what is already out there. But I’ve learned that what really matters is guiding the user to the key points quickly, effectively and, most importantly, in an accessible way.
Simplicity is key.
It’s a cliché, but teamwork really is the key.
I’ve mentioned the multi-disciplinary team at Valla – and I can’t emphasise enough the breakthroughs we’ll often have when two or three of us take half an hour to chat things through and share different ideas.
But talking to Valla’s users has been the real boon. In our domain, we can’t escape the fact that there is a lot of legal jargon – and our role is to provide technology which helps our users to navigate this. One of the most fascinating things about our users is their diversity – off the top of my head I can name an HGV driver, chef, doctor and banker. Some users find it easier than others to get started with running their case – some have additional challenges like disabilities, childcare, and language barriers. I learn something from each and every user I speak to – often I’ll write those learnings down, and feed them back to the team, especially when I notice feedback patterns. The value of user feedback as you develop a technology product cannot be underestimated.
I’m a Legal Technologist at Valla. My background is an employment solicitor in both England and Scotland, who retrained as a software developer. I’m keen to share ideas about legal tech (and legal tech careers!) – feel free to send me a message on LinkedIn.