How to Design Your Law Office for Restorative Justice and a Better Client Experience

As an architect and staunch advocate for restorative justice, Deanna Van Buren is highly attuned to how physical spaces impact people’s experiences.

As the design director and co-founder of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS), Deanna creates spaces and buildings for restorative justice, rehabilitation, and community building with a goal to end mass incarceration. She’s created safe spaces for offenders, victims, and community members to come together, facilitated design workshops within prisons to create better justice solutions, and designed mobile resource centers to help serve under-resourced communities.

On top of all that, she’s got a few ideas about how lawyers can contribute to restorative justice and provide better client experiences, too.

I sat down with Deanna at the Clio Cloud Conference, where she was a keynote speaker, to hear some of her thoughts. Below are a few key takeaways on how lawyers can make small changes to the setup of their law offices to create a more positive experience for their clients—particularly for clients dealing with traumatic experiences.

1. Recognize the importance of having control

For those dealing with trauma—and there’s trauma on both sides of the equation, for offenders and victims—Deanna has learned that an element of control is key. Having a bit of control over one’s environment makes it easier to cope with trauma. As Deanna noted, this is important at both systemic and personal levels.

“At a systemic level, it’s like, ‘I’m going to go to the planning committee and the planning commission and advocate. I don’t want that sewage treatment plant in my neighborhood.’” she said. “That’s one way to have control. And then at the scale of a room, a need might look like ‘I need to be able to open a window and make myself feel cooler. I need to be able to turn a light on.’”

When people have control over simple things within their environment at an individual level, they have much less stress, Deanna says.

In your law office, something as simple as a chair that swivels and moves easily during consults, or a couch instead of a chair so that a client has some choice about where they sit, can provide that measure of control.

2. Show client care through your office environment

“When your client comes to your office, they want to know what you care about, and you need to show that in the environment,” Deanna said.

She learned this—and much more—while conducting workshops on collaborative law practice, a form of divorce and family law where disputes are resolved without going to court. In the workshop, Deanna helped lawyers think through the client experience by drawing it out. “We had cards and tools to help them understand what their values were,” she said. In-depth findings from the workshop can be found in an article, Peace in Place Project: Building Healing Spaces, which Deanna published together with a lawyer and a mental health professional, but some of what came out of the workshops was quite straightforward: There’s a lot you can do to make clients feel at home in your office.

“Welcoming them: How do you do that? Do you have your degrees on the wall? Take them down. There are a lot of simple things that can be done so you don’t intimidate people,” Deanna explained. “Now, some people do want to see the degrees because that’s how they know they’re going to pay you the high hourly rates, but you have to locate them carefully. You want people to feel comfortable. You want people to feel at home.”

Changes to your office space can make a big difference, but making effective changes means looking closely at what your clients see, hear, do, and feel at every stage of working with your law firm, and thinking critically about how you can improve their experience. (You can learn more about why this is so effective in this article on what it means to be a client-centered law firm).

Deanna gave another example: “When you go to choose an office, think about the experience of someone parking their car and coming into your place: Is it confusing? Is it disorientating? Do I know where I am? Do you have a view to a brick wall, or do you have a view to something that will help people be able to modulate their nervous system? If not, let’s get some plants in this space. Let’s get some art that represents that. There’s different strategies that make it pretty easy. It’s not hard, anyone can buy plants.”

3. Start small—and keep improving

Deanna’s top piece of advice? Get started, no matter where you currently are with your understanding of the client experience and design thinking. Getting it started is more important than getting it right the first time, so try something, iterate, and make changes if need be.

“Try stuff out. I’m always about try small things, iterate quickly,” she said. “That’s a design principle. Try small things, get feedback from your clients. Like, ‘What did you think? I’m doing this? Do you like that?’”

Seeking feedback is incredibly important, as that’s how you’ll know what’s working. Deanna stressed the importance of being honest with yourself, talking to clients, and/or sending surveys and being honest about how changes are being received.

“Just keep iterating and trying new things all the time,” she said.

Even by doing a little, you’ll be making changes to provide a positive, memorable experience that helps you stand out from the competition and run a profitable, thriving practice.

Listen to my full interview with Deanna on Clio’s Matters podcast, where she speaks much more in-depth about the power of restorative justice and the importance of design and physical space in restorative justice solutions.