GPSOLO June 2008
When Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote in 1839 that “The pen is mightier than the sword,” he might not have been referring directly to lawyers, but he should have been. Since time immemorial, lawyers have used the power of the pen to vanquish their clients’ enemies (or at least document their settlement agreements).
The pen lasted until the advent of the typewriter. Today, modern lawyers use computers to “word process” their documents. The move to word processing revolutionized the look and feel of legal documents, and it led to substantial gains in productivity for law firms. Computers are very effective at producing words in great volume.
Although word processors make documents look quite professional, they lack the ability to decide which words work most effectively or to recognize patterns in the way a lawyer drafts documents.
Enter, stage right, the next step in intelligent legal document production: the automated document template. Document assembly turns documents into templates with optional language and other variables. Through standardized templates, alternate language, and clear business rules, lawyers gain the ability to safeguard the quality of their legal work product. Answer a series of questions, push a button, and out comes a carefully crafted document.
Document assembly software comes in two flavors: buy or build.
Today you can find more pre-crafted legal document assembly systems for sale than ever before. You can buy a canned document assembly system from LexisNexis ( www.lexisnexis.com), West Publishing ( www.west.thomson.com), BlumbergExcelsior ( www.blumberg.com), Basha Systems (our company, www.bashasys.com), InterActive Legal Systems ( www.ilsdocs.com), or a number of other content publishers.
These systems can give you a complete set of estate planning forms, state-specific probate forms, family law documents, or real estate forms. You will get the benefit of the expertise of other lawyers embodied in both the words of the documents as well as the logic that drives the document assembly system.
With each of these systems, you will get the ability to select a document, answer a series of questions, and produce a complete, ready-to-use document in less than 15 minutes.
The main advantage of these pre-built systems is “out-of-the-box” gratification. Install them and away you go. The disadvantage, of course, is that you are largely limited to the content provided in the format provided. Some of these systems will allow you to alter the underlying templates to apply some of your own language to the forms, but if you are a very particular lawyer or very attached to your own work product developed during years of practice, pre-canned templates may not work for you.
Whether for pride of ownership, or marketing, or “integrity,” some lawyers choose to build their own automated templates.
The do-it-yourself (DIY) approach has the benefit of using your own words, your own rules, and your own intake forms. As when you build your own house, you get exactly what you want, within your budget and your time frame.
You can build your own automated templates using desktop tools such as HotDocs ( www.hotdocs.com), which is the market leader. HotDocs 2008 includes a model document toolbar that lets you automate a document by simply marking up an existing document with an easy-to-remember syntax. Pathagoras ( www.pathagoras.com) offers a simple system based on MS Word. A “clause-based” document assembly system, Pathagoras programs more easily than HotDocs, but it works basically as a knowledge base of pre-built clauses that you can mine. D3 ( www.microsystems.com/d3) from Micro-system provides an enterprise-level clause manager.
More and more document assembly
is moving to web-based solutions. DealBuilder ( www.business-integrity.com), with its simplified document markup and Lexicon feature that enables multi-
language prompts, would prove useful to attorneys with an international practice. DealBuilder Server and HotDocs Server require your firm to configure and set up your own web server. You also can find a hosted solution, through which the vendor supplies the web server and software for a monthly fee; such vendors include QShift ( www.ixio.com) and DocsEngine ( www.accudraft.com/products/de_main.asp).
A word of caution: Although DIY tools have gotten much easier to use, the approach requires a substantial amount of time to produce results equivalent to purchased forms.
The project leader should oversee the automation of the case, including, but not limited to: (1) picking any necessary scanning vendor, (2) setting up training schedule, (3) coordinating with trial technology consultants and equipment vendors, and (4) coordinating with court staff. But don’t spread the project leader too thin if he or she has any other (non-technological) duties as part of the trial team.
Whether you buy or build, document assembly tools bring real value to your practice. Processes that took hours now take minutes. Document assembly shows us the future of legal document production. Modern attorneys should not ask “why” but “how”—and they should ask it soon, before they become as antiquated as Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s pen.
Seth G. Rowland, Esq., is president of Basha Systems LLC ( www.bashasys.com). Since 1996 he has been advising lawyers on how to automate their legal practices using document assembly and other information management tools; he may be reached at email@example.com. Rose Rowland has worked with Basha Systems LLC since 2002 as a trainer and developer; she may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.