Magic in Minutes – Effective Use of Document Assembly
This paper was originally presented at ABA TECHSHOW 2012 and is reprinted by permission.
We are not high level experts on document assembly – nor do we play them on TV.
However, we are power users of technology and today the real news about document assembly is that we have reached the stage in the development of document assembly where the power of document assembly can be harnessed by the end user to an amazing degree with much less training.
When computers, and to a certain extent memory typewriters, came into use in law offices, the ability to reuse form documents became even more of a lawyer’s stock in trade.
At the most simple level, one simply took prior work, saved it under a new name, changed the factual information, deleted any language not needed for this particular document and added any new language. The danger with this approach was that a deleted provision might be omitted when needed if the newly created document was later used as a form.
Smart lawyers dealt with this by creating a base form document with numerous possible sentences and paragraphs, often headed by the inclusion of the word OPTIONAL and/or terse explanations of why and how certain provisions would be used. After losing a few of these documents to the all-too-common sin of editing the document without first remembering to save it under a new name, law firms made those documents “Read only,” a fairly simple process that kept the form and its instructions protected from negligent editing.
Early automation attempts involved putting blanks in documents and setting them up where the Tab key would move from blank to the next blank so the lawyer or legal assistant completing a draft of the document could speed their work and be certain no information was left uncompleted.
Since those early days, the tools have become much more powerful and the techniques have become much more sophisticated. Corel WordPerfect and Microsoft Word have also become more powerful, although it bears noting that due to the vast disparity in market share, the third party programmers have generally focused on Microsoft Word at the expense Corel WordPerfect.
At its essence, document assembly involves creating templates that can be filled with the specific information (variables) needed to create the final document. The required information can be inputted manually or pulled from an existing database of client information. A template might be an entire document or one might have numerous templates of clauses and optional paragraphs that are first pulled together to create a custom template based on the particular client or situation requirements.
An estate planner, for example, might assemble the various standard provisions for a particular client’s needs into a custom template made just for that client, named by the law firm’s file naming convention and kept in the client’s digital file. This would all be done before entering any specific information into the template itself. After entering all of the data and assembling the document there may still be unique items that need to be added or changes that need to be made. This of course is simple because the final product is a word processing document just as if the document had been prepared in a traditional manner.
Let’s take a brief look at the various options today.
1. The least expensive option is to use the features contained within your word processor.
Microsoft Word allows one to create templates, although there is certainly a learning curve. Among the tools that will be useful in Microsoft Word is Find and Replace, which can be used to quickly replace numerous variables.
Auto Correct is the feature that most of us are aware of that automatically corrects our typographical errors and common misspellings, but Auto Correct can be used to create nonsense words that will expand into a sentence or even several paragraphs.
To customize AutoCorrect, follow these steps:
- From the Tools menu, select AutoCorrect Options…
- In the box labeled Replace type the abbreviation
- In the box labeled With enter the full text
- Click Add
- Click OK
Mail Merge is the tool in Microsoft Word that allows numerous documents to be created from data contained elsewhere. There is a more significant learning curve to Mail Merge, but it can generate numerous documents on the fly.
Quick Parts (see office.microsoft.com/en-us/word-help/quick-parts-HA010370568.aspx) is an extremely easy to use tool contained within the 2007 and 2010 versions of Microsoft Word.
Quick Parts allows you to build a library of “parts” just like the name implies. These parts can be a short phrase, a signature block or text that is several pages long. Creating Quick Parts is very simple. Select the text you want to turn into a Quick Part, click on the Insert tab followed by the Quick Parts icon and ‘Save selection to the Quick Parts Gallery.’
Creating a Quick Part consists of naming the part, assigning a category, entering a description (optional) and choosing the insertion option. You can create your own library of categories to facilitate storing associated Quick Parts together. In addition to naming the Quick Part, each Quick Part has space where you can enter a description for the part when you are creating it.
The insertion options let you determine whether the text should be inserted to match the formatting of the document or to match formatting included in the Quick Part. This is a huge time saver when you insert a paragraph of frequently used text which needs to be fully justified and right and left indented! If you have text that always needs to be inserted on its own page, Quick Parts can handle that too. Imagine inserting that specially formatted, perfectly typed paragraph with a few keystrokes or clicks of your mouse! Remember that the formatting code for a paragraph is in the symbol (¶) at the end of the paragraph. If you included the paragraph symbol (¶) in your capture, the formatting for the paragraph will be inserted, even if you select “Insert Text Only. To precisely capture what you want included in your Quick Part, turn on Paragraph Marks when you are selecting text.
A keyboard shortcut is automatically created every time you create a Quick Part. This shortcut is the name of the Quick Part. How you manage your naming convention for Quick Parts is up to you, but when you want to insert a Quick Part you can simply start to type the name for the part and then hit the F3 key and the text will be inserted. Obviously there is room for some thought in this process, abbreviations will work, but they need to be unique. You may already have created a naming convention for document pieces parts that you go searching for when you want to reuse them. Integrate those names and text into your Quick Parts library.
One more powerful attribute of Quick Parts that may prompt you to spend some time exploring the feature, lies hidden beneath the name of each part. After you have created a few parts, you will see a list of parts when you click on the Quick Parts icon. Right click on the title of a Quick Part and you will have a list of options which lets you determine where the part should be inserted. The locations include at the current position, page header, page footer, beginning of section, end of section, beginning of document, or the end of document. This feature allows you to insert multiple Quick Parts into several locations in your document with a single visit to Quick Parts.
Whenever you have created a new Quick Part and you exit Word, you see the following: You have modified styles, building blocks (such as cover pages or headers), or other content that is stored in “Building Blocks.dotx.” Do you want to save changes to “Building Blocks.dotx”? Click on Yes or all of your Quick Parts will be lost!
Spend some time working with Quick Parts. It is easy, if you have Office 2007 or 2010, you already have Quick Parts so it is free! Using Quick Parts is a very practical way to experience a bit of the power of document assembly with no monetary expenditure and a relatively small investment of time.
It is strongly suggested that no matter how sophisticated a document assembly program one might have, the built in tools of Microsoft Word – particularly Auto Correct and Quick Parts – should be used to insert items very quickly like a pleading signature block or to generate short routine documents like a fax cover sheet. This operation can be done in just a couple of clicks of the mouse without ever invoking the more powerful word processing and document assembly programs. The above link at office.microsoft.com explains how to do this as well as providing links to building blocks and other more powerful tools. A particular advantage of Quick Parts is that it works in Microsoft Outlook as well, allowing the lawyer to use sophisticated document assembly techniques in e-mails.
2. Text expanders are another category that will improve document creation and production.
The significant advantage here is that these tools work outside of Microsoft Word. When you use a tool like PhraseExpress, for example, you will notice that it auto corrects your spelling errors while filling out web forms or working in other different online situations. Included at the end of these materials is a detailed review of PhraseExpress authored by Wells Anderson. This will give you a nice overview of how text expanders work and the advanced features of these simple tools.
3. Document assembly tools contained within practice management or document management software.
Most of the popular practice management software programs allow for the assembly of documents using the data already in the client’s digital file. In fact, during the time that this paper was being prepared, Rocket Matter, www.rocketmatter.com/, a cloud based practice management solution, announced that there would be new document assembly tools contained within its product. Also, Clio, www.goclio.com/ another cloud based practice management tool, recently received a six million dollar infusion of venture capital that will allow it to incorporate document assembly.
Larger firms with dedicated IT staff have been using these tools for some time now. The products designed for smaller firms have a learning curve but it is not insurmountable by any means. Many firms rely on third parties to create these systems, but there needs to be enough in-house understanding and training so that one need not call a third party consultant every time there are minor changes that need to be made to a template.
4. Third party free-standing document assembly tools.
Here are the websites for three of the leading programs:
- Hot Docs™ www.hotdocs.com/
- XpressDox Docussembly™ www.xpressdox.com/
- ProDoc® www.prodoc.com/general/document-assembly.asp
Those of us who are emesshed in legal technology sometime refer to an application as being the “gold standard” of performance for a particular area or function. Is HotDocs the gold standard of document assembly applications for law firms? Yes and no. It is a quickly changing arena and the revised HotDocs business model makes it more and more the provinance of larger law firms. Smaller firms that are higher volume document intense practices are also ready candidates for advantaging the power of HotDocs .
Is there a place in the solo small firm market for HotDocs? Yes, but the smaller firms should thoroughly investigate other document assembly options before investing in HotDocs. Let’s review some of the basics tenanents of HotDocs to see if it might be right for your firm.
How does HotDocs work? In the most simple terms, documents are turned into templates which can then be merged with client data. The client data is drawn either from a linked “database” application such as a billing application or a practice management application, or an existing HotDocs answer file.
Every template has the equivalent of a questionnaire associated with it. The questionnaires are automatically created as part of the template creation process. When all of the questions are answered, the template and the answers are processed to create the completed document. Once again, the answers can come from a linked database or a HotDocs answer file. This sounds simple, almost like a fancy mail merge, but what HotDocs brings to the table that makes it so powerful is the logic.
In the HotDocs questionnaire, the answer to any one question may change which question is asked next. The answer to that question could determine which text is included in the final document. Entering a date of birth could automatically calculate the age of the person, and if the person is determined to be an adult, the content of the resulting document could be very different than if the person was determined to be a minor.
HotDocs brings very powerful logic, math, formatting, date calculation, list generation power and more to bring to the automation process.
Have you done your taxes using an application like TurboTax™? The minute you tell TurboTax that you are preparing a joint return, there are spaces for two sets of names, and social security numbers. Stop and think about how many options are possible in the tax application. If you include every option into one document, imagine how big it would become. Imagine a basic will with the text for every possible option you might use, add in the logic, the fields and the formatting and you have what HotDocs refers to as a Master Document. Think TurboTax on steroids and you have HotDocs!
HotDocs can also perform document assembly on the web, share templates and answer files on servers, and work with PDF forms to quickly generate documents that are much less likely to contain errors. The “assembled document” is generated as either a Word or WordPerfect file.
HotDocs 10, the most recent version comes in Developer and the User version for non-developers. PDF Advantage is bundled with both. The cost of HotDocs Developer is a hefty $800. Every office that plans to create their own templates need at least one license of Developer. HotDocs User at $300 per user allows the user to use the templates/master documents but not to create or edit them.
What are some of the pros and cons of a plan to deploy HotDocs at your firm? The basics of template creation in HotDocs are not particularily difficult. There is a very good tutorial and a set of templates to use with the tutorial exercises available free. Completing those exercises, and implementing basic documents, will certainly improve the efficiency of your firm. The tech minded, logical thinker with a bit of programming experience can go a long way using these materials and the additional tutorials provided by HotDocs . The solo small firm with the just the right person on their team can bring HotDocs successfully to the firm, but the time commitment can be enormous! There is a risk of failure to deploy due to the other demands of the firm.
If you are part of a firm looking to roll out a full HotDocs solution for a firm of multiple users, you will need to seriously consider hiring a consultant. The consultant can oversee deployment of the application and linking to current database solutions your firm may be using. The consultant can also be contracted to create the templates/master documents for your firm. Consultants are also able to oversee training for your firm. Training HotDocs end users may be the most often overlooked expenditure. Including training in your project budget and plan will ultimately have a very positive effect on the project ROI. Hiring a certified consultant for a HotDocs project of any scope will come a rather steep price but, it is worth it.
If you think HotDocs is just right for your firm, and you want to do it all yourself, go to www.hotdocs.com/downloads and download the 30 day free trial. Next, make yourself use it. Complete the tutorials, all of them! Then, explore some of the other document assembly options discussed here with just as much vigor. The decision to invest in a document assembly solution for your firm needs to be made from a very thoughtful mindset.
5. Microsoft Word plug-ins.
These tools install as a tool bar in Microsoft Word and are designed to make the creation of templates much easier and reduce the learning curve, although it should be noted that many of the practice management solutions also install a Microsoft Word plug-in.
Both Pathagoras™ (www.pathagoras.com ) and The Form Tool™ (www.theformtool.com) allow a lawyer to set up a document that can be auto-filled with absolutely no programming skills.
In Pathagoras a lawyer can just pull up the lawyer’s own form in Microsoft Word and replace all of the various variables (names, dates, prescriptions) with the name of the variable surrounded by brackets. (e.g. replace Betty White with [Client Name]) Then Pathagoras can be used to scan the documents and generate a table for all of the variables. This is a simple two column table with a column on the left indicating the names of all the variables and the column on the right having the blanks so that the document can be completed. Pathagoras will also give you an option to save the client information so that it can be reused again to create future documents.
The outstanding thing about Pathagoras is that while it has much more power available for the advanced user, the basic user can create templates and actually implement document assembly within the law office by only using the open bracket key and the close bracket key.
The Form Tool has a more graphical interface that allows one to customize form documents into a fillable form. One particularly valuable feature of The Form Tool is that it creates at the bottom of each created document the table that was used to fill the data into the document. One of the parts of document creation in the law office that is both expensive for the client and tedious for the lawyer is the constant reproofing of documents to make sure that there are no errors. While one cannot avoid some degree of proofreading until one becomes very comfortable with the system, eventually one will be able to proofread a document created by The Form Tool by merely examining the variables that were given The Form Tool very carefully and then glancing through the document to make sure there are no glaring errors or omissions.
Like Pathagoras, The Form Tool allows the basic Microsoft Word user to create templates and actually implement document assembly within the law office in less than an hour.
Pathagoras has a free 90 day trial and The Form Tool has a free version and a Pro version.
6. Virtual Law Office bundled software.
There are two main providers of Virtual Law Office software. In addition to the other services they provide such as credit card processing and web hosting, these software packages often provide document assembly tools. To become more familiar with this method, please read the article by Richard Granat attached to the end of these materials.
Of course, one cannot discuss automating document assembly processes without also paying attention to the business implications. This is the classic case for charging a fee based on a method other than hourly billing.
Switching to a fee charged per document rather than the time spent drafting a particular document presents a win-win for both lawyers and clients. There can be a cost reduction for the client, which always pleases the client. But the lawyer, after the investment of time in setting up the system, will have much less time spent drafting and proofing that routine documents.
In the future there will likely be more blended fee contracts with hourly rates are charged for some tasks, along with a schedule of flat fees for production of certain types of documents.
Document assembly should be high on the radar for every law firm that wants to remain competitive in the future.
Materials from Other Authors
Product Review PhraseExpress
By Wells H. Anderson
This article was originally published in the December 2011 edition of GPSolo magazine and is reprinted here by permission. The author also notes that he grants permission to the world to reuse and remix his work, Product Review – PhraseExpress, so long as they simply attribute it to Wells H. Anderson (Creative Commons CC BY 3.0).
PhraseExpress (www.phraseexpress.com) has the potential to improve your productivity on a computer more than any other utility program. Professionals and other office workers generally do not appreciate how much time an excellent text-expansion program can save.
PhraseExpress speeds up your typing by letting you enter abbreviations for words and phrases. For example, you can type “iyh” and PhraseExpress will replace “iyh” with “If you have any questions, please let me know.”
The essential functions of PhraseExpress are:
- You type abbreviations that automatically expand, becoming words and phrases.
- You type a code or press a hotkey to automatically insert a boilerplate phrase or paragraph.
- Your frequently used words, names, phrases, and paragraphs are organized in lists and folders where you can modify and add to them.
These functions save you time and improve your accuracy. The makers of the program have even posted a video (www.phraseexpress.com/demo.htm) showing how a variety of PhraseExpress features work.
Compatible with All Your Programs
I have tested PhraseExpress extensively with MS Word, MS Outlook, web browsers, LexisNexis Time Matters, and many, many other programs. It handles them all beautifully—even when the programs undergo an upgrade. That is not true of many other competing text-expansion programs I have tested.
Compatibility is the most important factor in choosing a utility program such as PhraseExpress. You don’t want to invest time in creating a collection of abbreviations only to discover later that they won’t work in one of your programs.
Various software programs have their own text-expansion features. MS Word has AutoCorrect, with its “Replace text as you type” feature. LexisNexis Time Matters practice management software has AutoTXT that does the same thing. But each one is limited to its own program. That is a big limitation.
You don’t want to have to create abbreviations in each of the programs or manage text-expansion features that vary from program to program. You can be much more efficient by turning off the text-expansion features in programs such as MS Word and Time Matters and by using one program, PhraseExpress, to handle all your abbreviations.
Investing Time to Save More Time
If you invest time in creating abbreviations to save you time, you want them to work everywhere in your computer. PhraseExpress does that and also allows the people in your office to share a set of common abbreviations by using the network edition of PhraseExpress.
The longer you use PhraseExpress and the more abbreviations you add to your collection, the more valuable it is. I like taking advantage of the feature that automatically expands an abbreviation immediately without requiring that I press a special key. For example, as soon as I type “tcw,” PhraseExpress expands it to say “teleconference with.”
For many of my abbreviations, I add the letter j at the end. The J key is very easy to type—it is directly under the right index finger for both touch typists and two-finger typists. The trailing J’s make the abbreviations unique so that they don’t match strings of letters that appear in regular words.
For example, I couldn’t use “pm” as an abbreviation for “practice management” because the “pm” in words like “development” would expand as soon as I typed “developm”. So I use “pmj” because that string of letters doesn’t occur in regular words. Here are examples of some of my abbreviations:
- ltj: legal technology
- pmj: practice management
- tcw: teleconference with (no “j” needed because tcw doesn’t occur in other words)
- tyfy: thank you for your (no “j” needed)
- waj: Wells Anderson
- 5200j: 5200 Willson Road, Suite 150, Edina, MN 55424
This approach works well for me. There are other styles of working with PhraseExpress that also work well. You can define a key to press after entering an abbreviation in order to expand it. You can tell PhraseExpress to recognize and expand an abbreviation only if a space or punctuation character is typed after the abbreviation’s string of letters. You can also create a folder of your own frequently used abbreviations and assign a hotkey to display the folder. Or you can set up a floating palette with a menu of choices. That feature can be used to create a library of stock paragraphs, contract language, questions, and other reusable text.
Spelling errors create a special kind of stress. Before you finalize a document or send an e-mail, don’t you sometimes wonder whether you failed to catch all the typos? PhraseExpress can automatically correct spelling errors as you type. You can even import the spelling dictionary from MS Word, including any additions you may have made to it.
Typing can stress your fingers, wrists, arms, and shoulders. The less you have to type, the less wear and tear. Every time you type an abbreviation, such as “addrj” for your address or “sigj” for your signature block, you feel the satisfaction of not having to type out multiple lines of repetitive text.
Learning the Basics
PhraseExpress contains many advanced features (more on these below), but the most basic functions of the program require very little training: All you need do to add an abbreviation is select a word or phrase on the screen, press a hotkey (that you have defined), and type the abbreviation. That’s it.
The developers of PhraseExpress have also done an excellent job of presenting both step-by-step instructions and instructional videos on their website. You can access these aids instantly by clicking on Help in the PhraseExpress program.
A multiple-clipboards feature is built into PhraseExpress. Each time you copy or cut some text, it goes into a History list in PhraseExpress. By pressing a hotkey that you assign, you can bring up the History list anywhere else in any program and paste one or more items from the list. This feature is especially useful when composing e-mails to clients or doing any sort of extensive writing. You can draw on multiple sources, including web pages, documents, and e-mails, without having to jump back and forth repeatedly between screens to copy and paste each phrase or paragraph.
The Professional edition of PhraseExpress also includes document assembly functions. You can save formatted MS Word paragraphs and documents; create pop-up, fill-in-the-blank forms that insert names and other text; and use floating phrase menus.
For example, starting in MS Word you select a power of attorney document from the floating phrase menu. A pop-up form would prompt you for the required names and other fill-in text. The resulting text appears immediately in MS Word.
You can also create “phrases” that include graphics and formatted text to insert into MS Word documents.
You can set PhraseExpress to watch what you type and identify phrases that you use frequently. It automatically memorizes them. After you have used the same string of words multiple times, PhraseExpress will prompt you the next time you start to type the same words. It will display the text you typed previously and give you the option to confirm entering the rest of the phrase.
Of all the features in PhraseExpress, text prediction is the only one that I haven’t liked. Perhaps it is a matter of setting the sensitivity. (In the Options, you can set the minimum number of words that you need to repeat in order for PhraseExpress to add them to its Text Prediction collection.)
Automation via Programming
For advanced users who like computer programming, PhraseExpress can automate menu sequences in programs that don’t have programmable buttons. For instance, in Adobe Acrobat I often secure a document so that it can be opened and read but not changed (at least not without the password). I have now programmed a macro in PhraseExpress to do this automatically.
Currently the price of PhraseExpress is $49.95 for the Standard version or $139.95 for the Professional version that includes document assembly features. The network module is included at no extra charge when you buy the network edition of the software. You don’t pay a premium for the network edition; it costs the same per user as the single-user edition. PhraseExpress keeps track of how much time and money you save as you use it. Even using a modest hourly dollar value, the program pays for itself easily within a month. You can download a trial version of the software for free (it is limited to personal use).
The Value of PhraseExpress
The most basic feature of PhraseExpress, replacing abbreviations with words, delivers the most value. PhraseExpress performs this task instantaneously and with excellent, time-saving refinements. For example, when you type an abbreviation in lower case, it will expand into a lower-case word; if you capitalize the first letter of the abbreviation, it will expand into a word or phrase with the first letter capitalized. Alternatively, you can make abbreviations case sensitive. These refinements, plus the ability to operate universally in any program on your computer and on your network, make PhraseExpress a joy to use.
I am no longer happy working on a computer without PhraseExpress. It saves so much typing. Whenever I type a long word or a phrase I expect I’ll need to use again, I add it to PhraseExpress. So be forewarned, once you start using PhraseExpress, you, too, may not want to use a computer without it.
Wells H. Anderson puts technology to work for lawyers. Winner of the TechnoLawyer Legal Technology Consultant of the Year Award in 2000, he runs Active Practice LLC. A Time Matters software expert, Anderson presents a free monthly webinar for lawyers and staff. Contact him for answers to becoming more profitable, organized, and secure at 800-575-0007 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Document Assembly Over the Internet
By Richard S. Granat
This article was originally published in the December 2011 issue of Law Practice Today and is reprinted here by permission.
Richard Susskind, in his book, The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services, devotes a chapter to disruptive legal technologies and identifies automated document assembly as a leading example. A related analysis can be found in Darryl Mountain’s paper titled, "Disrupting Conventional Law Firm Business Models Using Document Assembly". Darryl is an attorney in Sidney, Australia . Both authors make the point that automating legal documents is one of the major ways a lawyer can increase productivity, particularly for document intensive practices. Offering these documents directly to clients via the Web through a secure client area, where the client completes an online questionnaire, increases productivity even more. It is much more efficient than a process where a lawyer or paralegal gathers a client’s data and enters it into a desktop document assembly program.
Legal Document Creation the Old Way
For years some law firms, but not all, have used some form of document automation in their law offices. Ranging from an MS Word macro to long-standing programs such as HotDocs, as well as automated forms distributed by legal publishers such as Willmaker by Nolo, some law offices have incorporated some form of document automation in their law practices. Automation of high-volume legal documents has been an indispensable process for increasing law firm productivity and maintaining profit margins in an era of intense competition.
The manual process of cutting and pasting clauses from a master MS Word document into a new document, which many firms still use as a method for creating documents, is a process which is fast becoming outdated.
Barriers to Change
An obstacle to wider use of automated document assembly methods is typically the lawyer's insistence on crafting the words in each clause to their own satisfaction. Because most lawyers do not have the requisite programming skill to automate their own documents, law firms by default will opt to use their own, non-automated documents rather than risk using the legal documents automated by an independent provider, because by definition the content of the documents is "not their own." As a result, many law firms do not consider using desktop document assembly solutions when the forms are published by an independent provider or publisher. Instead, they continue to use time-consuming and less productive manual methods.
Even in firms where document assembly software is used, typically a paralegal enters answers from a paper intake form/questionnaire into a document assembly program running on a personal computer. This results in the extra time-consuming step of entering data from the intake questionnaire to the document assembly program. However, it is still more efficient than cut-and-paste manual methods.
Web-Enabled Document Automation
Now comes "web-enabled legal document automation", or as it is sometimes called, “document assembly over the Internet.” Web-enabled document automation is a process whereby the intake questionnaire is presented to and completed by the client online via the Web browser (Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, etc.).
As the client answers the questions, a document is instantly created, ready for the lawyer's further review and analysis. If the client misses a question, the lawyer can easily communicate by email and request additional information or provide a clarification on how a question should be answered. But that is much more efficient that jotting down the client's answers to the attorney's questions on a yellow pad over the telephone. The result is a further leap in productivity because the client is actually doing part of the work at no cost to the lawyer, freeing the lawyer up to focus on analysis and further customization of the document.
Here is a model for a new client journey that is based on a client-facing web-based questionnaire, integrated with an ecommerce component, and supported by advice, review, and revision from a lawyer.
This is consistent with Susskind's analysis that lawyers should automate what they can, leaving to human intelligence what it does best, which is providing legal advice and more customized and individualized drafting. Today, automated document assembly solutions are very robust and can automate very complex documents with multiple levels of "if-then" clauses to accommodate hundreds of different fact situations. Automation of more standardized legal documents should be a "no-brainer." Using web-based automated document assembly reduces greatly the amount of time the attorney has to spend on an individual document project, enabling alternative billing systems that yield a higher margin for the law firm and also potentially lower pricing to the client.
Web-enabled document automation applications will continue to evolve in ways that desk-top document automation cannot because of the limitations of a desk-top approach. This will lead to greater productivity for law firms that embrace this technology. Most web-enabled document automation applications incorporate capabilities for collaborating between one or more authors, between lawyer and client, and lawyer to lawyer accelerating the communication and negotiation process. One document automation system enables the lawyer to edit an assembled document on the fly within the web browser, without disturbing the underlying logic that is used to assemble the document. See Dancing in the Cloud in this issue, by Marc Lauritsen, for more discussion about document collaboration.
Unfortunately, lawyers have been slow to adapt to using web-based document automation because of their reluctance to use legal documents drafted or automated by someone else. In order to automate their own documents, they must either acquire the skill to automate their documents, or commit the capital to have a skilled professional automate their documents for them. For solos and small law firms, these two constraints create formidable obstacles to adopting web-based document automation applications.
Since neither condition is common within smaller law firms (programming skill, investment capital), the result is that the law firm gets stuck using older, less productive methods of document creation.
Vendors that provide Web-enabled document platforms include Rapidocs**, and Exari, Brightleaf, HotDocs, DealBuilder, and Wizilegal, to name only a few. All claim their authoring systems are easy to use, but I have yet to see lawyers with no programming skill create their own, automated legal documents in any quantity. Lawyers become stuck in a negative loop of their own creation which reduces productivity (and profitability). Here is the consequence of this frame of thinking:
"My legal documents are the best. However, I can't automate them for the Web because I don't know how; thus, I will be less productive and be required to charge you more because of my own inefficiency, lack of skill and/or unwillingness to change the way I do things."
One kind of collateral damage that results from this way of thinking is that non-lawyer legal form Web sites are eroding the solos’ and small law firms’ market share for common legal transactions. Non-lawyer, Web-based legal form companies have embraced the power of Web-enabled document assembly and are creating vast libraries of automated legal forms in every common practice area from divorce and business documents, to bankruptcy and immigration forms. This is a classic case of "pure-play" disruption. Because the user is "doing" the work by completing an online questionnaire and the software does the rest, these companies have a very high profit margin on these legal forms once the capital cost of initial automation is recovered.
The limitations of a "forms only", self-help approach are self-evident. Without legal advice and guidance, the consumer may be using these forms at their own peril, and there is no assurance that the created form will actually fit their individual circumstances. None of the benefits of using an attorney accrue to the users of self-help, automated legal forms.
Nevertheless, and ironically, solos and small law firms ignore these developments at their own peril. While many solo practitioners ponder these developments, non-lawyer operated Web sites like LegalZoom, CompleteCase, LegacyWriter, and dozens of other non-lawyer sites are using Web-enabled document assembly methods to eat away at the market share of the legal profession.
I have heard some critics of automated document methods assert that lawyers were not trained to be "robots." This perspective misses the point. By figuring out what parts of a legal process can be efficiently automated, and which parts need to remain in the domain of human intelligence, the productivity of the lawyer is greatly enhanced. In the future, automated document assembly over the Web will become the norm, as it offers the promise of greater value and lower prices.
It is time for the legal profession to catch up and not cede this piece of business to non-lawyer operators. At the end of the day, it is the consumer who will suffer by not having access to the legal profession.
What can be done? What are next steps?
The "Web-based, legal document automation solution" used by non-lawyer providers is a disruptive technology and is eating away at the core business base of the typical solo and small law firm. Reportedly, LegalZoom will generate over a $100 million in sales volume this year using Web-enabled document assembly to power a business model that did not exist a decade ago.
What can solos and small law firms do to compete in this challenging and competitive environment? The American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center reported last year in their Annual Technology Survey that only 52.2% of solo practitioners have a Web site. Even if this number is underestimated, it is shockingly low compared with Web site utilization by other industries, such as the travel, banking, brokerage, and retail sector of our economy. If you don't even have a Web site, the idea of "Web-enabled document automation" is not possible. Creating a Web site that incorporates a secure “client portal” is the first step towards developing a business strategy leveraged by the use of Web-enabled document automation.
Step # 2:
Once you have a Web site, a Web-enabled document automation solution can be incorporated, enabling clients to complete online questionnaires that result in immediate assembly of the first draft of a document, ready for the attorney’s further analysis, review, and revision as appropriate.
Legal form content, either the lawyer’s own legal forms or automated legal forms licensed from a third party vendor, needs to be incorporated into the Web-based delivery system. The selection of forms will of course depend on the lawyer’s area of practice and is a strategic decision related to the volume in the practice area and the use of a Web-based document automation approach to differentiate the firm’s identity from others in the same practice area. Lawyers who take the trouble to learn how to automate their own legal forms will have a competitive advantage over those that don’t, as they can focus in niche areas which are not easily available through third party vendors.
Extending a firm’s brand online by offering legal services through a Web-based approach should be the center of law firm thinking and the future delivery of legal services. Secure client portals, Web-enabled document assembly, and smart Web advisors, together with alternative pricing models and limited legal services delivery, will be the next wave of innovation in the legal profession.
The train is already leaving the station. Don’t be left behind.
** Full disclosure: We use Rapidocs as the document assembly solution for our DirectLaw Virtual Law Firm Platform.
Richard S. Granat is the founder and CEO of SmartLegalForms, Inc., MyLawyer.com, Inc., and DirectLaw, Inc. Richard is Co-Chair of the eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA. He also serves as the LPM liaison to the ABA Standing Committee for the Delivery of Legal Services. In 2009, he was recognized as a "Legal Rebel" by the American Bar Association Journal. In 2010, he received the Louis M. Brown Life Time Achievement Award from the American Bar Association, for his work in enabling affordable access to legal services for those of moderate income. He is also a Fellow in the College of Law Practice Management.
Jim Calloway is the Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. He publishes the blog Jim Calloway's Law Practice Tips and was the co-author of the book Winning Alternatives to the Billable Hour (2nd ed.) (2002 ABA.) He was chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2005. He is a member of the Council of the ABA's Law Practice Management Section and chair of its Practice Management Advisors Committee. He is co-chair of the 2007 GP/SOLO National Solo and Small Firm Conference. He has been named a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He writes Law Practice Tips column for the Oklahoma Bar Journal. The archives of that column are available online here.
Diane Ebersole is a Practice Management Advisor for the State Bar of Michigan. She is the chairperson of the Practice Management Advisors of North America, and chair of the ABA State and Local Bar Outreach Committee, member of the ABA Careers Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section, and serves on the board of the ABA Law Practice Magazine. She is a frequent speaker presenting topics encompassing office management technology and best practices, mobile practice tools and integrated practice management applications. She became a certified in HotDocs consultant in 2007 and is also a certified Clio consultant. Her background includes a stint at as the regional IT director for a fortune 500 company, a law school IT training coordinator, a network administrator and as the instructional design and testing coordinator for a medical school. Diane strives to empower attorneys and their staff with the technology tools and training to maximize the efficiency of their law firm while developing sound legal business practices.