General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionTechnology & Practice Guide


Automating the Paper Pyramid and the Document Assembly Revolution

By Steven S. Stern

Document assembly software can be to the legal profession what an assembly line is to the automobile industry. Both enable a product to be produced and reproduced with increased speed, efficiency, and accuracy compared with the alternative—hand assembly. Document assembly is defined as any software product or feature that enhances the preparation and production of documents. The purpose of this article is to explore the different types of document assembly software and make suggestions as to where and how to implement them in your practice. Whether you are a solo practitioner or a member of a thousand person firm, you should take advantage of what document assembly software has to offer.

Costs Associated with Document Assembly Software

The costs associated with implementing a document assembly system depend on the number of paper pyramids you desire to automate. The three basic cost components are 1) hardware and software; 2) consulting; and 3) internal staff time.

Hardware and Software

Most document assembly applications require the same configuration as Windows. Therefore, if you already have Windows, additional hardware purchases are probably not necessary. The cost of the software ranges in price from $69 to over $15,000. However, unlike most products in the marketplace, the price is not a reflection on quality or usefulness. The most popular document assembly software application, HotDocs, has a retail price tag of $199 and is used by AT&T, Chrysler Corporation, Coca-Cola, Citicorp, and approximately 50,000 other legal and nonlegal users. HotDocs may be purchased with forms such as federal court forms, official bankruptcy forms, and state specific limited liability company formation forms. The cost of the forms start at only $69.

Evaluate the system, if possible, before you buy. Also, review the forms to make sure they are suitable for your jurisdiction and practice style. In order to select the best product, you need to determine whether you want one product that can do it all, or a combination of practice specific products. Whether you start with a document assembly engine or a full-blown document assembly, practice-specific application, make certain that you can integrate other practice areas and that the product is well supported.

Consulting and Training

All document assembly software vendors have a team of professionals who can assist you throughout the entire automation process. Most offer on-site and off-site training for an additional fee.

Consulting for document assembly can range from $35 to $125 per hour. Simple forms like retainer letters should take a trained user 10 to 20 minutes to program and should cost less than more complicated forms. Complex agreements may take weeks depending on the number of conditions and size of the document, and will generally be more expensive to have a consultant program. Of course, you can always start with the basic form of the document (with all of the names and addresses and major clauses inserted automatically), then modify the document.

Time Commitment

Certain document assembly software products are designed as do-it-yourself assembly kits. This means that after a few hours of reading a manual and working through sample tutorials, you will be able to automate your own forms. Within minutes, you can create your own basic “interactive” documents. Even the most advanced conditional statements (e.g., “If [this set of facts], then use paragraph 1; else, use paragraph 2”) can be mastered within a short period of time. Other systems come already configured so that little, if any staff time is required.

The mistake many practitioners make is that they attempt to automate every document at one time. Unless you have a lot of free time, it is best to prioritize your documents and automate those documents at the very top level of the paper pyramid first, then work down.

If you want to create your own templates, select a product well accepted in the industry. You do not want to invest the time required to create the templates only to learn that the product is outdated or incompatible with other systems.

Document Assembly Methods

The document assembly revolution began much like the industrial revolution. At some point in time, the factory owners (attorneys) realized that customers (clients) wanted consistent quality products (documents) at reasonable prices (fees). The factory bosses (the managing partners) realized that efficiencies were gained when products (documents) were assembled in the same manner every time.

Attorneys have long employed various document assembly methods for creating and reproducing documents—from the time-consuming cut and paste method to the use of “find and replace” and “merge” features available on most word processors. If you use any of these methods, you will be able to produce and reproduce usable documents. However, you will also have to contend with several downsides.

Cut and pasted documents, for example, must be proofed very carefully to ensure that each one is tailored to the needs of the particular client. “Find and replace,” which is another form of cut and paste, incurs the most document production mistakes. This word processing feature searches for a term and automatically replaces it with another. For example, you may want to change gender specific language from “he” to “she.” Unfortunately, “find and replace” is not sophisticated enough to pick up all word forms. In the example above, you may want to replace not only “he” but also, “his” and “him,” or you may want to change only some occurrences of the word. Although this command has a manual override feature, the feature often causes errors. Another common mistake occurs when a user searches for a term that is either misspelled or abbreviated. For example, assume you want to change all occurrences of “Jamieson Corporation” to “Buster-Brown, Inc,” and the first client’s name appears thirty times throughout the document in various forms – “JCI” and “Jamieson Corporation, Inc.” The computer will not be able to distinguish between the variations, which increases the potential for missed edits.

Some practitioners prefer to use the “merge” feature in their word processor. This feature allows the user to create data variables and to insert them throughout the document. The user can use a data file or the keyboard to fill in the merged variables. Unlike the other techniques discussed above, the problem with this method is implementation. For most users (including this writer), the merge commands are too complicated and the data files are too difficult to manage.

Document assembly software improves upon the merge feature and provides easier tools for creating “interactive” documents than the other three assembly methods. The greatest advantage of document assembly software is its ability to change a document based on the information entered. For example, the document template may ask for the name of a person and that person’s gender. When the template is being “assembled” the final document will be gender specific.

The Paper Pyramid

If your law firm produces documents, it is a candidate for some form of document assembly software. There are certain practice areas that are better suited for document assembly than others. In fact, you can buy document assembly products that include prepackaged forms known as templates, which are designed for your specific areas of practice. The areas that are the best candidates for document assembly are those where documents are generated by either filling in blanks or answering a fixed set of questions. For example, real estate contracts are easier to automate than Answers to Interrogatories.

To start, it is important that you compile an inventory of the documents that you create on a regular basis. I suggest drawing a pyramid and placing the documents you use most often at the top, the documents you use second most often on the second layer, and so forth. Depending on your energy level and time constraints, you may want to start with documents used throughout the firm, then go to specific practice areas. This is called the “Paper Pyramid.”

Document assembly software works best whenever there is a paper pyramid. A pyramid exists whenever a document is generated and that document’s structure can be reused. Such documents include retainer agreements, contracts, load documents, applications, filings, employment agreements, billing letters, and any other “form” document. A sample paper pyramid for the documents required to interview and hire a new associate may look like the diagram in figure 1.

This particular document assembly project includes variations of the standard applicant response letter. One variation extends a job offer, another rejects the job applicant, and the other requests more information from the applicant. The interview letter at the top level of the pyramid is produced most often. The documents on the second level are related to the first level, but are produced less often.

When assembling any of these documents in a nonautomated scenario, you would have to find the original letter, insert or delete language as necessary, and then proofread for mistakes. With document assembly, you simply open the appropriate document template, supply the requested information as prompted, and the document assembles itself. The only thing left for you to do is proof it and sign it. (Actually, the signature can be automated too!)

Linking Paper Pyramids

Once the first paper pyramid is automated, you will naturally want to continue the automation process. The example in figure 1 stopped the automation at the welcome or rejection letter. You may want to add to the original template another template that creates the employment agreement. The employment pyramid might look like figure 2.

Paper pyramids also may be defined with existing documents. Take for example the case of a simple will. Most attorneys piece together numerous phrases and segments from other documents when constructing a will. With document assembly software, the user can select one or more clauses and those clauses will be automatically incorporated into the document upon assembly. In addition, each clause can be accompanied by a question such as “Do you want to create a living will?” If you answer “yes,” then the software can prompt you with additional questions pertinent to the completion of a living will.

Software That Can

If you already have documents that you are comfortable with, you may want to consider a product that includes a document assembly engine. One such product is HotDocs developed by Capsoft Development, a recognized leader in document assembly technology. With HotDocs, you start with your own forms (or you can use one of a thousand forms Capsoft provides with the basic software program). You then replace the variable information such as names, addresses, and other client specific information with special variables. The software will automatically generate a form that prompts you to enter the data whenever you open that particular document template. Once you finish entering the information, the software creates a new document inside of your word processing software (Word or WordPerfect) with the information in the correct places.

HotDocs not only allows the user to define the information collected, but also the manner in which it is collected. Using the paper pyramid example above, a HotDocs template can be programmed to prompt the user for responses as follows:

•Please enter the applicant’s full name.

•What is the applicant’s primary mailing address?

•Do you want to hire the applicant? (Y/N/ Maybe)

Depending on the answer, the system will ask additional questions such as:

•Do you require more information?

If yes, check the appropriate box:

  • Applicant’s Transcripts
  • Additional References
  • Writing Sample

The answers that you use in one template may be saved and used to assemble other documents related to the same client.

Each time you need to send an applicant a letter, the template will generate the same letter in a fraction of the time possible using traditional cut and paste, find and replace, or even merge features. Since this all takes place using your existing word processing software, you are free to personalize the letter at any time.

In addition to providing the engine, Capsoft Development supplies you with a choice of several thousand practice templates. Currently, HotDocs can be purchased with a choice of general practice forms, federal court forms, state-specific limited liability company forms, or bankruptcy forms. These forms can be easily edited using almost any Windows-based word processing software so that you can customize the forms to your practice.

Document Assembly Products by Practice Area

Practice Area Product Vendor Telephone/Web

General HotDocs Capsoft Development 800-500-DOCS

SmartWords The Technology Group 410-576-2040

Collections Collect-Max JS Technology 800-827-1457

Personal Injury/ Pins & Needles Chesapeake Interlink, Ltd. 410-363-1976

Workman’s Comp

Estates & Trusts Expert Wealth Research Institute 800-431-9025 ext. 4
Transfer Planning of America

Software That Does

There is another class of document assembly software which automates specific practice areas. The Research Institute of America (“RIA”) markets one such product called Expert Wealth Transfer Planning. This system is based on a document assembly engine called SmartWords developed by The Technology Group. Experts in the field of estates and trust drafted the forms and used SmartWords as the assembly platform. The software allows the user to place temporary footnotes after each section to explain the reason the language was inserted. This feature shows the attorney why a particular clause or phrase was used within the assembled document. The product also stores information in a database so that the same information can be used to assemble other documents.

In addition to supplying the document assembly templates, certain applications can manage the information that you enter. These products fall under the category of practice automation software or case management software. For example, a product such as Pins & Needles developed by Chesapeake Interlink, Ltd. not only generates documents, but also manages client contacts, negotiations, billing, and several accounting functions. Other software such as Collect-Max by JS Technology can automate an entire collection practice. This product will generate any document necessary to tracking and collecting a debt. There are also several products that automate every aspect of a real estate practice including the contract, the HUD forms, and Title Insurance Binder. These products are often state-specific. Contact your local bar association or check the ABA’s Website for a list of software vendors.


Remember, not all practices and documents are appropriate for document assembly software. However, all practices routinely use at least some documents that can and should be automated. In today’s competitive legal marketplace, attorneys need cost-effective ways to manage their busy workloads, to increase client satisfaction, and to provide timely and accurate professional services. Document assembly can help achieve this goal.

When beginning the automation process, take advantage of community resources such as the ABA’s Legal Technology Resource Center at (312) 988-5028 or your local bar association. For instance, in Maryland, our continuing education organization, MICPEL (Maryland Institute for Continuing Professional Education of Lawyers, Inc.), offers District and Circuit Court forms in document assembly format.

As your practice grows, you can add documents to your automated library. This is one technology that you will never outgrow!

Steven S. Stern is a partner in Legal Technology Solutions, LLC. (, a regional law firm automation consulting firm and systems integrator. He has over 15 years experience in software design and consulting. LTS uses document assembly to produce many of its repetitive documents; including, maintenance agreements and sales contracts. Mr. Stern may be reached via e-mail at

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