September 01, 2015

Document Automation: Using Technology to Improve Your Practice

Nerino J. Petro Jr.

So what is document automation (also referred to as document assembly), and why do lawyers need it? Simply put, it is a way to assemble documents or populate documents with variable information. Document assembly traditionally referred to the creation of documents from separate clauses and information based on the answers provided during an interview or question-and-answer process within a piece of software or on a website. Document automation, in contrast, was viewed as “a fill-in-the-blank form” where information such as names, addresses, company names, etc., was added. Today, the lines are blurred and either name can be used interchangeably. The terminology used is not what is critical—the real question is why do lawyers need document assembly? The answer is quite simple: money.

Yes, it really is all about the money. Lawyers, especially solo and small firm lawyers, face increasing competitive pressures from other lawyers and from non-traditional service providers that seem to be in a race to the bottom when it comes to fees. Service providers such as LegalZoom (which bills itself as providing “self-help services at your specific direction”), Rocket Lawyer, and others pose a significant threat to firms focused on the average consumer. These non-traditional service providers often charge less than a lawyer does for preparation of similar documents. Granted, the consumer does not receive the benefit of getting the experience and advice from a lawyer, but the reality is that the consumer is too often singularly focused on price. These non-traditional providers have, in fact, done what Richard Susskind discusses in his book The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services (Oxford University Press, 2008), which is the commoditization of many legal services.

To compete against this pressure, you need to be practicing as effectively and efficiently as possible. One of the ways to do this is to focus on gaining efficiencies in the preparation and production of documents used on a regular basis in your practice. While you can try simply to charge less while preparing your documents in the same old way, doing so (to quote the old saw) will only get you sorry and sore. Instead, you must create your documents in a way that is more productive in the use of your time and more efficient by leveraging standard language that you use over and over again. You can then simply modify or add the language that changes each time—variable language such as names, birthdays, agents, amounts claimed, etc.

Reusing "Dumb" Documents vs. Creating Automated Documents

When it comes to preparing documents, too many lawyers simply reuse existing word processing documents; they open the old document, and then they go through and change the information each time they create a new one. Does this work? Yes. Is it a good idea? No, it is not. At some point this practice not only can end up embarrassing you but can lead to potential violations of the ABA Rules of Professional Conduct.

Reusing a previously created document for a different client requires you to find each piece of information for that prior client and replace it with the information for the new client. This requires you to carefully review the form and find every piece of prior variable information. You then need either to (1) highlight and delete each and every piece of that prior information and then type in the new information or (2) highlight each piece of information and then use the overwrite function of your word processor to replace each piece of the prior information. Experience shows that this takes you more time than even just using a blank form each time in either scenario.

By reusing a prior form you also run the risk of failing to fully remove some of the old information pertaining to the prior client. At some point, we have all come across a document whether from another lawyer or our own office that was clearly created from a prior document for a different client or matter. The tip-off could be something as simple as an incorrect pronoun—“he” where it should be “she” or “her” where it should be “him”—or an address or description that has nothing to do with the client or matter at hand. At a minimum, this can be embarrassing; at the worst, it could invalidate a document and lead to a malpractice claim. ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6 requires all lawyers to act competently to safeguard their clients’ confidential information. Rule 1.6 does not provide an exception for inadvertent disclosure such as failing to properly remove a prior client’s information from a document you use for a new client or matter.

To avoid running afoul of Rule 1.6 and potential malpractice issues, at a minimum you need to use a template requiring you to save the document as a new file while preventing you from overwriting the template itself. By doing this, there is never any client information saved to the template, thereby eliminating the risk of inadvertently including information you should not.

But what if you actually automate your document creation process? Automating the creation process allows you to generate documents in less time, with fewer potential errors, while providing more pricing flexibility for your work. Let’s consider an example of how document automation can affect creation of a very simple form such as the Illinois Statutory Short Form Power of Attorney for Property (POA).

The Illinois POA form requires that you provide the identity of the Principal, the Agent, a Successor Agent, and the Witness. You also can expand or limit the powers granted in the statutory form and provide for effective and termination dates other than signing and death. Document automation works best when you begin with simple documents and progress to more complex documents as you gain confidence with the process. For this discussion we will create a basic POA that is designed to work for a large number of basic POA needs and that will minimize the number of variables we need to change for each document. These variables are:

  1. Full name and address of the Principal
  2. Full name and address of the Agent
  3. Full name and address of any Successor Agent(s)
  4. Full name of the Principal in the Witness provisions

All other variables such as limitations or additions to the Agent’s powers and the effective and termination dates are pre-completed with information that you use each and every time. As you gain confidence with your document automation capabilities, you can modify your form so that these variables are not fixed but will be created based on information you provide unique to the client.

So think about the options you are presented with above: The first option is to take a form from another client, search through it for prior client information, and then find and replace that prior client information; the second option is simply to enter the variables in response to a series of questions and then hit a button to generate the POA. Which is faster? Yes, this is a trick question—the second option will always be faster.

Faster in this instance translates into less time spent generating the document and fewer chances of including prior client information. Spending less time creating the document translates into more effective use of your time and resources. Thus you can make more money on a document, even if you charge less than you did previously because you’ve made the whole process more efficient.

Below are resources for information on how to create templates for forms in four popular word-processing programs (Word, WordPerfect, Pages, and iWork for Mac):

What Are Your Options?

When it comes to document automation, you can get started with your existing software and leverage the tools that already exist in your Mac or PC. Or you can buy software to automate document creation that includes the ability to customize document phrases and clauses based on answers to questions or other logic placed in the template you create.

Automating a document can be as simple as creating a Word template that has certain language already completed, such as making our POA effective on signing, terminating on death, and with predefined terms for limitations such as the additional power of making gifts. You can then use simple substitution, such as using double chevrons << >>, to identify information that needs to be added. Using this substitution, you can search and replace replaceable variables without worrying about leaving behind another client’s details. A better option, in my opinion, is to use add-ins that allow you to answer questions and create the document with the required variables inserted by the add-ins.

Auto-Correction, Text, Replacement, and Text Expansion

One of the easiest ways to start automating document creation is to use the tools already included in the programs or platform we use daily. For most of us, this will be using text expansion or text replacement. With text expansion or replacement, you type a special word, series of letters, or characters, and it is replaced with something else, such as a name, phone number, phrase, or even an image. Although there are third-party text expansion programs, you can easily get started using the auto-correction feature built into programs such as Word, Outlook, or WordPerfect or that are included in your operating system such as iOS and OS X.

So what is auto-correction? Open your word processor of choice and deliberately misspell a word as you type. For example, type “teh” in Word and hit the spacebar, Word automatically changes “teh” to “the.” In other words, Word automatically corrects your misspelling. This is auto-correction of text. As with many software features, it may be called something other than auto-correction—Microsoft calls it AutoCorrect while WordPerfect calls it QuickWords. In the end, they all work similarly by changing or replacing the text or characters typed. Many auto-correction tools include preconfigured words and characters for the most common misspellings, while others provide a few examples and let you create your own (as in iOS). But their usefulness does not stop with simply correcting misspelled words: You can add your own words and corrections to those that are preconfigured. This allows you to start automating document creation using existing tools.

If you find yourself typing the same text over and over again, such as a signature block or a phrase, use the auto-correction feature of your program to automatically insert that language when you use the abbreviated text you assign to that language in the auto-correct feature. For example, you can elect to add “vty” to your auto-correction tool and have it replace these three letters with a signature block such as:

Very Truly Yours,

Nerino J. Petro Jr.

Attorney at Law

Or add “;wfr” to the auto-correction tool and have it replace these letters with:

I will await your response.

Here are just a few of the online resources on how to use auto-correction for text expansion and replacement:

Although the built-in tools provide basic features, you can use third-party programs specifically designed as text expansion tools for even greater functionality. These text-expansion tools allow you to create canned e-mail responses, navigate menu commands such as the Save dialog in a program, and create multiple signature blocks, entire clauses or sections for a document, and much more. These third-party tools generally provide greater choices concerning the formatting of the text, how much text you can include, and even what actions are taken when you use the tool. The following list (which is not all-inclusive) provides examples of text expansion apps and programs for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android devices.

Windows:

Mac OS X:

Mac/iOS:

Android:

Although some of the above tools may be more full featured or offer different capabilities, they all provide basic text expansion that will work with multiple apps and software programs on your device. Also note that Mac OS X, iOS, and some versions of Android include native text expansion. (For an in-depth review of PhraseExpress, check out Wells H. Anderson’s review at bit.ly/1GP5zbh.)

Legos for Windows

If you want to be able to create standard clauses, pleading headers, notary or witness provisions, etc., and be able to save those to designated categories (e.g., real estate, wills, family law), take a look at Microsoft Quick Parts. Quick Parts consist of several different parts and are referred to as Building Blocks in Word and Outlook. According to Jim Calloway and Diane Ebersole:

Quick Parts (see tinyurl.com/3ctjf4s) is an extremely easy to use tool contained within the 2007, 2010, and 2013 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.” It is strongly suggested that no matter how sophisticated a document assembly program one might have, the built-in tools of Microsoft Word—particularly AutoCorrect 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. This link (tinyurl.com/3ctjf4s) 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. (Excerpted with permission from “Magic in Minutes—Effective Use of Document Assembly” by Jim Calloway and Diane Ebersole, updated by Diane Ebersole, Law Practice Today, September 2012, tinyurl.com/8h4ztxp.)

Using Quick Parts, you can “build” your document from clauses or substitute a Quick Part for a standard existing clause in a template. Quick Parts provide more flexibility in formatting and the amount of text captured than Word’s AutoCorrect feature. For WordPerfect fans, QuickWords will do basically the same thing as Quick Parts. (For WordPerfect users, Barry MacDonnell’s Toolbox for WordPerfect site, wptoolbox.com, has great tips on automating WordPerfect documents and much, much more.) One downside to Quick Parts is that, by default, Word and Outlook keep all your Quick Parts in a single location (e.g., all your family law Quick Parts would be found in the same list as all of your real estate Quick Parts). Luckily, you are not forced to keep them all in the same place and can change this default action.

Here are a number of articles on dealing with this conundrum:

There also are numerous general online resources on using Quick Parts, including:

If you search the Internet on how to use Quick Parts using your favorite search engine, you will find many more resources than the few I’ve listed above. For those of you who use iWork’s Pages for Mac or iOS, I am not aware of any equivalent feature to Quick Parts.

Tools in Practice Management Software and Services

Most popular desktop practice management software (e.g., Time Matters, Amicus Attorney, and PracticeMaster, to name just a few) and cloud-based services (e.g., Clio, Rocket Matter, and MyCase) include differing levels of document automation. Desktop software includes the ability to use the merge features of Word and even WordPerfect (although integration with WordPerfect is rapidly dwindling owing to its decreasing market share) and templates for both desktop and cloud-based products. With document automation templates in these products, users generally upload a template in Word, Pages, or PDF format (with a very few exceptions, you must first convert WordPerfect templates to PDF). Then using field codes provided by the software or service, users can import variable data from the software or service to create the document. Generally, these features rely on set templates based on built-in logic and with no alternative clause selection or substitutions, except in some of the desktop products. Learn more at the following links:

Word Add-Ins

These products are designed to install within Word to add document assembly and automation features. The two products covered in this category are Pathagoras and TheFormTool/Doxserá. Although not as full featured as a stand-alone product such as HotDocs, they provide much of the same functionality while being significantly less expensive and complex, so they are much easier to set up and begin using.

Pathagoras (pathagoras.com) allows you to get started quickly by taking your existing documents and creating the variables by placing square brackets in your document. Inside the brackets, you type the name for the variable. Pathagoras calls this “plain text” document automation as you are simply surrounding text with the brackets—there is no use of field codes or other scripts to identify the variables. These brackets and plain text serve as placeholders in the template for the actual information to be inserted.

For example, to create a simple letter to a client, your variables would look like those in Figure 1.

One of the nice features with Pathagoras is that you do not need to start from scratch if you already have a document you want to use as your model. Open that document and place the text that you wish to be a variable in brackets. Then replace the text inside the brackets with the variable name, for example replacing Mary Smith with [Client Name]. Pathagoras also has the ability to select multiple instances of the same variable once and turn all instances in the document into a variable without the need to select each and every instance and adding brackets and the plain text. So if you have a document that has a company name in it multiple times, you can select the first instance of that name and, using the Create Variables Assistant, Pathagoras will select all instances of that name and replace all of them with the new variable. Pathagoras allows you to save the information that you use to replace the variables within its “Instant Database System” so you can reuse it for other documents at a later date. You can also create interviews to help you with selection of alternative clauses and provisions as well as complete multiple documents at the same time. Pathagoras also allows you to link to other database sources to pull in information that you may already have in a practice management or time-and-billing program. However, this is not a feature that is widely used and may be more than you need—at least when you begin automating your documents. Pathagoras has some very complex logic and other capabilities hiding beneath its surface and continues to be improved regularly.

Pathagoras offers a 90-day free trial and has also recently added a cloud version called Pathagoras on Cloud (pathagoras.mobi). Pathagoras on Earth (the desktop version) starts at $379 for the first user with discounts for additional users and offers an annual maintenance plan after the first year. You can also subscribe on a monthly or semi-annual basis. Pathagoras on Cloud offers a 30-day trial and starts at $30 per user per month. Discounts apply for additional users.

TheFormTool (theformtool.com) and its sister cloud product Doxserá are also Word add-ins and integrate with Word versions 2007 and later. TheFormTool helps you create what it calls “smart forms” using a two-step process: Step One is to create a Q&A table that asks questions of the form preparer, and Step Two is to add fields to the form where the answers from the Q&A table are placed in the form. Unlike Pathagoras, you do not simply place brackets around a name to create the variables. However, in some ways TheFormTool method of document automation—with its ability to add complex logic and nested variables—provides more powerful tools than Pathagoras. It also allows you to create easy-to-understand questions for the document preparer to answer, along with the ability to add reminders or descriptive information for each field in the Q&A table.

To use TheFormTool to create the same simple letter we created above with Pathagoras, you first create your Q&A table (see Figure 2). The labels here have been placed in the order they appear in the sample letter. If you prefer to group them together putting critical information first—such as names and addresses followed by dates and other information—you can do so. TheFormTool provides video tutorials and help guides on how to do this on its website.

Step two is to put in your fields in the document, which ends up looking like Figure 3.

You next fill in the “Answers” on the Q&A table (see Figure 4). Finally, you click the Fill button in TheFormTool toolbar on the Word ribbon, which results in a letter like the one in Figure 5.

TheFormTool has been joined by Doxserá, which is its cloud-based sibling. Doxserá adds the ability to populate multiple documents simultaneously using the same Q&A table. Unlike Pathagoras, TheFormTool and Doxserá currently do not allow you to use data found in other programs and databases, but the soon-to-be-released Doxserá DB is supposed to add these capabilities. TheFormTool offers a free version that has basic functionality so that you can try it and see if it will work for you. The free version is yours to keep. If you like it and want to get even greater functionality, TheFormTool Pro is $89 per user for a lifetime license. Doxserá is $89 per user per year. The upcoming Doxserá DB is listed at $279 per user per year. Several bar associations are offering member discounts. For Mac users, TheFormTool/Doxserá can be installed on a Mac running Mac OS X 10.9 Yosemite; if you don’t want to install it yourself, TheFormTool folks will do it for you for about $350 (bit.ly/1GP5RPf). For a full comparison of the features of the free and Pro versions of TheFormTool, Doxserá, and Doxserá DB, see the comparison chart at theformtool.com/support/comparison. Expect to see CLE and other providers offering form templates for TheFormTool and Doxserá.

Other Document Automation Tools

There are also premium subscription-based services available, typically delivered online. These solutions provide standard document language, clauses, and terms that are bundled with the document assembly process. These solutions generally focus on a specific practice area, and you are paying for the well-drafted clauses and documents as well as the speed and efficiency of the document assembly process itself. Some examples of these would include Cowles Trust Plus for estate planners (tmsnrt.rs/1GOZKKN), AIA Contract Documents by the American Institute of Architects (bit.ly/1GOZNWX), and WealthDox from WealthCounsel for estate planners (bit.ly/1GOZPhD), to name a few.There are a number of other desktop and cloud-based document automation tools. Many of these such as HotDocs (hotdocs.com), XpressDox (xpressdox.com), Exari (exari.com), ProDoc (prodoc.com), and ContractExpress (bit.ly/1GOXSSl), to name just a few, are more powerful than Pathagoras and TheFormTool/Doxserá. Some are free-standing tools that run on their own, outside of Word. However, with that power comes greater complexity, higher purchase and deployment costs, a steeper learning curve, and the need to employ a consultant to get the most from the product. Companies that assist with these types of products and deployments include Basha Systems (bashasys.com) and Capstone Practice Systems (capstonepractice.com).

A product that was announced at ABA TECHSHOW 2015 in April is a tool from Leaflet Corporation (leafletcorp.com). Like Pathagoras and TheFormTool/Doxserá, it is a Word add-in, but it goes beyond that. Billing its product as “collaborative document automation,” Leaflet provides capabilities including electronic signatures, Q&A tables (called Leaflet Interviews and also Word questionnaires), which can be placed on your website for clients to complete online or that you can share, and more. Leaflet uses a subscription model, and according to its founder, Sam Muthusamy, it will be affordable for smaller firms. From a brief demonstration, Leaflet holds a lot of promise in this market space.

There are a number of other products that can be used for document automation. The following is not an all-inclusive list but provides information on many of the products that are available:

There is no reason for lawyers and their staff not to take advantage of today’s document automation tools. These tools exist for every need and at every price point, ranging from the free and basic to the expensive and complex. The improved efficiency and effectiveness these tools bring to the legal practice will not only reduce potential embarrassment and malpractice but will have a direct and positive impact on the bottom line.

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Nerino J. Petro Jr.

Nerino J. Petro Jr. (npetro@hkrockford.com) is the chief information officer for HolmstromKennedyPC in Rockford, Illinois. He is a lawyer and technologist and was the practice management advisor for the State Bar of Wisconsin LOMAP program from 2006 to 2014.