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January/February 2020

Product Watch

Using Documate to Automate Document Creation

Daniel J. Siegel

When I heard about Start-up Alley at ABA TECHSHOW, I thought of all the wonderful things that start-up businesses could invent to make my world easier. Of course, being a lawyer whose office prepares lots of documents, my mind turned to ways to streamline more how we create our documents.

We have tried document assembly products in the past with limited success. Luckily, one booth in Start-up Alley offered a solution to this ongoing nagging problem that has plagued my office forever. We are proud of all the ways we automate our processes to streamline client services, yet we continue to do far less when it comes to automating the creation of frequently drafted documents.

I wandered over to the Documate booth and discovered a solution to cure our bad habit of copying older documents, changing names and other identifying information and saving them. In other words, this product, designed to automate the document creation process, could prevent us from using a document created for one client as a template for another, and then hoping we made all the necessary changes and didn’t inadvertently overwrite our original document.

I started chatting with the Documate representative about all the times my office has tried document creation products, only to abort the process because we ran out of time and patience or found ourselves thoroughly overwhelmed and more often than not, thoroughly confused.

Of course, the representative told me how easy the process would be and promised to give me a demo. She sounded like every other person pitching similar products. We chatted, and that was that until a few months ago when my office and I watched a demo and liked what we saw. The process seemed easy, and God knows, we need an easier way of drafting wills, living wills and other estate planning documents that, while always personalized for a client’s unique needs, contained certain standard language that never changes or only changes minimally.

We agreed that our office had to do something especially because we acquired a new client that requires lots of generally repetitive, and really tedious, court filings. We signed up for a Documate account and put the process to the test. And while we liked what we used, certain aspects of the process remain a pain. But once we overcame those universal obstacles, we liked Documate and intend to actually use it, not just put it on the virtual shelf.

Of course, we discovered that like every similar product, you cannot avoid the really tedious parts of the process, that is, inputting data and creating templates. Unfortunately, a product that could eliminate that part of the process would be available only at Diagon Alley, the shopping area in Harry Potter’s world of wizardry, and that’s not exactly a realistic goal.

Documate does help to automate the process, but some steps remain unavoidable. For example, you have to create the questions that must be answered to put data into a document. As anyone using document creation software knows, the process of creating interview questions, the ones either clients answer or staff answers after an initial client meeting, is tedious. But someone has to do it, luckily only once.

Creating the interview questions takes more effort than just converting the firm’s interview questions to Documate’s style. It also requires you to think about the smaller points that will make a huge difference later on. Like asking the gender of the client so that your documents can include the proper gender-related pronouns (like he or she, or him or her).

To make the software work, you need to be comprehensive, which requires converting multiple client interview forms or notes into logically organized templates that will be used to create your documents. And it’s not simply the process of taking questions like “Name” and “Address” and converting them to a Q&A format. You also have to convert your forms to a version that will work for every client. That’s more work than it seems.

To accomplish this, you need to be committed, committed to actually completing the process. As I write this, we are pushing forward on the commitment part and are getting there—farther than we have with any other similar product/software. Yet it’s still an effort because we have lots of documents; this is not a one-day or short-term commitment.

Enough of that, you want to know the same things everyone does. Does Documate work? Is it worth doing? And is it flawless?

Yes, Documate works. It’s not perfect; no product is. Because it’s new, the company is committed to customer service and wants satisfied customers, so support and answers came quickly when we needed them, and we did.

Yes, Documate is worth doing. But no, it’s not flawless although it is evolving.

Allow me to explain.

Documate is web-based, so you create your interviews (the questions you and/or clients answer) online. That means you can create interviews anywhere, a great help that is better than traditional server-based products. In other words, create the interviews and documents at home when the phone doesn’t ring rather than in the office when intrusions abound.

One thing that sets the product apart is how easy it is to modify questions after you create them and realize you made a mistake. Or to rearrange them when you discover they aren’t in logical order.

Rearranging is just drag and drop. Changing questions is just a click or two.

Then there is Documate’s Logic function, which is enormously helpful.

Document assembly document templates invariably contain merge codes to specify where information from an interview goes. They are by their very nature a pain to set up because not only do you need to set them up, but you also must do so in a way that corresponds to your codes, and everything should be in logical order.

Thus, before you set up and format a document (or group of documents) in Documate and similar products, you need to know where answers to the interview questions go. Documate is helpful in this regard. It allows answers in many formats, including text, text area, check box, dropdown, date, multiple choice, yes/no, integer, email address and more, so creating the links to your documents is easy and can be completed appropriately.

With Documate, you can apply “logic” to any question, which allows you to show or hide a question based on the answer to another question. For example, if clients answer that they have no children, all additional questions about children are not displayed to the user.

There are a few ways to create the link in a document. One is to type the characters for the field codes directly into your document. Don’t do it, it’s a pain; no one wants to create documents that way. Fortunately, there are alternatives, the primary one being a Microsoft Word Add-In that makes the process much, much easier.

The Add-In has not been approved yet by the Microsoft App Store, so users have to add it in manually. That took some time to learn but was worth it. The Add-In is crucial to using Documate because it removes all of the programming-type activity that no one likes and automates much of the process.

Once installed, the Add-In takes care of “telling” the template document what to do. In other words, if you are drafting a living will, the Add-In will insert one clause if the person wants dialysis, another if the client does not. Using this logic, creating the final product is much easier than just working from a copy because you have the alternate language readily available as part of the template.

Documate also allows users to create PDF versions of final documents, not just Word-formatted documents, and has other features with more on the way. For example, you can include videos in your documents and force interviewees to restart the process.

Even better, you can embed the Documate code onto your website, allowing clients to answer interviews before you meet with them. You can also brand your Documate page, so clients know they are at the correct location.

After using and playing with Documate, and discovering its ease of use, I like it. It needs more robust support because referring to online support and chat is not how many lawyers and staff want to do it. I would like it better if it could duplicate questions and groups of questions but suspect that feature will be available shortly because the developers listen to end users, compared with many products where support is an aspiration.

Documate is reasonably priced. For $99 per month, users get two Interview-creator seats, 20 workflows and 250 fields per workflow. For $199 per month, you receive all of these features with five Interview-creator seats, unlimited workflows and unlimited fields per workflow. A “custom” pricing plan is customized to a firm’s specific needs. All plans include seven days per week support.

It may be a long time until we move from the fictional world of Harry Potter-type possibilities and create a document product that creates itself in one easy swoop. Until then, you will need to be committed to doing the initial legwork and then turning over the results to your entire staff. I like the product and expect that, as good as it is, it will be ever better in a few months.

Daniel J. Siegel

Daniel J. Siegel is an attorney whose practice focuses on appellate law and providing ethical, technoethical and professional guidance to other attorneys. He is also president of Integrated Technology Services, a consulting firm that assists law firms with improving their workflows. [email protected]