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March/April 2020

Tech From the Trenches

Document Assembly: What It Is and How to Evaluate Competing Programs

Barron K. Henley

Document assembly (DA) has had a huge impact on the legal world, and it is one of the most disruptive technologies of the last 25 years. If you are in the business of producing complex documents, then it should definitely be on your radar. However, there are many competing platforms, and the options are difficult to compare against one another. This column will help you deal with that reality by providing a checklist of functional criteria to consider when evaluating DA platforms. Like most legal tech categories, there’s no single DA product that is the best option for every situation (vendor claims to the contrary notwithstanding).  If you are trying to figure this out for your practice, hopefully what follows will help.

Document Assembly Defined

On the most basic level, DA is the use of software to very quickly generate customized Microsoft Word documents. It allows you to capture the consistencies in your documents such as which paragraphs, sentences and words go where under any set of facts. It also allows you to capture the irregularities such as custom provisions. DA provides intelligent language building that can accurately consider many inputs to produce the correct phraseology every time. Instead of cut and paste, you  pick desired options from a list. Instead of manually replacing [Testator name] with your client’s name 25 times, you simply respond to on-screen prompts and let the computer do the clerical work. Users must only answer questions in an interview/questionnaire to produce letter-perfect, completely customized documents. Neither word processing nor computer skills are required to use such a system once it is built.   

The Players

I’m not comparing them against one another, but the following is a short list of prominent options in this area: ActiveDocs, Aurora, Bighand Create, Contract Express, Docassemble, Docmosis, Doxserá, Draftonce, Formstack Documents, Forte, HotDocs, Innova, Lawyaw, Leaflet, Pathagoras, Rapidocs, Templafy, Woodpecker, XpressDox and ZumeForms. I apologize for any omissions.  

When Document Assembly Is Appropriate

Many people believe DA is appropriate only when you have simple, fill-in-the-blank forms that are generated in high volume. While any DA platform can handle that type of thing, DA platforms really shine (and provide return on investment) when they’re used to generate extremely time-consuming and complex documents. If a lawyer only needs to fill in blanks, the word processor can easily handle that and DA may be overkill. On the other hand, the value and impact of DA increases proportionately with the complexity of the documents being automated.

Functional DA Platform Selection Criteria

While not a comprehensive list of everything DA can do, the following considerations are what I view to be the most important. For purposes of this discussion, I’ll refer to any data input screen or interview involved in the assembly process as a “questionnaire.”

  • Dynamic questionnaire: Some platforms present a set of questions that cannot be changed or concealed, even if a question is irrelevant based upon how previous questions were answered. For simple documents, this may not be a problem. However, the more complex the decision tree involved, the better it is to have a dynamic interview that automatically updates itself based upon how prior questions were answered. This reduces the margin for error and makes it easier to combine similar documents into a single template.
  • Capture and reuse inputs: You probably need to generate multiple documents for each case or matter. Therefore, it’s critically important that you can save questionnaire responses from one template for use in other templates. You would probably also want the ability to add new information to an existing set of answers or change a previous response and save it. 
  • Ability to pull information from databases: You may require the ability to pull information into your questionnaire from an external database such as a matter management system, Outlook, Access or SQL. The goal should be to avoid any redundant data entry.
  • Ability to add help text in the questionnaire: If you intend to use your DA system as a teaching tool or simply want the ability to provide users with additional guidance when completing the questionnaire, then you need the ability to provide question-specific help text.
  • Ability to generate multiple documents from one questionnaire: If your practice necessitates generating a set of documents (such as estate planning), you may want the ability to produce the entire set from a single questionnaire.
  • Questionnaire flexibility: When gathering the information necessary to generate a document, a system should offer options for the following types of inputs: true/false, multiple choice, text, date and number. 
  • Ability to calculate results: To reduce errors and streamline the questionnaire, a DA platform should be able to calculate text, dates or numbers based upon previous inputs. If the answer to a subsequent question can be calculated based upon prior responses, then the questionnaire shouldn’t ask the question and the calculated result should be automatically entered into the document. The more sophisticated this capability, the faster you’ll be able to assemble complex documents and the less margin for error you’ll have. 
  • Ability to handle conditional logic: Ideally, you would have the ability to include/exclude any text based upon single or multiple conditions. For example, a provision may be included (or not) based upon the response to a single question. Other provisions might be included based upon a compound test such as the client is married, it’s a pour-over will, and the client’s spouse is initial executor. The ability to conditionally include text based upon simple or compound tests is typically required for automating reasonably complicated documents. Finally, you will likely need the ability to handle nested logic. For example, if an optional clause is included, it may contain further optional provisions within it. 
  • Ability to gather and process lists/repeats: This functionality means the DA platform allows a user to enter an unlimited number of records (buyers, sellers, executors, assets, debts, etc.). Sophisticated platforms also provide the ability to calculate things based upon the number of records entered, such as verb conjugation or pronouns. Sorting and filtering the records should also be possible. For example, if the user enters a list of children and their dates of birth, the platform should be able to automatically extract a list of minors or adults, sort them by age or name, and correctly punctuate the results. You may also want nested list functionality such as the ability to gather multiple signatories for each grantor where there could be multiple grantors. List capability is essential for complex automation.
  • Ability to complete PDF forms: Every platform should be able to produce documents that can be opened in Word. However, you may also need the ability to complete PDF forms. 
  • Ability to handle inserted templates: For example, assume you need to build 50 templates for various types of pleadings. The caption, signature blocks and certificate of service language may be common across all of them. As such, they could be subtemplates that are inserted into parent templates. In that manner, editing one subtemplate would automatically update all 50 templates into which it is inserted.
  • Familiarity with template development environment: For example, if your office uses Word, then you probably want to choose a platform that allows you to create templates in that environment. If the platform uses its own word processor for template creation, that can be a negative because it may not possess Word’s best functionality. 
  • Cloud or desktop: Some platforms are available only as locally installed software, some are web-based, and some platforms offer both desktop and web options.
  • Ability to gather data from others: If your practice area requires that you gather data from clients or others within your organization in order to draft documents for them, it would be beneficial if you didn’t have to write down that information once and then reenter it into your DA system. 
  • Stability of the vendor: Do your homework to find out as much as you can about the vendors under consideration. You want to know how long they have been in business, how big the installed base is, how many employees they have overall and how many are involved in technical support.
  • Technical support and training: Learning how to use the platform is obviously key to a successful project. Make sure you explore all options to see what is available (such as on-demand videos, live training or written manuals). Some vendors include “how to” help with their technical support, and some only cover installation issues.  

Properly deployed, DA technology can exponentially decrease drafting time and costs, increase accuracy and profitability, be used as a teaching tool, and be shared with others. If you decide to venture into DA, the right platform for you is primarily determined by the functional criteria your documents require; and it is advisable to err on the side of buying more functionality than less. If you have questions or comments, I would love to hear from you!

Barron K. Henley

Barron K. Henley is a lawyer and a founding partner of Affinity Consulting Group, a legal technology consulting firm focused on automating and streamlining law firms and legal departments. He heads Affinity’s document assembly/automation and software training departments; and he teaches CLE classes throughout the U.S. and Canada covering a wide variety of topics related to law practice management, technology and ethics. [email protected]