In my last column, titled “Harnessing AI Web Apps and Chatbots for Content Marketing” (Law Practice, May/June 2021), I talked about a new form of content—expert systems—that law firms were developing to engage people. That included artificial intelligence-based tools to help people determine how the law applies in their situations, build documents containing legal analysis, help clients determine if your firm is a fit to help them with a matter and so on. Our firm has been building these apps and bots for five years, and it has been a real game-changer.
I mentioned I would next be covering how to shop for a software platform to be able to build these kinds of tools. There are several options for lawyers in firms and organizations of all types. The products I’m going to be discussing in this article are all “no-code” platforms that don’t require software development skills. There’s a learning curve for each, and how steep that curve will be for you depends on your overall comfort level with learning new software. I can tell you that I’ve personally designed a number of apps on our no-code platform, and I have no programming background.
Lawyers have several products to consider, including Afterpattern (formerly Community Lawyer), AUTTO, BRYTER, Documate, Formstack, Josef and Neota Logic. Full disclosure: We’re using Afterpattern at our firm.
With the exception of Formstack, the products noted above largely focus on the legal field. The software itself can be useful to organizations in many fields outside of law so a natural question is whether it makes sense to choose one of the legal technology vendors or cast a wider net. There are a few reasons why it makes sense to stay legal focused. First, a no-code platform in the legal space may have a library of legal-specific templates that can be used to speed up creating apps. Second, it helps a lot if a vendor has a community of developers—either the lawyers who are competent in using the software, others at a law firm or outside consultants. Creating apps is just easier if you have others you can reach out to who have similarities in terms of what their apps are designed to do. Finally, lawyers are subject to a number of ethical requirements relating to data privacy and security, and working with a vendor that services the legal industry can help with compliance efforts.
The chief benefit of going with a nonlegal industry vendor may be having a bigger customer base and a product that is more feature- rich than a legal-specific product. Such vendors might also price more competitively than legal industry-specific vendors.
Questions to Ask
1. How easy it to learn and use the software?
Talk to other lawyers using the software, particularly people not referred to you by the vendor (if possible). Is the software intuitive? How well-organized and helpful is the support documentation? Try contacting tech support and see what the experience is like. Does the vendor provide live support, or is it all asynchronous? Does the vendor make it easy for users to connect with each other (such as having online message boards, Slack channels, etc.)? Most of these platforms have a studio or suite designed to improve the app-building experience. Is the user experience intuitive and pleasant?
2. Can the software integrate with Word, Acrobat or other document creation software?
Ideally, if you are using your software to automate word processing documents or complete PDF forms, you should see if the software has plug-ins for the products you’re using. This can save you considerable time and may improve considerably the look of the documents you’re creating.
3. Does the software allow people to sign documents from within the app?
You may be creating agreements or sworn documents that require a signature, and several of the apps make that easy by incorporating HelloSign, RightSignature, Adobe Sign or other digital signature solutions. They may also allow people to sign a document in the app simply with their cursor or finger.
4. Does the software have an open AI that can allow data to be shared between software products?
The ability of your automation software to “talk” to other products like Clio, Google Sheets, LawPay and other tools either via built-in integrations with those products or by creating recipes in Zapier and similar products can make a big difference in how useful the software will be. Ideally, you can shape your system to work well in your firm’s software environment, but that will largely depend on if the vendor has designed its software with that experience in mind.
5. Can you store data in the app?
The ability to store data created by an app or pull data into the app from a database can greatly affect how useful the app ultimately will be. If users of the app create accounts and store data, you may be able to make apps that have triggers and access the data later on (such as to create an email at a specified time in the future). A database also allows app users to create reports with analytics based on the data mined by the app, including how many have used the app, when they dropped off, etc.
6. Can the software perform e-commerce?
Some vendors have created software that is largely designed for internal use by the law firm subscriber or for lawyer marketing. The ability to charge to use an app is simply unimportant. But other app designers are creating apps meant to be sold to consumers or to other law firms, and some vendors have better setups than others when it comes to monetization.
7. Can apps work in other languages?
Can you post apps in other languages and have navigation buttons show up in the correct language and text readable in other alphabets and from right to left?
8. Are the apps well-suited for SEO?
Designing an app optimized for search is important, just like for your website. Some sites are better designed to perform well with Google and other search engines.
9. How much does it cost?
That’s an important question, and some vendors make it hard to find the answer on their websites. But if the price is not online, assume it’s pricey. Price also seems to be tied to who the vendors’ users typically are. Some are focused on large firms and seem to be priced higher for that market (though it’s not necessarily clear that they perform any better just because they cost more). Vendors focused on small firms and bar associations seem to be more reasonable in price.
10. Can you try out the software without committing?
Some vendors offer free trials, and that can be a good way to go for a test drive before spending real money on a product. Others have “freemium” models that allow people to get a feel for the software and then can upgrade to a paid version with more features after they decide if they like the product.
The good news is that you have many more choices than just a couple of years ago, and the prices are more affordable as well. In my next column, I’ll talk about content strategies for app development and how to get the word out regarding your creations.