Feature

Technology Tools for Real Property and Trusts and Estates Lawyers

A range of technology tools designed to assist RPTE lawyers are discussed.

By Barron K. Henley
Technology Tools

Technology Tools

The integration of technology into the practice of law has been a double-edged sword for most practitioners. On one hand, technology has made some things easier and faster. On the other hand, it can generate a lot of frustration, delay, and expense. When tech began impacting our profession in the early 1990s, the conventional wisdom was for lawyers to focus on doing what only lawyers could do and let the support staff deal with the new technology tools. Of course, it has now become nearly impossible for a lawyer to do his or her job without using technology directly. To make matters worse, the technology tools change at a dizzying pace, and there is often no one around to ask for help. As a result of all of this, lawyers often feel behind the curve and wonder where they should focus their efforts to improve efficiency and profitability. Here are some ideas.

Mastering the Core Production Tools

Any real property or trusts and estates (RPTE) lawyer benefits from learning how to make better use of core production tools like word processor, spreadsheet, email and PDF programs. For many lawyers, those tools take the form of Word, Excel, Outlook, and Acrobat, respectively. Becoming a more skilled user of these applications allows any lawyer to increase efficiency and organization, reduce stress, and become more technologically self-reliant.

When it comes to furthering one’s technical education, the problems for most lawyers are a lack of time and opportunity. It is difficult to find time for learning technology, and it is even more difficult to find legal-specific instruction. For example, lawyers require word processor functionality far more sophisticated than the average user. A trust or lease might require a six-level deep auto-paragraph numbered outline, a table of contents, and paragraph cross-references that automatically update to reflect subsequent editing. The average Microsoft Word user just does not need that kind of thing, and the typical nonlegal class does not cover it.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to teach oneself more about these programs by simply using them, and “clicking around” is not going to reveal much. No one will ever stumble upon the steps necessary to deconstruct and rebuild a train-wrecked Word document so that it is effortless to edit in the future. Further, there are many important Word features a lawyer would want to use for which there are no buttons on any toolbar in the program (such as “Keep With Next” or “Keep Lines Together”). You simply have to know how to access the features and when they are appropriate to use; but you are unlikely to find them without specific instructions.

So what should an RPTE lawyer do about this? First, look for technical training from continuing legal education (CLE) providers and bar associations/law societies. If your CLE provider of choice does not offer anything like this, then ask it to start providing it because many already do. Of course, there are also options for private training classes held in your own office and covering a custom curriculum. Second, seek technical training that is hands-on. A good software instructor can make even the most complicated things look easy. If you are not following along on your own laptop, it might be impossible for you to reproduce what you saw in the class once you get back to your office. Third, take your whole team, colleagues and support staff, to the training as well. If you work as part of a team, then it makes sense to get trained that way. Further, just because support staff may use the technology more than lawyers does not mean they have mastered it. The length of time one has been exposed to certain programs (such as Word or Excel) often has no relationship whatsoever to the level of skill developed. Fourth, carve out time to sharpen your technological saw by scheduling education once a month or at least once a quarter. Convert the “I’ve been meaning to do that” into “I’m glad we did it.” Fifth, get everyone in your office on the same version of the software. It is common for law offices to use multiple versions of Microsoft Office and their chosen PDF program, but it is definitely not a good business practice. Using different versions makes it difficult for users to share knowledge about how to use the programs, and it can create file compatibility issues. Finally, it can be dangerous to use old versions of software. For example, Office 2007 is no longer supported by Microsoft, so Microsoft is not releasing security patches for it as new vulnerabilities are discovered. Getting everyone on a subscription for Office 365 or Adobe Acrobat is an easy way to ensure that your users will all have the latest version of your core production tools.

Drafting Efficiency

One of the most obvious commonalities between real property and trusts and estates practices is that the deliverable is typically a set of complex documents. Therefore, any tech tool that improves drafting speed and accuracy should be at the top of an RPTE lawyer’s list.

Lawyers typically draft new documents by starting with an existing document from a previous client or transaction. An existing document is found, renamed, and modified to work for the present engagement. While obviously better than starting from a blank page, this approach has significant drawbacks. Finding the appropriate document to start with can be time-consuming; and sometimes you never find what you are looking for. If you do find a similar existing document, the word processor’s find-and-replace function often misses things. It is very easy to forget to add text missing from your original document or leave something in that should have been removed. Further, the document used as a template may have been negotiated with opposing counsel and therefore compromised. While starting with a negotiated instrument is not something that trusts and estates lawyers typically have to worry about, it is often an issue for real property lawyers. Unless you are blessed with a photographic memory, it may be difficult to remember all of the negotiated provisions, and, even if you could, it takes a lot of time to change them back to their original versions.

Another drawback of this approach is that there is no central location to store new provisions you draft for special circumstances in case you need to use them again in the future. Recycling old documents also means you have to keep refixing the formatting glitches and structural issues that old word processor files tend to contain. Finally, whether repurposing old documents is fast really depends upon what you compare it to. It is unquestionably faster than starting a new document from scratch, but it is also much slower than incorporating templates or document automation technology into the process.

Many lawyers would argue that the foregoing problems are avoided with dictation. Unless speech recognition software is utilized, however, the cost structure for this approach is dramatically higher because it requires transcription. (Payroll is every law office’s biggest cost.) Although dictation and transcription may require less lawyer time, the overall cost per document is higher than other methods. Further, the process often involves multiple steps of dictation, transcription, print, markup, entering changes, and printing again. As a result of all of these steps, the total amount of time required (and therefore cost) to complete each document is often much higher than you may assume. Furthermore, this process creates a dependency upon support staff to produce work product, and today’s trend is unquestionably headed in the opposite direction.

A much better alternative to the foregoing is to build templates. Templates are simply model documents. If set up correctly, changeable text is consistently identified (enabling a global search-and-replace), and optional provisions are inserted in the order they could occur along with clear markings where they begin and end.

Once basic templates are built, there are many other options for further improving drafting efficiency. First, both Word and WordPerfect offer built-in automation functionality that will allow users to quickly generate final documents from templates. Although these features have always been present, few practitioners take advantage of them. Second, you could link templates to a case management program (CMP). Nearly all CMPs offer basic document assembly functionality where client data stored in the program can be pulled into your word processor documents without having to reenter them. Finally, you could automate your templates with document assembly software. The power of this option merits a bit more discussion.

On the most basic level, document automation is the use of specialized software to quickly and accurately generate customized word processor documents. It should be noted that nearly all software of this type will work with Word and very little of it will work with WordPerfect. In any event, document automation adds significant functionality to your word processor. It allows you to capture the consistencies in your documents such as which sections, paragraphs, sentences, and words go where under changing circumstances. It also allows you to capture the irregularities in your documents. Irregularities include custom provisions and intelligent language building that can accurately consider thousands of inputs to produce the correct phraseology every time. Instead of cut-and-paste, you can pick desired options or alternatives from a list or interview. Instead of manually replacing with your client’s name 25 times, you can respond to questions and let the computer do the clerical work. Users must only answer questions in an interview to produce letter-perfect, completely customized documents. Once deployed, neither word processing nor computer skills are required.

Document automation software is a tool you can use to automate the documents your firm already uses. By contrast, subscription drafting systems automate document generation, but they include the documents you will use. There are pros and cons to creating your own document automation system versus buying or subscribing to a commercial system, which are beyond the scope of this article. The point you should take away is that either approach is vastly better than recycling old documents or dictation and transcription. Further, document automation software and subscription drafting systems are not mutually exclusive. (Many lawyers use both tools.)

Document assembly tools you can use to automate your own documents include HotDocs, TheFormTool, Contract Express, Pathagoras, XpressDox, ActiveDocs, and Exari. There are several subscription drafting system options for trusts and estates lawyers such as Wealth Docx, ElderDocx, and Wealth Transfer Planning. Other estate planning options include Practical Planning System, Lawyers With Purpose, Lawgic, and Fore Trust Software. Unfortunately, there are not many subscription options for a real estate practice, although there are several that can be used to generate title insurance and closing documents such as Qualia and SoftPro.

Document and Email Management Systems

RPTE lawyers all tend to deal with an overload of documents and email. Thankfully, there are specific tools designed to deal with this known as document management systems (DMSs). A DMS provides an automated way to capture, organize, store, and track electronic files. If any of the following apply to you, a DMS is the perfect solution:

 

  1. Your current electronic filing system is disorganized, disjointed, or difficult to navigate.
  2. You have difficulty finding electronic files that you or others in your office created.
  3. The only way to share important email with others in your office is to print them and stuff them in paper files.
  4. You are worried about document security or wish you had a way to better secure and protect your electronic files.
  5. You are tired of everyone in your office operating their own, personal electronic filing systems.
  6. You would like better remote access to all of your electronic files.
  7. You need the ability to seamlessly capture all versions of an electronic file as it is negotiated with opposing counsel or otherwise edited.
  8. You would like to reduce paper.

 

A particularly powerful aspect of DMSs is that they provide a single, integrated system for storing word processor documents, spreadsheets, scanned documents (PDFs, etc.), email, email attachments, and any other type of file such as voice mail sound files (.wav or .mp3). Big players in the DMS market include Worldox, NetDocuments, iManage Work, Laserfiche, and OpenText.

Case Management Programs

CMPs are organizational tools designed to manage all case information electronically. They offer calendaring and docketing, contact management, tickler systems, conflict checking, time tracking, accounting (billing at a minimum and often full accounting), communication management, and document assembly. CMPs also offer at least some form of document management, although they are typically nowhere near as powerful as the dedicated DMSs described above. For that reason, CMPs often link to or integrate with DMSs. For example, the web-based CMP Centerbase integrates with the web-based DMS NetDocuments; while the server-based CMP Orion integrates with the server-based DMS Worldox. There are many more examples of these integrations.

CMPs are not designed specifically for RPTE lawyers, but they can all be customized for those practice areas. Web-based options include Centerbase, CosmoLex, ActionStep, Clio, Rocket Matter, Practice Panther, MyCase, and ZolaSuite. Server-based options include LawBase, Legal Files, Orion, PracticeMaster, Time Matters, ProLaw, Prevail, Needles, AbacusLaw, and Amicus Attorney.

Conclusion

As a final point, the most common root cause for user frustration with technology is a simple lack of understanding about how to properly use it. The best use of your tech budget is to learn how to use what you already purchased; and most legal users significantly underutilize the tech tools available to them. Although training is the obvious solution to this, in my long experience, most law offices simply do not make time for it. Do not let that be your office. This article only scratches the surface of the technology options available to RPTE attorneys but hopefully gives you some good options to think about. If there is a technology tool I did not mention that you find very helpful with your RPTE practice, I would love to hear about it! Please email me at bhenley@affinityconsulting.com.

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