Technology PropateEditor: Gerald J. Hoenig, Smart Diligence, LLC, 8495 Caney Creek Landing, Alpharetta, GA 30005, Guest Editor: Bethany Deal, Docugility, 8031 Allerton Lane, Cumming, GA 30041.

Probate & Property Magazine, Magazine, May/June 2009, Volume 23, Number 3

Technology | Property

Technology—Property provides information on current technology and microcomputer software of interest in the real property area. The editors of Probate & Property welcome information and suggestions from readers.

Getting Your Document Automation Project Started: Tips from a Professional Template Developer

I'm sure that you have been hearing about document automation technology for years. You've probably read many articles or seen software demonstrations in which vendors or consultants lecture on the benefits of document automation. You might have watched in awe as some complex document was instantaneously generated after answering a few simple, on-screen questions. At some point, you might have even been interested enough to purchase a license for HotDocs or another document automation software product. And then it happened. You finally found the time to devote to a document automation project, but you discovered that you had no idea where to begin. Looking through the software manual or the on-line documentation was completely overwhelming. And so the box of software turned into a fashionable bookend collecting dust along with the other unused software in your office.

In 15 years of automating documents on a daily basis, the question I hear most often is "How do I get my documents ready to be automated?" One thing you don't do is sit down and start coding a template while teaching yourself HotDocs programming. As you will see below, coding the template is actually the final step. As with any other software development project, a document automation project is something that needs proper planning to be successful.

Step 1—Identify Your Forms

The scope of a document automation project can seem daunting and overwhelming. Because of the number of documents, where to begin can seem confusing. To start, make a list of all of the documents that you think could be automated and identify a small pilot group of templates. Start with documents that are fairly simple and are used often. These high-volume documents will enable you to receive an immediate return on investment and encourage buy-in from your end users. Keep in mind that a common mistake is to start with the most complex documents, believing that these documents will provide the most immediate returns. Although these documents do indeed result in multiples for the return on investment, they are not the best (or easiest) place to start your automation project. If you plan to automate the documents yourself or to train one of your staff members to do the job, start with simple documents that don't contain a lot of coding or optional paragraphs and/or complex business/legal rules. As you gain experience, move on to more complex documents. This will enable you to get a few success stories quickly and easily and will lead to a wider acceptance of the document assembly program as a whole. If the first template sets are too complex, the development time will be lengthy and the testing process could be incredibly tedious. In addition, when learning a new programming language, most programmers will make some mistakes at the beginning. Starting with a simple project first will enable you to fix mistakes easily and learn from them before moving on to more complicated projects.

The initial pilot project should be selected based on the number of lawyers using the documents, the frequency of use, the current shape of the underlying documents, billing arrangements (fixed fee, hourly, among others), and so on. Make sure a system is in place for prioritizing the project after the pilot project is released for firm-wide use.

Step 2—Create Master Form Documents

Once the documents are identified, it's time to create the master form documents. If your "form" documents consist of pulling up the last document you used for another client and cutting and pasting from there, then this section is for you. Begin by reviewing all of your precedents and gathering all versions of each document. Using your word processor's compare and/or redlining software can be extremely helpful in this process. The goal is to end up with one document that contains all possible scenarios and optional paragraphs. This can be a big project, depending on the number of lawyers involved, so start early and give yourself plenty of time before the actual automation begins. This will ensure the greatest probability of success and greatly reduce workload redundancy.

Step 3—Identify Variables and Optional Provisions (Document Markup)

Here comes the toughest part. All those decisions that you make when drafting a document (even those you make without realizing you are making them) need to be memorialized on paper. Let's take it in stages.

First, let's start with variables. These are items that change for every deal, case, or transaction. Borrower name, property county, and property state are all examples. Go through the documents and replace the transactional data with descriptive variable names surrounded by brackets or chevrons or something that will make it obvious to a template developer that these are variables. When naming variables, it is important that two to three words describe the exact nature of the data. If the variable asks for information containing a name, age, bar number, gender, address, date, phone number, Social Security number, department, or date, then the pattern "Adjective + Noun" should be used such as "Client name," "Child age," "Attorney bar number," and so on.

It is imperative to begin the process by developing a consistent naming convention for these variables. This will ensure that all answers can be shared across document templates and even across sets of documents. Strict adherence to these rules will ensure template consistency over time as individuals transition into and out of the role of template developer.

Now it's time to look at the optional provisions. At this point, in each section of the document, determine what is standard text and what is optional text. For each instance of optional text, identify the logic or business rule that determines when it will go into or be omitted from the document. One way to accomplish this task is to bracket the optional text and footnote it with the rule that determines when the optional text should be included in the document. Another suggestion is to surround the optional text in brackets and write the condition in all caps before the optional text.

A typical marked-up document will look something like:

WHEREAS, [I/we], [INVENTOR 1], [INVENTOR 2], and [INVENTOR 3] (hereinafter referred to as the "ASSIGNOR") have invented a certain new and useful invention entitled [INVENTION TITLE] for which [I/we] have executed a United States patent application on [EXECUTION DATE][IF SUBMITTING ASSIGNMENT AFTER INITIAL FILING OF APPLICATION: and which has been assigned U.S. Patent Application No. [APPLN NO] filed [FILING DATE]];

Once the variables and optional text have been identified and marked up in your first document, I suggest you keep track of the variables in a separate, searchable spreadsheet. In the spreadsheet list the name of the variable, the questions (or prompts) that the user will see if different than the variable name, any additional help text, and the type of variable. Types of variables include text, number, date, true/false, multiple choice, or computation variables. If the variable is a multiple choice, list the options, possibly in another column on the spreadsheet. Computation variables are used to calculate number, date, true/false, and text values based on the answers that a user enters, so also include the calculations in the spreadsheet. And finally, you might want to include a column for any conditions on the variables that you want to communicate to the template developer. For example, you might want to ask the "Borrower state of formation," if the "Borrower" is anything other than an individual.

This spreadsheet will become the road map to the entire system and is the critical tool of the project. As you begin marking up additional documents, simply add new variables to this master list. In addition, business rules that define the optional text also can be tracked in this spreadsheet. Some people find it helpful to identify the business rule by number and then refer to the number on the spreadsheet when footnoting the document. So instead of continuing to type "This goes in if the borrower is a limited liability company," simply refer to business rule #1 on the spreadsheet. Designing your system up front will prove invaluable in your development efforts and will reduce the template development time greatly. The system should be flexible and able to handle additional documents, so get the design strategy down first. Look at this like building a house. First, a good solid floor plan and foundation are needed before you start—don't just start building rooms. And keep in mind that you want to be able to add more rooms later, if necessary.

Step 4—Format the Documents

Once all the content is gathered and in one place, spend some time formatting the documents. If you've cut and pasted paragraphs from other documents, the new form document will contain different paragraph styles and paragraph numbering. One goal of the automation project should be to develop standardized, consistent looking documents, so now is the time to determine document formatting and numbering schemes for the templates. Make sure margins, fonts, signature blocks, defined terms, and so on are consistently formatted throughout the template set.

In Microsoft Word, heading styles with auto numbering is an easy and fast way to accomplish this task. One big benefit to using styles is that they can be copied easily from one template to another, which will give all the templates in the set the same look and feel. Once the documents have been automated, your word processor will automatically number your paragraphs and your cross-references if the form document has been set up correctly.

Step 5—Code the Template

Once the documents have been marked up and a good design strategy is in place, the template development process can begin. Template coding can be done either internally or by an outside consultant; you will need to evaluate the pros and cons of each option. If you decide to tackle it internally, keep the programming simple. Complex computations and IF expressions can sometimes produce a maintenance nightmare. In addition, it's common that over time in-house template developers come and go. Therefore, make sure that the person coming next can easily pick up where the previous developer left off and that the work already started is not proprietary in style or content to a specific programmer.

Another piece of advice is to automate ancillary documents, not just the primary documents. Instead of automating only a "Trademark Registration Application," for example, consider adding a cover letter to the Patent and Trademark Office, a cover letter to the client, and a firm "Check Request Form" (with automatic calculations) as part of the template. The goal is to automate all documents contained in the firm's processes, not just the mission critical documents.

Properly planning a document automation project will enable your firm or organization to drive down the costs associated with document-intensive processes, thereby increasing the firm's or organization's profit margins. Errors and omissions will be eliminated and document generation will migrate from high-level, expensive personnel to more cost-effective resources. And you might even have fun in the process!

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