Automating document templates can save you time and money

November 2016 | Around the ABA

How does your firm create documents for clients?  Do you spend hours crafting new documents from scratch?   Or do you manually cobble them together from portions of old documents?  Are you relying on someone’s memory to direct you to the old document applicable to new business?   Have you found “he” instead of “she” in a new document built from an old one?  Or left something in that should have been left out? 

Each of these blips betrays poor drafting methodology, say Barry K. Henley and Debbie Foster of Affinity Consulting in Columbus, Ohio.  Your clients will start to question your methodology and professionalism, says Henley.

Generating documents is a primary area of inefficiency for many law firms and legal departments, but it doesn’t have to be.

Henley and Foster say stop reinventing the wheel.  Stop spending hundreds hours of lawyer and support staff time on something that can be done with automation.

In the webinar "Document Assembly for Lawyers: Using Templates and Software that Can Draft Documents for You," Henley and Foster walk through document automation options from using the tools already present in your word processor to commercial drafting systems to document assembly software. 

Henley advises using “stuff you already own,” like the variety of legal templates in Microsoft Word to create what he calls “gold standard templates” for your  firm.  Foster says that it might be challenging for a firm to get its lawyers together to create such templates, but ultimately it will “eliminate waste and maximize the talents of lawyers working in the same area.”

A firm might, for example, have four estate planning attorneys, Henley says, each of whom is using a different document, only because they’re familiar with it, not necessarily because it is the best. 

Creating gold standard templates will consolidate all material into usable forms that those lawyers can then link to the firm’s case management system.

Using Microsoft Word’s legal documents to make gold standard templates, Henley says, is “low-hanging fruit. Using already existing word-processing-based templates doesn’t cost you a thing.”

Henley and Foster touch on subscription document drafting systems like WealthCounsel’s Wealthdocx, which comes with existing templates that can help a firm generate many more documents.  The drawback is that “it is not your language,” says Henley, because lawyers tend to “tweak” and edit the document produced, which offsets the “speed game” that using a drafting system provides.

Maintaining the speed advantage of drafting systems is a prime reason Henley and Foster emphasize the importance of building good templates.

Document assembly software is, says Henley, a tool that comes with “not one single form.”

“It’s your documents, it’s your stuff, and you’re going to build templates that can generate very complex instruments in a tiny fraction of the time it used to take you and significantly increase your accuracy,” he says.  “The software does the heavy lifting.”

Document assembly software works with Word and WordPerfect.  Henley uses Hotdocs to create a last will and testament template that can be replicated innumerable times with numerous iterations.  Below is a list of the major players in document assembly software:

“If you really like your own language, document assembly software is as efficient as you can get,” Henley says.  Once the software has uploaded your dynamic template customizations – something that he reminds listeners can take up to 24 hours – you’re set.

Templates help lawyers avoid the stress of getting documents done because there is less reliance on support staff, more work can be done with the same number of people and even “technologically challenged” lawyers can become more independent. 

Once gold standard templates are created, Foster and Henley recommend adding search tools that help locate hard-to-find files and allowing frequently used files to be kept within reach.  Henley recommends Copernic as a search tool for Windows; HoudahSpot for Mac. The search tools help maximize the efficacy of even the newest staff member.

 “Why?” asks Henley.  “Because 80 percent of what a law firm knows is wrapped up in stuff nobody can find, documents and email.  Knowledge management is the ability of a law firm to share what lawyers know with other people. “

Bottom line, says Henley and Foster, automation leads to higher profit.  For example, a $2,000 flat fee estate document takes about 10 hours to produce, meaning a pre-automation hourly rate of $200.  Post automation, the same document takes one-and-a-half hours to produce, producing an effective hourly rate of $1,333.

Henley says that systemizing everything and being highly formatted from the beginning allowed one firm of 500 employees and 53 lawyers to let the lawyers do the things only lawyers can do.  The firm even gives away software for making wills.

Says Henley: “They told us that the giveaway generates so many clients we wouldn’t believe it because as soon as someone gets in over their head, they hire us.”

“Document Assembly for Lawyers: Using Templates and Software That Can Draft Documents for You” is sponsored by the ABA Center for Professional Development, Division for Public Services, Law Practice Division and Young Lawyers Division