Doucument Automation

Document Automation Roundtable Discussion

This month we asked our panelists about their preferences when it comes to document automation.

Our Panelists

Dennis Kennedy (DK), Sofia Lingos (SL), Jonathon Isreal (JI), and Tucker Cottingham (TC).

Why did you decide to create Microsoft Word-based templates or use document automation software?

DK: My first documentation automation project happened back in 1990. I used a program called ShortWork to create an application to generate estate planning documents. ShortWork is no longer around, but the application was in use long after I left the firm. My former firm’s old method of document drafting was inefficient and expensive for clients. Document assembly was just getting off the ground and there were a number of tools and a lot of discussion of document assembly as a practice-changing technology. At that time, we actually felt that we had fallen behind because we didn’t use document assembly.

SL: To streamline client processes, increase the capacity we have to take on more clients, and to ensure quality and consistency.

JI: We had several form letters and other documents in Word and Excel where the major content/structure was static. The only variables that changed were the parties’ names, contact information, and other minor details. Staff was having to recreate these forms each time which was a time and resource hog. By creating templates where staff can just input the variables sped up the process and freed up their time for other projects and tasks.

TC: Initially we didn’t set out to create templates; we started building new documents by pulling from previously drafted documents and over time those became more refined until we realized that by using software to streamline our document preparation we could generate our same exact documents in half the time, ensure everyone was using the same versions of documents, and reduce the opportunity for errors.

What would you see as the biggest advantage of adopting document automation software?

DK: The efficiency and productivity gains are the easiest to see, but I learned that there are some other benefits that people don’t consider enough. The consistency of documents offers significant quality improvements, even just in limiting the need for proofreading. You can constantly improve what you do in one place—no need to locate and change many different templates. You can also simply change your forms if laws change or you take a new approach. Most important, you can build learning, practice notes, and alternative choices into the tool.

SL: Clear, consistent, and correct content. Document automation also increases efficiency and efficacy.

JI: Increased efficiencies and reduced errors. Once the automation and the workflow are created, efficiencies can greatly improve while the risk of errors decreases. That leaves a lot more time to focus on other, more profitable, tasks.

TC: After years of practicing, attorneys want to spend their time on the more sophisticated aspects of their practice. Often times this means working with clients to think through problems and determine the best course of action. Instead, most attorneys in document-heavy practice areas like family law, estate planning, real estate, and business law are spending way more time than they should chasing down documents and filling out and revising repeated information across sets of documents they routinely prepare for clients. Document automation software can turn your existing documents into flexible templates that work together, which allows them to offload much of the initial document preparation work to more junior attorneys or staff while reducing the opportunity for errors. In the end, we are able to spend more time on the areas we provide the most value.

What has been the biggest barrier to implementing document automation software?

DK: The biggest fundamental barrier is the inability to change your business model to capture the value that document automation generates. If automation drastically cuts the number of billable hours on a drafting project, how do your business model and fee arrangements have to change? Back in 1990, what I did was much closer to coding than you might expect. Tools are so much easier now, but it can still be difficult work as the document complexity increases. Finally, document automation requires heavy lawyer involvement to be done successfully, but lawyers tend not to want to get very involved or put much time into these projects. Again, a firm’s business model and compensation and reward structure often work against that type of lawyer involvement. As a result, there are plenty of failed document automation projects out there.

SL: The most powerful tools require developer knowledge and basically dedicated staff to ensure they function as intended. It is also important to ensure that the client experience is not jeopardized by the interface and other programs aren’t as friendly client-facing.

JI: The initial set-up time for a document. While the benefits are well known and easily justified, spending the upfront time to set up the documents and the workflow can be a barrier as it is time you are not working on other tasks.

TC: There is a constant feeling that before implementing document automation software we have to take the time to get everyone on the same page, shore up our documents and get them into their permanent state with all of our alternative clauses and language, and that creates paralysis. We’ve found that having a program that allows us to easily refine and update templates as we go is key.

What are the types of documents that would benefit most from being turned into templates you could fill more quickly?

DK: In general, you want to find relatively simple, low-customization, and highly repeatable documents. High volume is another aspect I look for. If you use standard templates, each of those are good candidates, especially templates that need to be customized every time. Many lawyers use templates that they know they need to correct typos every single time they use them. That’s a little bit crazy and easy to address in a document automation application. In estate planning, powers of attorney are often the first projects. In a business, nondisclosure agreements are often the first projects. In litigation, standard requests for interrogatories might be first projects. Once you learn the basics of documentation on a simple document, you can then move to the more complex. However, you might get more bang for the buck sticking with simple, high-volume documents for a while.

SL: To begin with, client intake forms at various stages of the matter. Next administrative communications: engagement letter, welcome letter, closing letter, and status updates. Finally, all documents that are part of flat-rate packages.

JI: Letters, contracts, estate planning documents, intake forms, any form/document where the only thing really changing are minor variables (name, contact info, etc.).

TC: Any transaction that requires multiple documents that reference each other, such that you have repeated information across the documents will benefit tremendously from document automation. We see a ton of family law, estate planning, real estate, business law, and certain types of litigation firms adopting document automation software.

What would you like to see in the future with document automation software?

DK: Much, much wider adoption! It boggles my mind that I was able to create a successful document assembly application nearly 30 years ago and lawyers are still considering whether it makes sense for them to even start a project. This software (or, increasingly, cloud service) can always improve its usability, but the vendors understand that and keep working on it. The hardest part of document automation is thinking through the project and the logic you need to implement. Making tools that make that part of the process more transparent and easier to plan, and then seamlessly transition into your own application, would be amazing and a key feature I would be on the lookout for.

SL: The progressive capture of information. For example, after having sent an initial contact information form the client would not need to enter it again and all of the information would be kept in the same client repository to be applied to future documents. Then as the matter progressed you could send another intake form but they would not need to enter any of the information that has been collected previously and you could apply it all to any document or sets of documents.

TC: There is a lot of great software these days and it would be ideal to have them work together better. I’d love to see document automation software become a more integral part of the law firm software stack.

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