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Document Automation For Your Practice: Fight or Flight?

Document Automation For Your Practice: Fight or Flight?

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For years some law firms, but not all, have used some form of document automation in their law offices. Ranging from an MS Word macro to long standing programs such as HotDocs, as well as automated forms distributed by legal publishers such as Willmaker by Nolo, some law offices have incorporated some form of document automation in their law practices. Document automation of legal documents that are generated in high quantity by a law firm is an indispensable process for increasing law firm productivity and maintaining profit margins in an era of intense competition.

Editor’s Note: Legal Ink Magazine is an affiliate partner with DirectLaw.

Legal Document Creation the Old Way

The manual process of cutting and pasting clauses from a master MS Word document into a new document, is a productivity process which is fast becoming out dated. It reminds me of the time before there were automated litigation support programs, and legal assistants would duplicate a set of case documents three or four times. The next step was filling one file cabinet with a set of documents in alpha order, filling another filing cabinet with a set of documents in date order, and finally, filling another filing cabinet with a set of documents in issue or subject order to enable “fast”   retrievable of relevant paper documents. It took a while, but almost all litigation lawyers now use automated litigation support methods… This is not true of transactional lawyers, many of whom still use outdated methods of creating legal documents, as if each legal document were a unique novel, poem, or other work of fiction.

Barriers to Change

An obstacle to wider use of automated document assembly methods, is typically the lawyer’s insistence on crafting the words in each clause to their own satisfaction. Because most lawyer’s do not have the requisite programming skill to automate their own documents, law firms by default will opt to use their own non-automated documents, rather than risk using the legal documents automated by an independent provider, because by definition the content of the documents is “not their own.” As a result, many law firms do not even use desk-top document assembly solutions when the forms are published by an independent provider or publisher, remaining stuck using more time consuming and less productive manual methods.

Typically, when a law firm does use document assembly methods, a paralegal inputs answers from a paper intake/questionnaire into a document assembly program running on a personal computer. This results in the extra time-consuming step of inputting data from the intake questionnaire to the document assembly program, but it is still more efficient than manual methods.

Web-Enabled Document Automation

Now comes, “web-enabled legal document automation” methods.”  Web-enabled document automation is a process whereby the intake questionnaire is presented on-line to the client through the web browser to be completed directly.

When the client clicks the “Submit” button the document is instantly assembled, ready for the attorneys further review, analysis, revision, and customization if necessary.  The result is a further leap in productivity because the client is actually doing part of the work at no cost to the lawyer, freeing the lawyer up to focus on analysis and further customization of the document. The time savings can be a factor of as much as 10 to 1, or more. Instant document production creating a first draft ready for the lawyer’s review, analysis and revision, compare to hours.

Using documents that have already been automated is very easy, but programming an automated document or form can be a challenge. In order to automate their own documents they must either acquire the skill to do the job, or commit the capital to have a skilled professional automate their documents for them. For solos and small law firms these two constraints create formidable obstacles to using more efficient methods.

Since neither condition is common within smaller law firms (programming skill, investment capital), the result is that the law firm gets stuck using older less productive methods of document creation.

Vendors that provide web-enabled document platforms include, our own DirectLaw, and Exari, Brightleaf,HotDocs, DealBuilder, and Wizilegal, to name only a few, have created authoring systems that are relatively are easy to use, but still require some learning. I have yet to see lawyers without any kind of programming skill create their own automated legal documents in any quantity. Thus, law firms become stuck in a negative loop of their own creation which reduces productivity (and profitability) because they stick with their own non-automated legal forms.

Competition

In the consumer space, non-lawyer providers take advantage of the solo and small law firm’s competitive disadvantage. Research by companies like Kiiac provide support the conclusion that 85% of the language in transactional documents is actually the same. In more commoditized areas, where legal forms have been standardized, the legal form content is 100% the same in all documents. Taking advantage of this consistency of legal form content,  companies like LegalZoom, Nolo, CompleteCase, Shakelaw, SmartLegalForms, and LegacyWriter , with their superior on-line marketing and branding machines, now sell legal forms by the thousands at low cost which provide a “good enough” legal solution for consumers who would do anything to avoid paying the higher fees to an attorney. These non-lawyer companies continue to nibble away at the market share of solos and small law firms. These companies continue to grow, so what was once a small nibble is now becoming a much bigger bite.

It’s true that the consumer doesn’t get the benefit of the attorney’s legal advice and counsel, and the accountability and protection that dealing with an attorney provides, but consumers don’t seem to care. Lawyers need to be more proactive in marketing the benefits of using a lawyer, as distinguished from a legal forms web site.

What can be done?

Web-based legal document automation, used by non-lawyer providers, is clearly a disruptive technology that is eating away at the core business base of the typical solo and small law firm practitioner.  All is not lost.  The key to combat companies like LegalZoom is to recognize that automated documentation technology is here to stay and to embrace its benefits.  Attorneys need to leverage this technology to their benefit by incorporating these services into their own practice.  The key differentiator will be customer service and the full weight of your law degree.  Only a lawyer can provide legal advice, and only a lawyer can assume of the risk of negligence to the consumer which is underwritten by the lawyer’s malpractice insurance policy. This is a critical advantage that no non-lawyer company offer.

Now that you recognize the importance of adding legal document automation into your menu of services, the next challenge is to find a technology partner that will provide this service.  This is where a company like DirectLaw can be of great value (shameless plug).  The DirectLaw® Virtual Law Firm Platform provides a client portal that enables a law firm to deliver online legal services directly to consumers. It is the convergence of our legal content and virtual law firm technologies that makes us unique. We have produced a wide range of “intelligent” legal documents that cover a vast array of legal situations and form the basis for an online legal service.  To learn more about us, please download our white paper here.

 

About the Author

Richard S. Granat is Co-Chair or the eLawyering Task Force, Founder and CEO of DirectLaw and Co-Director, Center for Law Practice Technology, Florida Coastal School of Law. He was also named one of 50 Legal Rebels by the American Bar Association Journal in 2009; awarded the ABA Louis M Brown Lifetime Achievement Award for Legal Access in 2010, the ABA Keane Award for Excellence in eLawyering in 2013, and also named a FastCase50 Winner in 2013.

Vector graphic courtesy of Freepik.

Richard Granat
Richard Granat

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