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Efficient legal document production for lawyers

Lawyers have always been interested in better ways to produce legal documents and correspondence.

Even before computers, memory typewriters allowed lawyers to reuse forms without retyping the entire document. It sounds like something from the Stone Age, but many practicing lawyers remember the time when editing a document meant someone had to retype the whole thing and when a bottle of correction fluid was a part of every typist’s arsenal.

What are some methods that can be used to automate the document drafting process today?

This is an absolutely critical topic for all law offices to examine (or reexamine) in 2012, and it is the topic of one of my presentations at ABA TECHSHOW™ 2012.

Today there are many pressures on all businesses to operate more efficiently. While certain legal documents are individually crafted for unique situations, there is also a certain amount of commonality and routine to many documents.

Clients are always going to be willing to pay top dollar for skilled legal tasks, be that litigation, negotiation, advice or formal opinions from the lawyer. But we will continue to see downward pressure on legal fees and we are going to see more resistance to paying large sums for merely “papering the deal.”

If law firms were examined from a pure efficiency standard, it could be argued that many of the document drafting and preparation processes are a bit cumbersome. But some of these practices, like double and triple proofreading, are the legal profession’s method of quality control because legal documents are expected to be absolutely perfect. Any error in a legal document could have serious consequences for the client – and the law firm.

Still, one can understand frustration with paying a lawyer for proofing and reproofing a document several times. Exceptional law firms will invest the time to bullet-proof the document production system, both to the client’s economic benefit and to free the lawyer from the drudgery of re-proofing the same document.

Ways to improve document production

Preparing for my ABA TECHSHOW™ document assembly presentation led me to note that there are now several methods of improving document production.

The basic level is making better use of the features in the word processor you own. For example, lawyers who draft contracts may have dozens of “boiler plate” paragraphs that may or may not be included in a particular contract. These are items like definitions, choice of law, arbitration and so on.

Lawyers can insert those paragraphs into documents in minutes, perhaps by copying and pasting from a master document. But the standard of the future for inserting standard paragraphs will be the ability to do it in a few seconds, not in a few minutes.

For example, Microsoft Word in the 2007 and 2010 editions has a feature called Quick Parts that allows a lawyer to store a library of paragraphs that can be quickly inserted into a document. When a user clicks Insert, Quick Parts will drop down a list of these paragraphs and a click inserts any of them into the document.

Autocorrect is the feature we are familiar with that magically corrects misspelled words right before our eyes. But a user can also create a series of letters that will automatically expand into a designed sentence or paragraph. To use this effectively, I would advise all lawyers to create a label, such as “JimSig,” to automatically generate his or her signature block.

Another form of document assembly is having a client database, often in a practice management system, from which data can be pulled to be inserted into certain documents. That is a great benefit to those who have taken the time to set up their case management software properly. The practice management software developers are focusing on improving their built-in tools to export data into documents.

Perhaps the market leader in document automation is Hotdocs™.  It has enormous power. The knock on Hotdocs™ has been that its power means a great deal of study and training is required before usable automated documents can be prepared. For smaller law firms, this has been an obstacle.

Microsoft Word plug-ins

There is a new generation of document assembly programs that function as plug-ins to Microsoft Word and utilize the hidden power of Word.

In particular, I examined two products: Pathagoras™ (www.pathagoras.com) and The Form Tool™ (www.theformtool.com).  Both of these programs allow a lawyer to set up a document that can be automatically filled with absolutely no programming skills. Both programs allow you to save a client data file for future uses.

In Pathagoras™, one can just replace the various variables in a document with the name of the variable surrounded by brackets. Then, Pathagoras™ can scan the document and show a table for all of the variables that need to be entered. Enter the information and the document will be completed in seconds, even if it is a long document with many instances of the variables being used.

The Form Tool™ has a more graphical interface that allows a user to customize his or her form documents into a fillable form. One particular feature of The Form Tool™ is that it retains at the bottom of the document the table that was used to place the data into the document. This means that the lawyer can easily proof a long document by carefully proofing the entries that were entered into the document assembly program.

Pathagoras™ has a free 90-day trial and The Form Tool™ has a free version and a Pro version.

Implications for billing

Of course, one cannot discuss automating document assembly processes without also paying attention to the business implications. This is the classic case for employing a method other than hourly billing. Switching to charging a client a fee per document produced rather than charging based on the hours invested on that document presents a win-win for both lawyers and clients.  For the client, it can lead to reduced costs. For the lawyer, after the investment of time in setting up the system, there will be much less time invested in a particular document.

In the future we will likely see more blended fee contracts with hourly rates charged for some tasks, along with a schedule of flat fees for certain documents.

To learn more about this topic and other cutting edge law office technology, consider attending ABA TECHSHOW™ 2012, March 29-31, 2012 at the Chicago Hilton. You can get more information at www.techshow.com.

Jim Calloway is the Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. He publishes the weblog, Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips. He is a frequent speaker on law office management and technology issues.