In businesses where the causal link between efficiency and profitability is both direct and strong, perpetual reinvention of the wheel is generally not a well-rewarded strategy. This is certainly the case for most law practices – especially when it comes to one of the tasks lawyers do most often: drafting documents.
So, as much as we lawyers may like to think of ourselves as wordsmiths, or even as word “artists,” we know that if we were to begin all documents, unique and complicated snowflakes they may be, with a blank canvas, it would be a waste of our clients’ money, our time, or both (depending on how we bill).
To limit such waste, legal practitioners have long been at the forefront of document creation technology. And, yet – even though most lawyers, paralegals, and other legal staff use at least some tools that aid in the creation of documents – many of us are left to wonder if there are better options out there. If this is you, read on. There’s a good chance that there are.
A Brief History of Time … Saving
In the beginning, there were forms. Well, technically, forms were preceded by manual typing, fancy handwriting, spoken language, and ultimately, whatever sense of socially binding justice could be expressed through grunts and gestures – but as far as we are concerned, as modern lawyers, the document universe started with forms.
Tison Rhine is the advisor to the State Bar of Wisconsin Law Office Management Assistance Program (Practice411™). Reach him at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6012, or by email.
Basic and Intermediate Forms. In its basic incarnation, a form can be as simple as an old, previously drafted document, which a lawyer then uses to create a new document by manually swapping out names, dates, and other factual information, and then adding or subtracting language as needed. The upside to this approach, if there is one, is that it requires only basic word-processing knowledge – which is likely the reason behind this somewhat ancient practice’s continued prevalence today. Indeed, many lawyers think of this as the “easy” method.
However, given that it is quite time consuming (especially when dealing with large numbers of documents), and that it is particularly susceptible to unintended inclusions, omissions, and other errors, any perception that manually editing old documents is the easy way to do things is rather short sighted.
Fortunately, the use of basic forms has evolved over time to incorporate more advanced document-creation features, such as fillable blanks, macros, and the inclusion of multiple legal-language options for particular clauses or sections. Often, these sections will contain brief notes for the drafting lawyers (or staff) on when and why certain language should (or should not) be used, and the forms themselves are made “read-only” to prevent alterations to the original. Such features are available on standard word-processing software, so if your current method of document creation is to simply open the last document you worked on and go from there, you may be surprised at how much time you can save by simply delving a little deeper into your word processor.
At minimum, I recommend learning how to use such tools as Microsoft Word’s find and replace, autocorrect, and quick parts, the last of which allows you to create an archive of reusable pieces of content, including document properties, signature blocks, and other text fields.
Text Expansion. Another helpful type of document-creation tool is text expansion. Working somewhat like a phone’s auto-complete feature, or a more advanced autocorrect, text-expansion apps allow you to enter a string of text by entering a much shorter string – a helpful trick not just for legal documents, but also things such as email and office memos.
For example, you could set up the text expander so that every time you type the character string “dd” it automatically expands to “Defendant,” and the string “ilook” expands to “I’ll look into it and get back to you.” Even better, a text-expansion tool can spit out an entire set of boilerplate provisions tailored specifically to the type of client you are representing or your jurisdiction, simply by typing something such as “bpseller,” “bpbuyer,” “bpWis,” or “bpIL,” and so on. Ultimately, what you choose to do with a text-expansion tool is limited only by your imagination.
Learn More About …
WisDocs Estate Planning Document Assembly System
WisDocs Estate Planning is a new estate-planning document assembly system available from State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE®. Compiled from nearly 100 forms and sample-language provisions from the award-winning Eckhardt’s Workbook for Wisconsin Estate Planners, it’s a powerful, user-friendly, mobile system accessible wherever you have an Internet connection.
Using WisDocs Estate Planning saves time, effort, and money in the production of repetitive documents and forms – you can easily create one document or a whole estate plan. With WisDocs Estate Planning, you can create wills, revocable trusts, marital property agreements, durable powers of attorney, advance care planning documents, and more.
WisDocs Estate Planning operates through HotDocs Market, a cloud-based ecommerce platform, giving you expertly crafted forms templates from PINNACLE that are automated using HotDocs technology.
Read the following articles to learn more about WisDocs Estate Planning:
Enter, Full-fledged Document Assembly Tools
The tools described above, as helpful as they are, still require the deliberate, manual manipulation of individual documents. If you would rather your documents assemble themselves, then you will want a full-fledged document assembly tool.
Generally, document assembly works by intelligently merging document templates with existing data that is specific to the client and matter at hand. The software that does the assembling can be built directly into practice management or document management software (such as ProLaw, Time Matters, and Clio), or it can be a stand-alone solution on your desktop or in the cloud (such as XpressDox, Pathagoras, and HotDocs).
The data that ultimately makes its way into an assembled document may itself reside within the same product as the document assembly tool, but such information could also be imported from databases that exist elsewhere (for example, in billing or practice management software). Additionally, in the case of many document assembly products, client data and other variables can be extracted from answers that a lawyer or a client provides in response to a set of branching “interview” questions that are asked by the document assembly program before assembly.
Built-in Versus Stand-alone. Besides not needing to learn a new software system, the primary advantage of using a document assembly tool that is built directly into your existing practice management (or document management) software is that you will likely be dealing with a single database. This means that you should not have to worry about whether your assembly tool has access to the latest client and matter information, and that your assembled documents should seamlessly be linked to clients, matters, calendars and deadlines, and time-keeping and accounting features. Not every practice management program will have every feature, but using built-in document assembly can lead to considerable efficiency gains without the need for extensive training.
In contrast, when using a stand-alone document assembly application, you will likely need to maintain multiple databases – one for your practice management software and one for your document assembly software. And, although there are stand-alone programs that offer at least some automatic integration with select practice management products, maintaining multiple databases may require you to at least occasionally reenter or import data manually.
However, even though built-in tools may be the smoothest way to merge basic data with templates, third-party document assembly tools typically have far deeper features when it comes to variable data and choosing the correct legal language for specific and changing situations. Such features may include automatic computed variable calculations, built-in libraries of sample clauses, access to a variety of pre-made templates, and the aforementioned question-and-answer interviews. When a stand-alone program is implemented properly, the efficiency gains can be dramatic.
Where to Start
In deciding whether your practice would most benefit from the smooth integration of built-in document assembly or from the advanced features of stand-alone document assembly (or perhaps, simply, from some word-processing tutorials), you should of course consider your practice area and size, as well as your and your coworkers’ technical abilities. However, be sure to think not only about where you are now but also where you are going. Systems designed for efficiency are best implemented at the beginning of a journey, not in the middle, and this is very true of document assembly – if you put in the effort now, you could have the rest of your career to reap the benefits.
As for built-in document assembly, start by exploring your current practice management software. If you do not have practice management software, but are interested in it, do take into account document assembly features when looking, but don’t let these be the only factors. When it comes to practice management software, document assembly is just one of many efficiency considerations.
Several good stand-alone document assembly products are also available, but the one you are most likely to have already heard of is HotDocs. It is one of the pricier options, but it is also one of the most powerful. With both desktop and cloud options, HotDocs boasts a very capable branching-logic system for populating templates with the right data and for determining which provisions in a given template are required. Moreover, because HotDocs is one of the oldest and most established options, there are many available tutorials and training opportunities, as well as an extensive network of independent consultants.
For lawyers who want to jump in without creating their own templates, HotDocs also offers an ecommerce platform called HotDocs Market, where templates can be both purchased and published. The 19 products currently available have been published by the likes of LexisNexis, various state bars (including the State Bar of Wisconsin), and other industry experts, but we should see more offerings in the future.
The State Bar of Wisconsin’s first product, WisDocs Estate Planning, was compiled from nearly 100 forms and sample-language provisions from Eckhardt’s Workbook for Wisconsin Estate Planners. Using pre-made templates is quite easy – just pick a form, and follow the guided interview tool. And you can still customize your document, should your clients require any special provisions.
HotDocs is not the only game in town, of course. There are many worthy contenders, just a few of which are XpressDox (most of the features of HotDocs at a lower cost), Pathagoras (interesting clause library and works as a Word plug-in), TheFormTool (also works as a Word plug-in, good value), and Rapidocs (web-based, works well with DirectLaw’s online legal service platform). There are many others, too. Most companies offer free trials, so as always, I recommend testing a few options.
Whatever the route toward greater efficiency (and therefore greater viability in the quickly evolving legal market to come), it is important to keep in mind that learning how to use document assembly efficiently will take time. The more effort you put into it, however, the more there is to gain in the long run. In the end, you may be a talented legal artist, but that shouldn’t prevent you from practicing your art like a well-oiled machine.