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.
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 awhile, but almost all litigation lawyers now use automated litigation support methods.. This is not true of transactional lawyers, many of whom still use out-dated 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.
This is what the work flow looks like when using web-enabled document automation methods:
Unfortunately, lawyers have been slow to adapt to this process as well, because of their reluctance to use legal documents drafted or automated by someone else. However 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 Rapidocs, and Exari, Brightleaf, HotDocs, DealBuilder, and Wizilegal, to name only a few, all claim that their authoring systems are easy to use, but 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) :
"My legal documents are better than yours; I can’t automate them for the web because I don’t know how; thus I will be less productive and be required to charge you more because of my own inefficiency."
In the consumer space, now comes the non-lawyer providers to 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, 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 any thing to avoid paying the higher fees to an attorney.
Its 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.
What can be done?
The "web-based legal document automation solution" , used by non-lawyer providers, is a disruptive technology that is eating away at the core business base of the typical solo and small law firm practitioner.
What can solos and small law firms do to compete in this challenging competitive environment?
The American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center reported last year in their Annual Technology Survey that only 52.2% of solo practitioner’s don’t have a web site. Even if this number is underestimated, it is shockingly low compared with web site utilization by other industries. If you don’t even have a web site, the idea of "web-enabled document automation" is still a "light year" away.
What can be done to encourage more wide-spread use of web-enabled document automation technology by law firms, particularly solos and small law firms? A follow-up post will explore some solutions, but I am open to ideas from anyone.