QC Techniques for HotDocs

Some thoughts you might consider in providing QC for your templates.

Test, test, test … That is is the only way to fully debug your templates.  There is no replacement for having someone else test your templates.  Be sure to have your testers send you their comments and their answer files.  For this purpose we have set up a private board for posting comments and issues (www.bashasys.net).

Once you have the answer file, run the assembly and spot the issues.  Keep reassembling until all the issues are resolved.  Use Word Comments and the Reviewer toolbar to add comments and then navigate through them.

In HotDocs, you can test portions of the template.  Just highlight (select) the port of the template you want to test, and then click on the Test button on the HotDocs Toolbar.

Off-Label Uses of HotDocs

Just for fun, I have included some interesting off-label uses of HotDocs.

Related Link: Litigation Support for Time Matters

Most of the time, we use HotDocs for the boring on-label uses to generate legal and business documents.  However, on some occasions we have been called on to do something fun:

Santa’s Workshop – Built a fictional application to manage contracting and job assignments for the North Pole.  We then featured the application on Holiday greeting cards.

Litigation Support – Document Profiling. Wrote an application to allow you to build and categorize a document production. Using dynamic list building features, every time a name is mentioned in a document profile it gets added to a master list that populated the To, From, CC, and Mention listings.  Client didn’t want to spring for a LitSupport system, but already had HotDocs.  A better solution is our Litigation Support plugin for Time Matters

HTML Tip Generator – Use of HotDocs to pull data from Time Matters Custom Form and to generate HTML Page with dynamic javascript for Tips on how to use HotDocs.  See the results at http://www.bashasys.com/hotdocs/hdtips.html.

Licensing Negotiation Workshop – CLE – Use of HotDocs to generate a term sheet after a two-hour staged negotation.  Instead of using Powerpoint to illustrate the points, we used HotDocs.

Online Commercial Lending Systems

In the past week I have been approach twice by people seeking to buy or build on online commercial lending document assembly system and asked for the appropriate platform.  As a consultant, I patiently explained the options and why merely purchasing a system would expose the company to unacceptable risks; that while I was a lawyer turned programmer, this went beyond the risks I was willing to assume as an automator. In so doing, the issue arose, what warranty does an automator make as to the legal viability of the forms produced.

The Inquiry

I want to start a lending business producing loan documentation for all 50 states.  Can you direct me to some forms I can use.  I want to automate them, let people enter information over the internet.  And of course, they need to be legally viable and enforceable in all 50 states.  Can you help me.

The Reply

Sure.  Do you have the forms.  I can build you a system and get you online for a reasonable fee in a reasonable amount of time.  You have a choice of platforms, each with their benefits and their limitations. The choice between HotDocs, GhostFill and DealBuilder depends on where you want to put your money, how you want to deploy the system, and who will be using the system.

Why there can be no warranty

Most if not all software agreements disclaim “consequential damages” or limit liability to the cost of the license.  Any other approach and the development of software is not cost effective. We can warrant that the software will present and interview, and that based on the selected items certain text will be included or excluded.  We cannot warrant that the selection of particular text is legally valid. For that you need a lawyer.

Why You Need a Lawyer

Where I part ways is over the content.  I can build the business logic, the rules, the work flow and collect a nice sum in exchange for my valuable efforts.  But I will not be the lawyer.  When a million dollar loan defaults and the language of the default clause gets exercised, I don’t want my words on the hook that a judge will say, “this clause is not enforceable; perhaps in New York that’s the way they do things, but here in Oklahoma, we require __________ and you failed to include that in your loan agreement.

Moreover, even if I had an “enforceable” set of multistate forms for today, tomorrow, a new court decision in Oklahoma, could change the standard and require modification of my forms.  Sure, we can get a piece of paper that has the business terms, but it is the nuances that make the paper have its value as commercial paper.  If I were lending tens of millions of dollars, I would want to make sure such paperwork was effective.

Value of Document Assembly

In writing this, I am not knocking the use of document assembly for online commercial lending.  It is actually a fabulous idea, incredibly cost effective and profitable.  The typical bank lending process is slow and fraught with “inefficiencies” that can be eliminated.  A company like ING Bank can have an entirely online system, automating many of the banking processes and eliminating the opportunity for human error.  When applied to lending, document assembly allows you to support real business logic and conditional language, mapped against a legally valid form and allows you to offer a range of flexible financing options.  I am all for it.  My only concern is that you retain legal counsel in building the business logic and in maintaining that business logic.

Negotiation Strategies and Document Modelling

The goal in document assembly is to “model” the transaction.  A Canadian attorney once explained to me, we don’t have forms and templates, we have document models, which contains structures and details.  Viewed from this perspective, the goal in template development is to build a better model of the ultimate transaction. The result is that negotiations are quicker, and more focused on concepts as opposed to crafty language.

A few years ago, I spoke to a Canadian attorney about my business … building expert systems and automated templates. After several fruitless attempts to make my self understood (templates, document assembly, form building), his face lit up with a smile … Yes, he said, you mean “document modelling”.  That what we call it up here.

Relieved that I had finally made myself understoods, I stopped to ponder the meaning of the word, “document modelling”.  It actually makes more sense.  Document assembly connote an “assembly line” at a factory where unskilled or semi-skilled labors trained in very narrow tasks, combine in a work flow process to produce a complex product, the design of which would be well beyond their individual capabilities, absent the “assembly” process.

Many lawyers, looking at document assembly software shrug their shoulders and grunt: “that’s paralegal work, why should I get involved.  If the paralegal or junior attorney has to work harder, all the more profits for me.  Sure, I will spend some money, getting them more productive, but it really isn’t worth my attention or time to expend much throught on it.

A Paradigm Shift

When you change the term to document modelling, the image of a meterioroligist or a seismologist comes to mind, carefully looking at the patterns of minute details, case studies, history, forces of nature and on that basis building a model into which data can be fed that will predict the next hurricane or earthquake.  An activity of that sore is worth the attention of a real specialist, one with great knowledge.  One doesn’t want a hack doing the weather prediction when one needs to plan a 200 person reception in the great outdoor.

Document modelling is what a good document assembly expert does; he or she looks at the documents, the patterns of variations, and extrapolates what would happen if …. The model and the options are built in anticipation of a specialist providing real data from which to then create a document.

Effect on Negotiations

One of the inherent weaknesses of document assembly tools is the ability to deal with “post assembly” revisions to the transactional document.  You can’t have your cake (of automation) and eat it to (be able to edit and reassemble).  This weakness, however, is a hidden strength in that the efficient use of a document assembly is to create a “best first draft” … A best first draft is define is a document that represents the understanding of all the parties, and not just the starting position of one of the parties.

The effect is that it forces negotiations to focus on “terms” and concepts, and not on “words”.  What is the structure that is acceptable to the parties; where does the risk lie; what is the reward; how is the revenue shared.  All of these are concepts that can be reduced to rules, facilitating a reassembly.  The better and more sophisticated the model, then the better the document.

A Side Effect

New Yorkers are known for “take no prisoners” negotiation style.  Despite years of “getting to yes” and the “art of negotiation” you still find people whose approach is screw first, and then back off.  These negotiations can be very wasteful.  Except in major contracts, the result is a major capital cost on the transaction that has no upside.

With document modelling, you can take the approach of a “First Best Offer”.  You start out in the middle because the drafting is designed to reflect what is fair in light of the business deal.  The document model tracks the term sheet, rather than the ideas of an attorney (not party to the initial negotiations) coming up with a model.

Getting Past the 80/20 Rule in Building Document Assembly Applications

Document assembly projects are subject to the 80/20 rule … the final 20% takes 80% of the time.  And for that reason, many projects don’t get perfected.  When a system is for internal use, the benefits of automation are good enough; but when turned into an saleable application, or a client-focused application, much more is required.  This blog focuses on techniques for working with the template to reduce the time to get from 80 to 100%.

The 80/20 Rule

It is said on any software project (make that any projects), that the first 80% of the work, takes 20% of the time, and the final 20% of the work, takes 80% of the time.  Thus, the bulk of a project will be complete, but the finishing works takes four times as long. The result is that many projects get started, but few get truly finished.

Good ‘Nuff Document Assembly

Most document assembly systems are for internal use.  In the hands of a capable HotDocs or GhostFill programmer, the time it takes to draft a complex lease or prepare a credit agreement can be dropped from 10-20 hours down to a 15-30 minute interview.  That still leaves several hours that can be spent “cleaning up” the document formatting and fixing the detritus left by unanswered variables or poor coding.  Such systems will give you a healthy profit, and a high ROI.

Such systems are generally designed to enhance the legal business of the “author” of the system.  Often the questions only make complete sense to the author who created the system or a trusted assistant.  The ROI is limited to enhancing a particular practice.  When asked whether a “client” could use the system is published to a secure web server, the invariable response is “no” … too complication and the product is NOT FINAL.

Client-Facing Systems and Commercial Applications

When building a system that a “client” will see, the ball is in a different court.  You are off the stick-ball court and into the stadium where the expectations are much higher.  On the interview level, there is an expectation that the questions will be clear, relevant, and not contain any typos. See my article on Polish elsewhere in this blog.

Moreover, when the document comes out, it will not come out as a Microsoft Word document that is editable; it will come out as a PDF document that is printable.  There will be no opportunity to fill in the blanks left unanswered, fix up the formatting, remove the extra carriage returns, and fix the typos.

Rule 1: Build a Style Sheet

If you hope to cut down the time it takes to acheive the final 20%, you need to think through all the stumbling blocks that take up time (proofing, correcting, testing etc) and systematize them.  One of the biggest time savers is a Word Style Template … this is a word document that contains sample text formats for each way you intend to format document.

The style sheet contains a named paragraph style that exactly matches the format you are seeking in the final document.  To make this tool even more effective, you can assign hot-keys to the most commonly used styles.  To change the style of text in a document you can then either apply a different style, or open the style editor in Word and change the style’s attributes.

Rule 2: No Duplicate Carriage Returns

Once enforced, this convention will save hours of reformatting, because it will FORCE you to define word paragraph styles for every possible formatting convention.  Once defined, you can then make quick global changes throughout all the templates, rather than having to spot check every single document for spacing issues.

Rule 3:  Spacing Convention following CONDITIONS

The implementation of this convention regarding spacing following a conditional rule will differ depending on the document assembly program you us.

  • In HotDocs you should put IF/END IF and REPEAT/END REPEATS that span a whole paragraph or multiple paragraph on a separate line from the text of the paragraph.  Inside a paragraph, there should be NO SPACE if the text int the clause could begin the initial sentence of the paragraph.  If, however, it is internal to the paragraph, you should provide a singe (or in the case of a sentence) a double space immediately following the expression.
  • In GhostFill a KeepBlock or DeleteBlock should begin inside the paragraph to be kept with the EndBlock on the line immediately following the conditioned paragraph.  If you wish to have the rule outside the paragraph, use a Shreek “|” followed by a carriage return, with the closing brace at the very start of the conditioned paragraph.  The rules for clauses inside the paragraph are the same as for HotDocs.
  • In DealBuilder the conditional braces must start inside the conditioned paragraph and close at the very end of the conditioned paragraph.  By using usage computations (that are defined elsewhere) or VMM numbered notation, you can keep the code readable.  Internal to the paragraph, the same spacing conventions apply.

Rule 4: Normal is NOT your Base

In building a style sheet in word, take advantage of word’s cascading style sheet, that lets you build a style from a base and variations on that base.  In doing so, make sure that the base style is NOT based on Normal.  If you don’t, depending on the user’s machine, you may find your documents coming out in the wrong font, with the wrong text size … unintended consequences that are beyond your control.

Rule 5: Beta Test

Get someone else to do assemblies … maybe even some who doesn’t know your area of practice.  The questions need to make sense.  You will find them doing “illogical” things that will throw off errors in the text that you need to trap for.  These are either errors in conditioning variables on the dialog, or errors in the conditioning of text in the template.  Read the resulting document.  Use Word’s comment capability to have the user add comments “in situ” … and then you Review Comments to slog through them.  Be sure to have the beta tester SEND you their answer file (in the case of HotDocs, GhostFill or DealBuilder) or in the case of DealBuilder, in transaction mode, have them tell you the name of their answer file.


These rules may seem minor in the greater scheme of things, but when the goal is 100%, every bit of planning can help.  We have found that the time spent on these matters has allows us to bring systems to 100% in less time.