A Word on Styles – The Last 30 Minutes in Document Production

Deep in the midst of a CAPSAuthor Conversion and a HotDocs template rebuild, I had a chance to reengage with Word Styles.  I was explaining to my client that part of the rebuild involved the creation of a custom styles template for their entire suite of documents.  In one instance, when the client pointed to a visual discrepancy to some paragraph, I opened the template and assigned the paragraph to a different paragraph style.  In another instance, I opened the stylesheet, changed a style definition,and then pushed out the new definition to 20 templates.  What would have been an hour or so of work to edit the templates, or 15 minutes cleanup on every assembly, was eliminated in under a minute.

Read more

Easy Case Management & Technolawyer

A recent series of posts on Technolawyer, titled “Legal Software and Consultants” troubled me.  In this series, Mark Deal, Ay Uaxe, and Jason Havens spared on the role of legal consultants in implementing case management solutions. There was a touch of resentment on both sides.  On one side, the lawyers (of whom I count myself), look to their extensive education, their extensive domain knowledge and work experience as qualifiers in the world of software design and process.  It should be “easy”; it should be “cheap”; and anyone can do this stuff; it’s not rocket science.  Why don’t those vendors understand?  Why don’t they anticipate and design for my needs. On the other side are the legal technology consultants who have spent years studying the software tools, designing solutions with the software, and implementing and training. Many serve in defacto advisory capacity to software vendors, fielding feature requests and reporting on bugs. 

Read more

Template vs. System Design

Over the years of working with HotDocs we have encountered many issues with the basic design of HotDocs, client requests and what not, that have required creative solutions.  And in so doing, we have changed our approach from one that centered around “documents” to one that centers around data and workflow.  In so doing, we have substantially changed the way that we code in HotDocs, using methods and approaches that arise from other coding languages and programming principals.  We have found HotDocs to be flexible and powerful enough to support, for example, the use of common elements across multiple templates, use of templates as reusable objects, using local and global variables, internal databases, and dynamic indexing and cross-references.  Such features are not required for basic template design.  However, there use leads to more user-friendly interviews, more dynamic data entry, and the ability to design templates and interviews that reflect and respond to the data input.

Read more

Spring is in the Air

A new frugality is sweeping the country.  It is posed as a movement towards thrift, a response to the downturn in the economy. But I want to posit that it is a movement towards self-reliance and an assertion of control over one’s fate.  If one can no longer rely on the big law firm or the big corporation for sustenance; if one can no longer rely on appreciating home values; if one can no longer on growing 401(k) plans; then one must rely on oneself.  And so as I prepare the beds for my vegetable and flower gardens, I think about the implications of this movement.

Digging up the Sod

This year we have expanded our small garden plot.  In previous years, we had a 10 foot by 12 foot vegetable garden (cucumbers, peas, tomatoes, string beans and zucchini) and an 8ft by 6ft herb garden (basil, oregano, tarragon, mint, cilantro, parsely and sage). This year, we ripped up a sunny patch by the garage (3ft x 12ft) and have planted fingerling potatoes and yukon gold.  We took another patch of dormant soil by the herb garden and planted 24 perennial everblooming strawberries plants.  We took a fence border that had previously been the home of weeds (quite successful) and turned it into a bed for wildflowers.  We even took some extra potato eyes and planted them in the front yard between the azaleas.

All plants use humous, peat, and cow manure, enhanced with bone meal… all natural ingredients.  We would qualify as an organic farm.  To fight off the most common garden pest in our neck of the woods, deer, we have purchased wire fences and posts to put up today around the new garden beds.  And so, as the soil thaws, the days get longer, and the air gets warmer, we consider the effort we take and enquire, as rational capitalists, what are the implications for the U.S. and world economy of our actions.

Economics of the Home Garden Plot

First we enquire from the perspective of the family budget: are we saving money?  In previous years we have calculated our bounteous crop against the cost of sowing.  If we include only the sunk costs, out of pocket expenses, and none of the labor, we have either had a net loss or broken even.  In other words, the decision, from a purely economic perspective to plant a garden, has always been a poor decision.

Second: we inquire from the perspective of the experience, the enjoyment:  Consider the taste of fresh vine-picked tomatoes (sweet, tart and tender), the aroma of freshly plucked oregano and basil, and the savory crunch of oven-roasted pumpkin seeds.  These are worth savoring.  In the words of the Mastercard commercial, seeing your child pluck a tomatoe off the vine and bite into it (not having to sanitise and ripen it on a shelf).  That is priceless.

Third, we look at the labor:  There is the family effort in seed-starting, planting, tending, and ultimately harvesting the crop.  Here the family works closely together, with a shared responsibility and reward.  We can teach the value of work, since there are clear tangible results from the labor. By contrast with real work, where the result is an exchangable and fungible currency, in gardening the work results in tangible outputs that can be held, admired and consumed.

Lessons from the House Garden

So what does gardening teach us; and are there lessons for business?  Gardening teaches us self-reliance.  Last summer, I remember an article about people in California hiring garden specialist to plant and maintain private gardens in their backyard.  These Californians were overseers of organic gardens where they could wander in and harvest, but did not share in the labors of the planting or tending. I can see the value of assistance, but such “hired gardeners” misses the point of the family plot.  My son wants to harvest the cucumbers and sell pickles on the street in front of our house.  If the success of the neighborhood lemonade stand or homemade cookie booth is any measure, this will be a losing proposition.  Rather, we will share our harvest with friends and family over a few bottles of chardonnay.

Going beyond that garden, I am seeing my friends, colleagues and clients taking stock of their own lives; seeing what they can do for themselves, searching for stability and dependability in some form of self reliance.  Some have been willingly, or unwillingly become entrepreneurs.  Some, business owners, have shelved their growth plans and plans for world domination and looked to cut costs and moderate growth.  Others have tried to do it all, as I have done in planting my garden, I have tried to grow plants from seed ($1.25 a packet) rather than buy a pre-grown plant ($3.50/plant).

In advising these friends and clients, I ask them not to consider the home garden in their business equations.  Rather, they need to recognize that this is a time of examination and reinvestment.  We cannot assume that all efforts will turn to gold.  Nor can we sit back and try to do everything ourselves.  There are specialists who can effectively aide us in our efforts and we should draw on their expertise.  Yes, we should look at how efficiently we operate our business.

There is one lesson from the home garden.  Years ago, during the days of communist rule in U.S.S.R. and the days of the collectivist farm, I was told a statistic, that the big farms of the Soviet Union, which occupied 95% of the arable land in production, produced 20% of the consumable food, and the 5% uncollectivised home farms produced 80% of the consumable food.  If you look at the production per square foot of tended land in the typical home garden, the output will be 4-10 times the output of the same land in a commercial farm (go read Michael Pollan). And the lesson in the home farm is how to take that limit space, and with proper inputs and tending, make a sustainable business.

Social Networking – BestThinking – Twitter – LinkedIn

Over the past week, I have dabbled my toes in the world of social networking.  I have not yet activated my facebook profile (bashasys) or sought my “friends”, but I have looked as some of the more narrow market social networking tools.  The problems is that many of the tools are TOO open.  That means lotsa people to follow, lotsa posts to sift through, and oodles of time to waste. For that reason, my recent discovery of “groups” in a number of these sites heralds a change in my opinion of them.

Groups, for those who don’t know, are more like amorphous electronic social clubs.  They each have a dynamic.  Have too few people in a group, and nothing happens; it sits dormant, waiting for someone to provide a spark, and eventually dies a slow death of obscurity.  Have too many people and the group become a raucous nightclub with EVERYONE SHOUTING, and no-one able to be heard.  In some ways, like a busy pick-up bar (from long ago memory), there are those select and talented individuals who can actually meet someone in such an environment, with the unique capacity to say the right thing and hear the right thing in a way to make a connection.  For the majority of us, myself included, the noise and business is a turnoff; there is no way to get to know someone, to connect.

And so, finding myself in the role of group moderator and host, I have faced a choice.  Do I open up the group to anyone interested who clicks a join button, thereby boosting my number of “groupies” and friends.  Or do I handpick my friends and invite them into the club, ensuring that the members have something in common, that the group doesn’t get too big.  I have chosen a middle ground.  I have tried to define the space, the credentials required for membership in the group.  I have albeit invited my friends; but I have also asked them to invite their friends, and them to invite their friends. For my HotDocs Wizards Link, my criteria is that any participant actually program in HotDocs, not just be interested in following or marketing to group members. For The Virtual Lawyer, I have asked that members be either lawyers or technologists working with lawyers who use and promote the Virtual Practice of Law.

Only time will tell whether this is a waste of time, my time and my members time. For the moment, it is fun; there are some useful ideas; and I have learned what others with similar interests are doing. It has allowed me an excuse and a forum to hook up with those whom I see only occasionally and others who may know of me but whom I do not know. It has been commented that this blog is closed to comments (Mark Deal, we know who you are and where you live).  The main reason has been the commenting capabilities of blogs are really inadequate to the development of useful discussions.  This blog, however, is NOW being fed as a newsfeed on the HotDocs Wizards Link.  If you do want to post comments, be sure to join the HotDocs Wizards group and post your comment there.

The Virtual Lawyer – LinkedIn Group

A few days ago I decided to check out the new enhanced Group Management tools at LinkedIn.  A year ago, I put up my CV on LinkedIn.  Over time, I have dutifully built my network, making occasional invites, and accepting other invites. I set up a group for HotDocs Wizards —LinkedIn Group: HotDocs Wizards about a month or two ago.  Out of the blue, we actually got two job postings.  Just a few days ago, I started up The Virtual Lawyer—LinkedIn Group: The Virtual Lawyer and this time I was able to see the potential of LinkedIn.

In starting the group, I extended invitations to all MyConnections.  I then asked the members of the group to invite their connections.  In a short time we had over 40 members.  Then, to keep it interested, I tried posting some discussion topics.  Since my network tends to be of fairly vocal individuals with a range of legal and technical experience, we quickly got a lively discussion.  In time, I hope that discussion will lead to some useful information for the participants, as well as further the reach of each of the group members.  Since The Virtual Lawyer group is committed to breaking down walls between individuals, my hope is such group will foster new connections and new resources for all the participants.

I may, on occasion cross-post some of the discussion here on this blog.  More likely, I invite you to join linkedIn and to join ONE or BOTH of the Groups.

Customer Service 101: Connecting in an Interconnected World

Rose Rowland, Developer and Trainer for Basha Systems adds her thoughts on customer service in an interconnected world.

For several years now, I have gone to a drycleaners that is farther from my house than at least five others.  This drycleaners is not particularly cheaper or even better in any appreciable way than the ones that are nearer to my house. And still, I make the extra trip for one reason – the lady behind the counter.

Read more

Twitter Twitter Twit … What is in a Twit

I have recently noticed a number of attorneys and software vendors getting “Twitter” personas … see www.twitter.com. So I got one for myself.  I can be reached via @bashasys.  I had a long drive up to Montreal with time to kill on my new Blackberry Storm (Rose was driving).  And so I enrolled in Twitter and began to Twit (yes… that is a new verb that I cannot claim credit for). And here are some of my thoughts after a week of Twittering.

Twitter, for those who don’t know, is a hybrid of “texting” (or using cell phones for Text messaging) and Blogging.  It is texting in that it limits all posts or messages (aka Twits) to 140 characters.  For people like me who can barely keep a sentence under 140 characters, such limits can be crippling. The message box for Twitter is titled “What are you doing”.  And so the initial inpulse is to answer the question.

Note my early posts on my drive to Mont Tremblant:
# Bilingual jokes á Le hotel de ville and 30 degrees below zero … Celsius 4:26 PM Feb 15th from TwitterBerry
# Lost to my son in the brain activity game … Can move the ball with alpha waves 12:06 PM Feb 15th from TwitterBerry
# 30 degree below zero Celsius in downtown Montreal 12:04 PM Feb 15th from TwitterBerry
# Just got through the border crossing … They speak French here 4:03 PM Feb 14th from TwitterBerry
# All stop… Just arrived at the Canadian border. Do they still have borders 3:05 PM Feb 14th from TwitterBerry
# How to build self organizing systems for practice management ….with a simple memo field. All in the markup and the interpreter. 12:52 PM Feb 14th from TwitterBerry
# More snow as we get closer to Montreal

Others have taken to use Twitter to announce product developments, links to interesting articles, and business gossip. Take a look at posts from RocketMatter, a cloud based case management system:
# @adamr Brilliant move. Even more brilliant would be sending a new Kindle 2 to me as well. about 22 hours ago from TweetDeck in reply to adamr
# @TheHRLawyer I would agree. Most theft is low-tech, not high-tech. Overwhelmingly so. Thanks for reading! about 22 hours ago from TweetDeck in reply to TheHRLawyer
# Get an understanding of this murky “Cloud” thing. See “The Cloud” Explained, Part 1 of 2 at FindLaw.com: http://is.gd/ky96 about 22 hours ago from TweetDeck
# @RonJeffries Find you where you are – usually at Panera Bread with Chet, no? about 22 hours ago from TweetDeck in reply to RonJeffries
# @claxtonlegal Rocket Matter does not make you sign a yearly contract. Pay per month and cancel anytime. 30 Day $$ back guarantee. about 24 hours ago from TweetDeck

Ross Kodner chooses to use this as a links exchange that primarily announces posts on his blog:
# Ross Ipsa Loquitur: All a Twitter About OutTwit: While I’m personally still baffled abo.. http://tinyurl.com/bzw3b9 10:10 AM Feb 7th from twitterfeed
# Ross Ipsa Loquitur: Coolest Demand Letter Ever: Just ask El Paso lawyer David Ferrell who dem.. http://tinyurl.com/b4qtwe 10:10 AM Feb 7th from twitterfeed
# Ross Ipsa Loquitur: No Longer a SkyFi Virgin! Now a Member of the 7 Mile High Club!: Yes, on .. http://tinyurl.com/bbtbxm 10:10 AM Feb 7th from twitterfeed
# Ross Ipsa Loquitur: 12 of 14 . . . No, it’s Not a New Star Trek Character: No, it’.. http://tinyurl.com/adyubj 10:10 AM Feb 7th from twitterfeed
# Ross Ipsa Loquitur: The Inauguration Live!: See it unfold live at www.hulu.com! Wow! May God .. http://tinyurl.com/9p8gdh 11:12 AM Jan 20th from twitterfeed

So what should I do with Twitter?
Who is my audience?
Send me a twit to @bashasys

For now, I will keep the personal twits down …. I do not have papparazzi on my trail, nor ever will.  If you do what to follow me, you have to ANNOUNCE yourself and request permission to follow.  That may be “unfriendly” of me, but I do want to know who my “friends and followers” are.  Further, I will strive to come up with something interesting for that millisecond you review my twit … and maybe links to my more extensive ramblings.

Cheers.

Quote of the Day

“I’m not a gambling man.  So when I make a bet, I am just earning money” … Me.

Remarked during an early morning study session with my son when he challenged me on the answer to a math problem.

TechnoFeature: A Systemic Approach to Legal Document Automation (2): Defining the ROI

AS PUBLISHED IN TECHNOLAWYER: With the recent state of the economy, many companies are tightening their belt — and law firms are no exception. But sometimes you have to spend money to make money. According to legal technology consultant Seth Rowland, now is the time to redouble legal document automation initiatives. In this comprehensive two-part series, Seth explores document automation, first from a technology perspective, and then from a business case perspective. Published on November 25, 2008, Part 1 explained how to get started. Today in Part 2, Seth returns to discuss the Return on Investment (“ROI”) for document automation initiatives. This article contains 1,929 words.

 

INTRODUCTION

Wouldn’t you like to gain 30 minutes a day?

I am not selling you a “Time-Turner” of the kind used by Hermione in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” to “do over” parts of her day. This is not the world of flesh-and-blood wizards. Rather, I am talking about how electronic wizards (aka software-based automation systems) can enable you to accomplish more in the limited time allotted for work each day.

What is 30 minutes a day worth? Let me run the math for the average timekeeper:

  • 30 minutes * 5 days = 150 minutes per week.
  • 150 minutes * 48 weeks = 120 hours per year.
  • 120 hours * $200 per hour = $24,000 for each timekeeper.

So a gain of 30 minutes per day equates to $24,000 a year for each timekeeper. In reality, the amount of savings from a well-implemented document automation system could be as much as one or two FTE (Full-Time-Equivalent) staff members, a value of $150,000 to 300,000 per year.

So what are you waiting for?

This article examines the return on investment or ROI for investment in document automation. By ROI, I mean for you to quantify whether and how quickly the time and money spent on development of an automated process will be repaid in your particular situation. The ROI will differ depending on the nature of the process being automated, the value of the improved efficiencies, and the amount of time and money spent on automating the process.

A DOCUMENT ASSEMBLY PRIMER

“Document assembly” is the practice of law writ large, using a combination of automated and manual processes. All documents created by a law practice are assembled. Such documents are the product of a discrete set of questions and answers, which are used to guide the appropriate language for the creation of the document. What document assembly does differently from the manual document creation process is: (1) codify the questions, (2) structure the answers, and (3) rationalize the outputs.

The more comprehensive the questions in the automated system, the more structured and logical the answers, the more thought out the branches of the decisions tree, the better the outcome. In the world of document assembly, the quality of a system is measured by how close the “first draft” coming out of the system is to the ultimate final draft submitted by attorney to client. In a well-developed system, with a comprehensive interview, the “automated draft” should be the final draft.

Document assembly, properly understood, is a means to systematize the practice of law. Under such a system, you could achieve the same results, or better results, in a fraction of the time.

WHAT IF YOU COULD … ?

In determining the ROI, begin by defining a goal. Ask yourself the question: “What if you could …?” Clearly define the process you wish to automate.

Below I’ve listed some processes worth automating. What if you could …

  • Generate engagement letters at the initial client meeting.
  • Put together a complete estate plan in a day.
  • Prepare a complete set of loan documents, including the closing statement, the same day you receive client instructions.
  • File a complete set of responsive pleadings, discovery requests, and pleadings in an afternoon.
  • Prepare a demand letter and complaint, along with specific prayers for relief in under an hour.
  • Meet with a client in a virtual meeting, such as that provided by GoToMeeting or Webex, hammer out the terms of a lease, and produce a comprehensive term sheet at the end of the meeting.
  • Prepare the operating agreement for 20 special purpose LLCs and all supporting formation papers overnight.

WHETHER YOU SHOULD … ?

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Some projects lack sufficient “bang for the buck.” A word of caution! Document assembly is NOT cheap. Building an automated system is NOT easy. The design process will force you to rethink how you draft documents. And PARTNERS will have to spend REAL time.

That said, you should think seriously about document automation under the following circumstances:

• Before a major marketing push. If you plan to release a television commercial featuring your firm as specializing in Elder Law planning, get your document assembly processes in order first so you can handle the increased work volume.

• Before the dog and pony show. If you plan to make a presentation to a regional bank director about handling transactional work (or get referral estate planning business), you should figure how you can cost-effectively deliver the work to this new client at prices below that of your competitors.

• Before you hire a new associate or paralegal. If you are considering hiring new staff to handle your workload, consider first whether your current staff can be made more productive. By productive, I don’t mean working more hours (the traditional approach), but rather the ability to handle more transactions in the same time.

RISK MANAGEMENT IN A LAW FIRM

Risk management has been typically applied in a business context. While lawyers specialize in advising their clients on “risks,” few law firms actual consider their own risk. In a law firm, risk is often measured solely in terms of possible malpractice suits.

Properly measured, however, a law firm also faces (1) risk of non-payment from dissatisfied clients; (2) risk of short payment from clients who balk at large fees; (3) risk of lost referrals from clients who fail to speak highly of your law firm to their colleagues; (4) risk of actual loss to your clients from errors in your documents; (5) risk of non-repeat business from clients who do not return; and (6) risk of lost potential business from clients who are turned away because you are either too busy or deem their work insufficiently profitable given your current fee structure.

Document assembly is a means to reduce these quantifiable risks. Properly implemented, document assembly will improve baseline work product; better forms mean better first drafts, period. When you move from “merge templates” to automated forms that contain real business logic and decision trees, you will reduce risk because you have addressed similar issues consistently with the same text across multiple clients and multiple transactions.

Further, when you work with templates, as opposed to the document you did for another client, confidential client-specific metadata never gets into the document. If you have any concerns, HotDocs 2008 has a feature that strips the metadata, if any, from the template during assembly. Such automation systems can be developed centrally and then made available to multiple offices using Windows Terminal Server; smaller offices can dedicate a PC and make it available using Windows Remote Desktop, GoToMyPC, or LogMeIn.

Finally, automation reduces the risk of non-completion — the decision of a law firm to abandon a project half-way through because it has become too costly. In fact, systems free up time for more document review and client-facing consultations.

WHERE IS THE ROI?

Before you can sell a $50,000 to $100,000 project to your partners, you need to make a business case for automation that suits your practice.

1. Identify Potential Points of Growth. Law is a business. Where can your business grow? There are opportunities to get more work from existing clients. There is an opportunity to handle existing business (particularly fixed fee business) more efficiently. Perhaps, you can bring more “contingency” cases if the cost of initiating each action is reduced. Certain types of actions have fee-shifting provisions, but the typical fees are too low, unless you automate.

2. Evaluate Risk of Inaction. If you do NOTHING, there are risks, a number of which were enumerated above. If your competitors stand still and do nothing, you will be OK. If you automate and eliminate the “risks” you will be more profitable.

3. Consider Client Perceptions. What could you do if you had “more time?” Spend more time with each client, turn around documents faster, provide more cost-effective services, and you will bring more value to your existing clients and get new clients.

DETERMINE YOUR BASELINE

So what should go into your calculator? Start with baseline measurements.

1. Define the Market and the Deliverable. The product of a law firm is not “time.” Any ROI calculation requires you to define a set of deliverables. What are you actually producing: an estate plan, a closing, a loan package, or a corporate formation? That is what your clients are shopping for. Identify what the market will pay for those “deliverables.”

2. Drafting Time. Currently, how much does drafting the documents you intend to automate cost? Be sure to factor in the cost of the initial draft by a junior attorney or paralegal, the secretarial time, the review time by partners, and the cost of revisions and redrafts.

3. Turnaround Time. The time from assignment to delivery is often overlooked by attorneys, but not clients. Clients expect to receive documents shortly after they meet with the attorney. Measure, by document type, the current time it takes from client meeting to delivery of completed documents.

4. Work to Collection Ratio. Measure the time that is: (a) not billed, (b) written off, and (c) not collected. If you can “eliminate” this time, it frees up time for clients who will pay full-freight.

DETERMINE THE COST OF DEVELOPMENT

Now that you have decided to “automate” a defined set of documents, you need to look at the costs of developments. The initial choice is whether to buy or build. Buying has the advantage of a fixed cost. There are several automated form systems marketed by LexisNexis, Westlaw, and independent developers. If you buy a system, you need to determine whether the documents produced by the system meet your needs and match your drafting style.

If you don’t buy, you can purchase a document assembly platform, such as HotDocs, qShift, Exari, Pathagoras, or DealBuilder, and build it yourself or retain a consultant to work with you on designing a custom system. You need to factor in the subject matter expertise of the consultant, as well as the cost of your time and your staff in the development process. Do not look just at the “dollar cost” of the engagement. Consider that while the consultant is working on the system, you can focus on getting new clients or do client work.

When engaging a consultant, don’t just look at the hourly rate. Some consultants are more productive than others. You are better served to define a set of documents and send them to the consultant for a project quotation and time estimate. If you choose to build it yourself, and even if you work with a consultant, be prepared to spend substantial non-billable time and money.

CONCLUSION: BALANCING THE EQUATION

When all is said and done, you should not commence a project unless the ROI for the entire project is returned in profits within six months of delivery. If you can’t conceive of getting all your money back within six months, you have either chosen the wrong processes to automate, or the wrong people to do the automation.

There is a strong business case for document automation. Don’t let “gee wiz” and “can do” rule the day. You must dispassionately review the ROI for your particular project, and determine that on-balance you will be better off, more profitable, and carry less risk if you automate than if you stick with the status quo.

Copyright 2009 Seth Rowland. All rights reserved.