For better or worse, the future of document assembly is on the Web. The web offers cheaper maintenance, quicker updates, and a more consistent look and feel. The web is also the most cost-effective on total cost of ownership (“TCO”). The catch is that startup costs are much greater for web deployment of automated templates. Particularly since most law firms wish to “dip before they dunk”, the presence of desktop or networked document assembly solutions is critical to the development of automated content. In the past five years, millions of dollars have been invested in innovative web-delivery of automated document creation systems. By contrast, the investment in client/server based document assembly software has been minimal.
The sole exception has been LexisNexis’s continuing development of the HotDocs platform. Korbitec, once the leading rival to LexisNexis, has ceased further development of its powerful GhostFill document assembly engine. No other viable vendor has stepped up to fill the gap and compete head-on with LexisNexis. LexisNexis deserves real credit for investing resources in building an ever-more powerful version of HotDocs. They should be encouraged to keep up the good work and rewarded with license sales. As I have written in my review of HotDocs 2006 posted in Technolawyer, the HotDocs platform has been transformed into a toolkit that can do some amazing things to manipulate data and forms. However, in the absence of a viable direct competitor on the client/server space, there needs to be a clear reason for LexisNexis to continue to innovate.
Before I talk about the future, let me talk about the present. Let’s look at the pricing of document assembly software. HotDocs Standard desktop costs $300 and HotDocs Professional costs $850 per license. What that means is that for a small user base (1-10 users) your software investment is very small. As the user base increases beyond 50 users, the cost of software starts to become a factor. The reality is that most document assembly installations start out as departmental efforts (under 20 users) or occur where the firm purchases a form set (in which case the “player software” is free). By contrast, online software starts at $12,500 and goes up to $100,000 for the server software. These fees do not include the server hardware, the consulting services configuring (and securing) the webserver, or the usage fees charged by a number of vendors.
It is this GAP which forces many users to look at the “cheap” software and get locked in. This benefits LexisNexis which offers both cheap HotDocs desktop software and a much more expensive HotDocs Server product. The cost, however, is that the web-based developers (Business Integrity, iXio, Exari, Perfectus and others), have template development environments that offer alternative design philosophies some of which may be better suited to your firm or company. But because the startup (or prototype) costs are so high, such software is only available to the AmLaw 100 law firms and large corporations.
The FUTURE of document assembly.
Microsoft, with the release of Vista and Office2007 has closely aligned its software with the web through Sharepoint webservices, integrated throughout. The 2-ton gorilla in the room is Microsoft which is starting to move into the “vertical” space and recognize the needs of legal. Microsoft Legal is currently using Business Integrity’s DealBuilder product, which means that they have had an opportunity to evaluate closely a very power and flexible automation system. It is only a matter of time before some of the features of DealBuilder show up in future versions of Office and Sharepoint.
Exari has announced the conquest of the “holy grail” in document assembly—The ability to assemble a document, send the result out for comments and editing, and then to bring the document back into the automation environment so that the variables and business logic continue to function on what is now the “customized template”. They offer a feature which previously was only available in Smartwords (now defunct) and Rapidocs via a proprietary word-processor. With the advent of WordML (a new open file format of XML files packaged together) it is possible to “safely store metadata” about the rules and structures of a word document, separating content, structure and format. All of the web based developers are looking at what can be done with WordML to allow the “round tripping” of templates and documents.
Word currently allows you through macros and forms (including InfoPath and Taskbar data entry) to do much of what document assembly software does. The catch, is that building such system requires specialized expertise in programming. That means, to do court forms, form agreements and other automated documents requires hiring an experienced programmer. The strength of the document assembly software is the “easy markup” which can be understood by the lawyers and managers who work with these forms, and the ease of deploying updates. Also with the separation of “business logic” from the word document, such document assembly systems allow the templates to run on multiple versions of Word (and WordPerfect) without recompiling macros.
LexisNexis is continuing to explore new options for its HotDocs platform. A while back, it built into HotDocs Professional the ability to “Publish Templates” for HotDocs Server. This means that for a very low investment, you can develop templates for internal use, and when the templates (and users) hit a critical mass, then invest in HotDocs Server. We at Basha Systems, now work with Accudraft and offer HotDocs Online hosting services for our clients. We offer our clients NO STARTUP COSTS and NO HARDWARE COST hosting. For a nominal monthly fee, plus ongoing document automation consulting, we can put a law firm or company online.
So the future is ONLINE … it is just a matter of time.