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.