Merge Templates and Clause Libraries

Early Days of Automobiles

In the early days of the auto industry, a team of mechanics would put together a car in a week.  This was no mean feat of engineering.  In many cases, the car would have “custom parts”.  There would be “user” preferences.  And there was the inevitable unintended variation.  To achieve efficiencies (and thereby profits which was the ultimate goal), the engineers would create a template (a master design) with instructions to be “manually” completed by the engineers.  Further efficiencies were achieved by laying out the workspace; adding labeled shelves with all the key auto parts.  Some items were “pre-assembled” or partially assembled, leaving a few remaining steps that could be used for customization.  Nevertheless, it required a team of skilled engineers to put together a car.  Quality control was a matter of “experience” and not something that could be measured.  Each car had a unique character.  And of course, cars were expensive; in fact, too expensive for most people to afford.

Early Days of Document Assembly

In many ways, the early days of automobiles resembled most law firm’s view of document automation.  The more “efficient” firms have recognized that Word or WordPerfect templates can make them more productive.  These “templates” are partially constructed documents that contain the bare bones of the ultimate legal instruments that are the stock and trade of lawyers.  More advanced firms have added “merge fields” to these documents allowing some user input at the assembly phase.  The user can “fill in” the blanks with prompts.  Some have “organized” the shelving in the the assembly room, by grouping clauses into clause libraries.  A skilled practitioner then reviews the clauses and selects the one the he or she feels fits the bill.  Some will fit; others won’t.  And the skilled practitioner then adjusts the part to make the proper fit.

In many cases, each attorney has his or her own assembly space.  Each attorney or paralegal organizes his space differently, populating it with different parts.  The actual organization is generally understood only by the individual. The implication is that the individual can be more efficient, but the individual is not easily replaced. And moreover, the individual cannot dramatically improve his productivity.  Gains in productivity are “incremental” as opposed to arithmetic or exponential.  These “workspaces” are often confined to the users “computer profile” which stores their favorite documents.

To help lawyers in these efforts, there are features of Microsoft Word and WordPerfect.  There are some add-on tools that amounts to clause libraries with fill-in fields.  These adhoc tools enable the skilled practitioner to be more efficient; but also entail a great deal of technical learning to accomplish for fairly limited productivity gains.  This piecemeal approach to document production is doomed to limited gains. Such programs as Pathagoras, Microsystems D3, Ixio qShift, ThinkDocs, ClauseBank all embodied this approach.

The Present and Future of Document Automation

Document Assembly tools are NOT new.  HotDocs has been around a long time (on 20 years).  It was preceded by CAPSAuthor, Visual WorkForm, PowerTXT, and MasterDraft.  Other programs such as GhostFill, ThinkDocs,and SmartWords are no longer available or supported, There are several other programs available, including Exari, ContractExpress, and XpressDox.

These programs, however, are different from the early days in that they support true logic.  That means that decision trees can be built into these systems to result in dramatic improvements in both quality and quantity of the output. These systems support “rule-based” document assembly, true templates, and “dynamic interviews”. They support arrays, computations, and calculations.  This newer breed of document assembly tools (Contract Express, Exari and HotDocs) include a “relevance engine” that can look at the document markup and determine the relevant questions to present to the user.  This change in these engines is nothing short of revolutionary.  It is a baby step towards the thinking machine.  But the real revolution is that it simplifies the process of creating complex templates.  By putting all the clauses in (or linked to) a master template, you can now add simple rules that will bring in the appropriate language.  Far from simplifying the “outputs” with one model fits all, Rule-based document assembly enables unlimited customization while retaining quality control.