Sharepoint and Infopath vs. Time Matters and HotDocs – When FREE is NOT FREE

FREE is not FREE.  We in the legal practice management community live in a “bubble”.  Because of our “unique needs” and “limited budgets” lawyers and professional service organizations, have been able to attract a unique set of software tools for drafting our documents and managing our business.  Among these tools are document assembly software packages like HotDocs, GhostFIll, DealBuilder and Exari.  And among the practice management tools are ones like Time Matters, Amicus Attorney and PracticeMaster.  These tools are well developed, with development histories of over a decade or two decades of use.  And these tools are “Rapid Development” platforms that enable developers and consultants to build powerful and highly customized solutions for their clients.

It is true there are OTHER tools that can be used for managing contact information and for automating forms.  These other tools are “free” since many of them are included with the licenses to products many already use.  InfoPath is included with the enterprise version of Microsoft Office; SharePoint Services is included with many versions of Windows Server. And because these tools are “free” and because larger organizations have dedicated programming staff to build solutions with these tools, there is a tendency outside of LEGAL, to use these tools instead. THIS is a mistake.

But Can’t We DO the SAME thing

I have spent time exploring SharePoint and InfoPath.  From my perspective, as a consultant, building solutions based on “free software” is a great sell.  I could build solutions with Merge Templates; or go beyond and set up InfoPath data entry forms to fee the merge templates.  I could offer these forms over a “free” SharePoint server.  I could take the document markup used by a document assembly product like HotDocs, and replace it with Bookmarks and XML objects with rules assigned to those objects.  This would be great for my business, until I asked the client to pay for the development bill.

The reason lawyers and professional service organizations choose a HotDocs for document assembly or a Time Matters for practice management is because the development costs for equivalent level of customization is a fraction of what they would be for building a custom system on SharePoint Service, InfoPath with Microsoft SQL Server.  These solutions are powerful and integrated out of the box.  I was asked by a prospective client how much time it would take to covert a set of 100 lending documents into a series of automated HotDocs templates.  When I replied a conservative 2-3 months, his response was, “That would replace our division of programs in _______ .” These tools are “staff multipliers” both in the efficiency such systems can achieve, and in the efficiency of these tools for software development.

A Well-Kept Secret

Big “IT” is keeping these tools secret.  It is always better to not have to requisition new software for solutions that “could have been built in-house”. The risk of bringing in such software lies both in the cost and the risk to existing staff who could have been tasked to build the solution in-house.  Besides, these systems they say, are just a bunch of data tables and merge fields; what could be so hard.

They say the “devil is in the details”.  In practice management and document assembly, that is true. The goal in document assembly is “RTP” or ready to print. And yet, there are thousands of potential nuances in any given document. The goal in practice management is in the multiple views of the data and the ability to search effectively across multiple tables to mine the data,and the ability to vary the data requirements across different practice groups and different purposes.

The real risk however for big IT is not document assembly software and practice management software (much of which was developed in North America), but rather outsourcing of entire divisions to India, China and Pakistan.  Big “IT” looks at “body count” and lines of code, rather than productivity, suitability of solutions to the requirements, or time from conception to delivery.