The Holy Grail

There is much talk about the “Holy Grail” in document assembly.  As those who have seen “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” or more serious students of the Arthurian Romance (as opposed to those who have read “The DaVinci Code”, the Holy Grail is a “chalice” or “cup” which held the blood of the real Christ, was kept as a holy relic by the church for centuries and then was lost to history.  During the middle ages, knights went on quests to “find” and “recover” the Grail.  The Grail was never found.  But the “search for the Grail” filled up thousands of pages of literature, and the hunt for the Grail kept thousands of knights diverted in a quest that kept them from seeking to overthrow corrupt monarchies.

In the world of document assembly, one vendor has claimed to have achieved “the Holy Grail”.  The technology will not be available till late in 2007.  When it is, we will review it.  The question is not whether the Grail can be found, but whether it will be the “solution”.

In a recent newsletter, Exari claims to have achieved the Holy Grail in Document Assembly

The Holy Grail: A Document Assembly System That Reuses Negotiated Clauses
There’s a favorite question that people love to ask when they’re pondering whether document assembly will work for them. It usually goes something like this:

“That’s great, I answer all the questions, the system spits out a great first draft, I send it off to the other side, and their lawyers mess around with the fine print of clauses 11 and 23. Now, can I shove that document back into the document assembly system and change a few of my previous answers?”

Looking into the Myth

This article inspired me to look into The Holy Grail and its application to the world of document assembly.  As a youth, I was entranced by the Grail myth.  I knew all the players: Percival, Gawain, Lancelot.  And so, when a document assembly vendor claimed to have achieved the grail, I thought I should take a look.

In the wikipedia encyclopedia, the Holy Grail was:

….  the dish, plate, or cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, said to possess miraculous powers. The connection of Joseph of Arimathea with the Grail legend dates from Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie (late 12th century) in which Joseph receives the Grail from an apparition of Jesus and sends it with his followers to Great Britain; building upon this theme, later writers recounted how Joseph used the Grail to catch Christ’s blood while interring him and that in Britain he founded a line of guardians to keep it safe. The quest for the Holy Grail makes up an important segment of the Arthurian cycle, appearing first in works by Chrétien de Troyes.

In the literature of Chrétien de Troyes, a book called The Arthurian Romances, and other literature, the Grail was a “physical object”.  It is not that the Grail was illusive (it was certainly) and well hidden behind the walls of a fortress (it was), or that riddles needed to be solved and quests achieved. All these were true.  However, the ultimate criteria for “achieving the Grail” was “purity”.  Sir Lancelot, perhaps the greatest knight of all Chistendom, could never achieve the Grail.  For despite his strength, despite his intelligence and ingenuity, and despite his great experience and wisdom, Sir Lancelot lacked a pure heart.  He was (of course) an adulterer, sleeping with the Queen.  And so while Sir Lancelot could come within the presence of The Grail, he could not actually see or achieve the Grail.

What the Grail means today

In some ways, what Exari claims to have achieved parallels the Grail myth.  They have claimed to have built a tool that will effectively import “negotiated changes” back into a template.  When I asked to see the Grail (oh… I was not worthy), I was told to come back in a few months when it went into beta—Not quite yet.  Was this an announcement of a technology like Microsoft, before it existed?  I had a client who was intrigued in building a web-based contract management system and wanted it now. I was on my quest.

But the more serious question is whether the eXari Grail will offer the miraculous curative powers of the real Holy Grail.  This made me ponder.  If you take a “bad form” and automate it, will the Grail of document assembly save you.  Or, will it more likely allow you to continue reusing a poorly automated template well beyond its natural life.  Will the “Grail” be used to prop up a corrupt Monarchy that should long ago have crumbled of its own weight.  Will the “lack of purity” … or poor quality of the automated template mean that you will “not achieve” the bliss that comes from possessing the grail.

When lawyers fail to look at contract automation as an iterative process of regular updates and redesign of forms, such systems fail to meet their full potential.  In fact, it is the “lack of the Grail” that has been the biggest stimulus to effective authoring of templates.  By forcing the template designed to “anticipate” the negotiable issues and build rules, it creates better contracts, better systems, more power.  Yes, I am sure my clients would love to have their own “Grail”.  But in the end, I have a concern that it will diminish their impetus to put the proper resources into automation.  It will allow them to go back to the bad old days of word by word negotiation.

Further Details from Exari:

But there’s good news. The holy grail is coming. When Exari V5 ships in the first half of 2007, a big part of this problem will be solved.

In simple terms, any document produced from Exari which then goes through a process of negotiations (typically in Word) will be able to be “round-tripped” back into Exari in a way that preserves any negotiated changes to the text of particular clauses. This means you’ll be able to save the answers given during document assembly, as well as the edits made during negotiations, and re-use them against the same template, or even against an updated version of that template. So it doesn’t matter that the template has changed since last year. You simply load it all up and what’s relevant will be used, and the rest will be ignored.