Future of Document Assembly

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.

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.