Half-Pregnant Document Assembly Systems

In a recent TechnoRelease, entitled “TR: Document Assembly: Let’s Be Frank.”, Roy Lasris, President of Innovative Software Products of Virginia, the developer of Pathagoras, wrote the following

Seth Rowland, a well recognized document assembly guru and multiple TechnoLawyer Contributor of the Year outlines in an article published in the September 27, 2005 TechnoFeature 13 discreet steps needed to implement an effective interview driven document assembly system. Seth implores those who are considering document assembly to find the time to implement all steps. Failure to do so will result in less than an optimal system.

I thank him for that quote. He then continued:

As a busy attorney, you may have neither the time nor the inclination to invest that kind of energy without having a guaranteed outcome. As academically accurate as he may be, Seth’s approach is simply contrary to (1) human nature and (2) the nature of most law offices. If you cannot or will not find the time to do it, then you won’t do it.

It is there that I disagree, both with his interpretation of my article, and his conclusion that real a substantial time investment in document assembly will not be rewarded by substantial multiples in profits for any law firm that makes such an investment.

Where Investment Counts

The same law firm that will calmly make a decision to to hire a $150,000 associate will agonize over a $30,000 automation project.  In the first year, the $150,000 associate will bring in a net profit of $50,000 to $100,000.  In the second year, the net profit will be about the same, for another $150,000.  The return on investment is a whopping 30-60%.  That’s if you are lucky.  Once that associate is well trained, he will want more money, or he may decide to bolt to another firm, taking his expertise (and maybe your client) with him.

By contrast, a $30,000 investment in a document assembly system, will allow your existing staff to do the same work as that $150,000 associate and maybe several other expensive associates.  The amount of money made each year on this initial investment of $30,000 would be equal to the profit on the expensive associate, for much less outlay.  The $50,000 to $100,000 would represent a 180% to 300% return on investment.  In the second year, even assuming maintenance costs, keeping the forms current of $10,000 per year, the profit would jump to 500% to 1000% on the annual investment. And even better, the “document assembly” system will not threaten to leave the firm or ever take your clients.

So why does this matter

This ROI will not happen with a simple clause based system which relies on constant and repeat judgment by an expensive associate to administer.  It will NOT happen with Pathagoras.  Pathagoras is a start.  It will happen with a carefully analyzed and scripted system that evaluates the whole document automation process, extracts the fundamentals and then scripts the whole process. When you are thinking of document assemby, be aware you get out of system what you put in.

To those users of Pathagoras, I offer this advice.  You have started down the right path.  You have started making the investment.  But you should not be wedded to your software choice.  Once you have organized your forms and information, identified all the key clauses that are worth re-using, you will be ready to take the next step.

Lessons from Mrs. Frisby – Nibble before you Bite

Mrs. Frisby came into our life last week … She is a “fancy rat”.  Her presence as a pet in the household has forced a re-examination of my prejudices as I have put this creature, who normally skulks around in the dark (avoiding rat poison) under close observation.  I have observed rat behaviour that has lessons for document assembly …

Nibble before you Bite

A rat does not see very well … That should not surprise you since rats are nocturnal, where the sense of sight is not particularly useful.  Rather rats smell, use their whiskers, and use their teeth. Mrs. Frisby, in the morning samples my fingers with her teeth, before you she climbs onto my hand.  When she discovers it is flesh and blood (and not rat food), she climbs on board.  At first, I was concerned with this biting behavior.  But she does not bit down … rather, her teeth come into contact with my skin, and then the bit withdraws.

So … what does this matter

In looking at document assembly systems, my most successful projects have been those that started out as a nibble.  The nibble before the bite means that the user (1) understands the work involved, and (2) has not put too much time and capital at risk before ensuring that there will be a success.  The nibble also allows time to develop an understanding of the document assembly system’s method of markup.

So what is the big deal about Pathagoras

Document assembly systems are complex and require a lot of work, despite what some responders have said to my article regarding the Pathagoras system.  Would you want to hire a lawyer who went and grabbed a bunch of miscellaneous paragraphs, each time he put together an agreement for you … or would you prefer a lawyer who planned out several contingencies, and choose the options most appropriate to your situation.  Don’t get me wrong, something is better than nothing.  But don’t kid yourself that you are going to build a system that will save you “tens of hours” on a project by using Pathagoras.

Because the “hard coding decisions” are avoided in a clause based assembly system, the time you save in development is lost EACH TIME you do an assembly, because the user is (1) required to have a higher degree of knowledge of the system, and (2) the user will have to continually “repick” the appropriate clauses, and (3) because the clauses exist in isolation, out of the contractual context, changes in one clause, that need to be reflected in another portion of the agreement, simply don’t get made because the “distance” between the clauses, and the memory of the “unwritten” and “uncoded” rule rests with the trusted author.