Passover – Rabbinical Mandated Spring Cleaning – For the Law Office

Every year, I engage in a little ritual I like to call “rabbincally mandated spring cleaning” – in other words, turning my kitchen over for Passover.  One of the most interesting things about pulling out my Passover dishes and pots each year is that I get to read year old newspapers.  It is always rather comforting to read about some horrific event that was happening in the world a year ago and realize we survived it.  This year, as I was taking out my Passover stuff and glancing over the year-old newspapers, I was struck with a thought.  Everything has a history, even news stories.  And sometimes, things that seem extremely important at one time turn out to be not so important later on.

Software has history.  Especially the software that we use in our daily business life.  And sometimes, in the urge to immediately solve a present issue with fascinating new software, we skip over history.  Let’s say, two years ago, your office installed a up to the minute Practice Management System, such as Time Matters or TABS/Practice Master.  After the pain and agony of initial setup, it was wonderful – a real step forward.  But, fast forward two years and that wonderful practice management software system begins to look as antiquated as last year’s newspaper stories.  You’re ready to move to The Cloud – chuck out the old, in with the new.

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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.

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Sales vs Consulting – The Cost of Independence

What is the role of the “independent consultant”?  And should the “independent consultant” be allowed to benefit from a “sale” based on his/her independent recommendation?  Software vendors with “reseller” programs have always wanted a “free sales force” of consultants who offer their software “exclusively”; no salary, no benefits, no costs. These consultants are “paid” by the vendor in the form of commissions on sales (often narrowly defined) or referral fees and access to NFR copies of the software.  And yet, the questions arises, when one vendor demands exclusivity, what is the “price” for independence.  This article looks at the price and the benefits of an in independent non-exclusive consulting program to clients.  Some of the arguments are obvious, but they bear restating.

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Toss Out Your Server – No Really!!!

The computer-industrial complex has been on a mad race of hardware, software and services to shape us “users” in their own image.  With the drop in prices for hardware, it seems that a “network” is in everone’s reach.  Microsoft is even shipping a “home server” – instant network in a box.  What is missing in this hardware and software gold rush is that few of us, myself included, are capable of properly managing a network and hardening that network against attack.  And there are a lot of malevolent forces out there ready to attack.  As a result, we find ourselves relying increasingly on the gray wizards of networking, often calling them in when it is too late.

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Going Paperless – The Legal Stuff

Have you ever considered going truly “PAPERLESS”?  If you do, did you plan on telling your clients?  And what do you do with all their STUFF? The answer may lie in your client engagement letter.  So long as you disclose to your client what you are going to do with the documents in his/her case, and so long as you keep originals of those documents you are legally and ethically required to keep, you should be in a position to go paperless without increasing your risk of malpractice.  Wells Anderson and I have developed some model language that you can you in your engagement letter.  We give it with the caveat that while we are lawyers, we are likely not admitted to practice in your jurisdiction, and second we are not offering this language as legal advice.  We are asking you to consider this language and review it in light of your firm’s document retention procedures and your state’s legal and ethical requirements regarding document retention.

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Template vs. System Design

Over the years of working with HotDocs we have encountered many issues with the basic design of HotDocs, client requests and what not, that have required creative solutions.  And in so doing, we have changed our approach from one that centered around “documents” to one that centers around data and workflow.  In so doing, we have substantially changed the way that we code in HotDocs, using methods and approaches that arise from other coding languages and programming principals.  We have found HotDocs to be flexible and powerful enough to support, for example, the use of common elements across multiple templates, use of templates as reusable objects, using local and global variables, internal databases, and dynamic indexing and cross-references.  Such features are not required for basic template design.  However, there use leads to more user-friendly interviews, more dynamic data entry, and the ability to design templates and interviews that reflect and respond to the data input.

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KRONOS – Evaluation Criteria for Software and RocketMatter

I recently engaged in a long conversation with Larry Port of Rocket Matter about the state of software design, and the common disconnect between programmers, marketeers and end users.  It turns out Larry was a specialist in “usability studies” – the new buzz word in software design. He pointed me to TED.  At that time I recalled a series of ABA Techshow and other presentations I made back in 2001 on how legal software should be evaluated. I reproduce my unedited article from 2001 below, with the caveat it is not Web 2.0 aware …. But will in the future revisit some of theses ideas, particularly in a forthcoming review in Technolawyer of RocketMatter.

In evaluating technology, I look for inspiration to the Greeks, and in particular the father of the gods on Mt. Olympus, none other than KRONOS.  I use the following criteria in evaluating all technology:

Keystroke Count. The tool must be easy to use.  A subjective judgment on ease of use can be reduced to an empirical keystroke count.  In comparing similar tools, count the number of keystrokes (or mouse clicks) require to accomplish regular tasks.  The fewer the keystrokes, the better designed the software, and the more likely it will be used properly.

Return on Investment. The tool must pay for itself in increased productivity, improved work product, greater client satisfaction, or more efficient organization and information retention.  Don’t just look at price per seat.  Look at the “total cost of ownership” (equipment requirements, training, support and customization) and compare it to the expected return on investment.

Opulence and Intuitiveness. The tool must be “good looking”.  An ugly interface is often a proxy for poorly designed and thrown together software.  If the developer did not take the time to build an elegant and appealing interface, the developer may also not have taken the time to fully test and debug the software.  Also, if the icons, menus, and screens are not intuitive, you may find yourself spending a fortune on training, and your users may never fully utilize the potential of the software.

Networkability and Integration. The days of stand-alone PC’s are over.  The tool must function in a networked environment, and allow multiple users to access the system simultaneously.  And the tool should be able to communicate with other programs, sharing or exchanging data.

Options and Customization. It should be easy to install software, with a single CD-ROM and a menu of options to allow you to configure the software installation for the requirements of your network/PC.  A good software designer recognizes that each IP practice is unique, and should allow for some degree of customization, whether the addition of custom fields or the ability to modify or add new templates.

Suitability for the Task. The tool must be designed for or configurable for the specific use desired by the practitioner.  A general purpose case manager is a poor substitute for an IP portfolio database.

Deciding on a Practice Management System: The Three Lists Method

By this point, most law firms and businesses have automated to some degree. Few offices still depend on the typewriter and the paper calendar. Word Processors, MS Outlook and some form of billing program can be found in most, if not all, offices.

Lawyers, paralegals and businesses are ready to move to the next level. The most important thing to determine, of course, is which is the most efficient and cost effective move to make.

FROM THE FRONTLINE:

I often receive inquiries that go something like this: “I’m looking for some software for my office. My office has gotten to the point that I really need to get things more organized. It takes forever to find information on a client. It is also taking us far too long to create documents and get them out the door. We’re losing money on client work. In fact, I’m having a hard time keeping track of my billables and I’d really like to get a handle on how long it is taking my staff to do certain tasks and how to speed them up. If possible, I would like to be able to increase my business without having to hire new staff.”

When I hear this, the first thing that springs to mind is that what they are looking for is really three different types of software: (1) Case Management, such as Time Matters, Amicus Attorney or PracticeMaster, to organize their matter data, documents and case notes; (2) Document Assembly software like HotDocs to more quickly create quality controlled documents like Wills and Real Estate Contracts. And (3) a good billing program to track time and invoice clients.  The question that also springs to mind is: “Do they need all of these all at once?”

It is natural to want it all at once. However, the cost f such an implentation and the disruption of a wholesale transformation may undermine the very value of such action. It is far better to prioritize – both areas of frustration and desire. That’s why I always ask my prospects to make three lists.

LIST ONE:I AM SO FRUSTRATED THAT . . .

I ask them to list, in order, the five to ten things that are happening in their office that are driving them up the wall.  For some people, its “I am so frustrated
because when I have a paralegal or a junior attorney create a document, I often spend more time revising it than it would have taken to do it myself.” Or, “I am so frustrated because I have such a hard time tracking phone calls and other items that I know I should be billing.”

LIST TWO:  I WISH I COULD . . .

This is your dream list. These are the things you wish you and your office could do that would make it into the model office of your dreams. Such as “I wish that I had an easy way of accessing, from my desktop, all of the information I need on a client. Then when they call for advice or a case update, I could tell them everything they need to know instantly instead of having to send someone to look for a file and flipping around in it.”

LIST THREE: THERE’S GOT TO BE A BETTER WAY TO . . .

This in some way overlaps with the first two lists and is not completely necessary but it is a good exercise in office psychology and basic venting.  In the heat of the moment, you may cry out “There’s got to be a better way” – to prepare documents for real estate closings, to track estate assets, to communicate with other firms on document changes, etc.

ANALYZING THE RESULTS

Now, put your lists side by side.  Do most of the items have to do with billing, document preparation or general office organization?

  • If most of the entries have to do with billing, start there. Possibly, your greatest need is a well set up billing program like PCLaw, TABS or even Quicken and the services of a specialist in that area.
  • If most of your frustration lies with lack of organization, it might be time to look into a Office/Case Management system, like Time Matter or Amicus Attorney, that can help you organize your data on the computer.
  • On the other hand, if getting any document out the door is a slow and tortuous process, HotDocs might give you the best initial bang for your tech buck.
  • Or, possibly, your biggest issues involve none of the above. Maybe, your greatest area of frustration is computer crashes or other hardware issues and not a software issue at all. In that case, you must address this issue before investing in the newest software.

This is something that I cannot urge too strongly.  Before you invest in any of these great software programs, you need to be aware that they can take a toll on computer memory and performance. Putting wonderful, memory intensive software on a clunky, obsolete computer will only result in additional frustration, software returns and many, many bouts of misdirected cursing.

Use the three lists methods to get a handle on your real tech needs. A ounce of foresight can avoid pounds of future regret.  NOW, you’re ready to give us a call.

TechnoFeature: A Systemic Approach to Legal Document Automation (2): Defining the ROI

AS PUBLISHED IN TECHNOLAWYER: With the recent state of the economy, many companies are tightening their belt — and law firms are no exception. But sometimes you have to spend money to make money. According to legal technology consultant Seth Rowland, now is the time to redouble legal document automation initiatives. In this comprehensive two-part series, Seth explores document automation, first from a technology perspective, and then from a business case perspective. Published on November 25, 2008, Part 1 explained how to get started. Today in Part 2, Seth returns to discuss the Return on Investment (“ROI”) for document automation initiatives. This article contains 1,929 words.

 

INTRODUCTION

Wouldn’t you like to gain 30 minutes a day?

I am not selling you a “Time-Turner” of the kind used by Hermione in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” to “do over” parts of her day. This is not the world of flesh-and-blood wizards. Rather, I am talking about how electronic wizards (aka software-based automation systems) can enable you to accomplish more in the limited time allotted for work each day.

What is 30 minutes a day worth? Let me run the math for the average timekeeper:

  • 30 minutes * 5 days = 150 minutes per week.
  • 150 minutes * 48 weeks = 120 hours per year.
  • 120 hours * $200 per hour = $24,000 for each timekeeper.

So a gain of 30 minutes per day equates to $24,000 a year for each timekeeper. In reality, the amount of savings from a well-implemented document automation system could be as much as one or two FTE (Full-Time-Equivalent) staff members, a value of $150,000 to 300,000 per year.

So what are you waiting for?

This article examines the return on investment or ROI for investment in document automation. By ROI, I mean for you to quantify whether and how quickly the time and money spent on development of an automated process will be repaid in your particular situation. The ROI will differ depending on the nature of the process being automated, the value of the improved efficiencies, and the amount of time and money spent on automating the process.

A DOCUMENT ASSEMBLY PRIMER

“Document assembly” is the practice of law writ large, using a combination of automated and manual processes. All documents created by a law practice are assembled. Such documents are the product of a discrete set of questions and answers, which are used to guide the appropriate language for the creation of the document. What document assembly does differently from the manual document creation process is: (1) codify the questions, (2) structure the answers, and (3) rationalize the outputs.

The more comprehensive the questions in the automated system, the more structured and logical the answers, the more thought out the branches of the decisions tree, the better the outcome. In the world of document assembly, the quality of a system is measured by how close the “first draft” coming out of the system is to the ultimate final draft submitted by attorney to client. In a well-developed system, with a comprehensive interview, the “automated draft” should be the final draft.

Document assembly, properly understood, is a means to systematize the practice of law. Under such a system, you could achieve the same results, or better results, in a fraction of the time.

WHAT IF YOU COULD … ?

In determining the ROI, begin by defining a goal. Ask yourself the question: “What if you could …?” Clearly define the process you wish to automate.

Below I’ve listed some processes worth automating. What if you could …

  • Generate engagement letters at the initial client meeting.
  • Put together a complete estate plan in a day.
  • Prepare a complete set of loan documents, including the closing statement, the same day you receive client instructions.
  • File a complete set of responsive pleadings, discovery requests, and pleadings in an afternoon.
  • Prepare a demand letter and complaint, along with specific prayers for relief in under an hour.
  • Meet with a client in a virtual meeting, such as that provided by GoToMeeting or Webex, hammer out the terms of a lease, and produce a comprehensive term sheet at the end of the meeting.
  • Prepare the operating agreement for 20 special purpose LLCs and all supporting formation papers overnight.

WHETHER YOU SHOULD … ?

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Some projects lack sufficient “bang for the buck.” A word of caution! Document assembly is NOT cheap. Building an automated system is NOT easy. The design process will force you to rethink how you draft documents. And PARTNERS will have to spend REAL time.

That said, you should think seriously about document automation under the following circumstances:

• Before a major marketing push. If you plan to release a television commercial featuring your firm as specializing in Elder Law planning, get your document assembly processes in order first so you can handle the increased work volume.

• Before the dog and pony show. If you plan to make a presentation to a regional bank director about handling transactional work (or get referral estate planning business), you should figure how you can cost-effectively deliver the work to this new client at prices below that of your competitors.

• Before you hire a new associate or paralegal. If you are considering hiring new staff to handle your workload, consider first whether your current staff can be made more productive. By productive, I don’t mean working more hours (the traditional approach), but rather the ability to handle more transactions in the same time.

RISK MANAGEMENT IN A LAW FIRM

Risk management has been typically applied in a business context. While lawyers specialize in advising their clients on “risks,” few law firms actual consider their own risk. In a law firm, risk is often measured solely in terms of possible malpractice suits.

Properly measured, however, a law firm also faces (1) risk of non-payment from dissatisfied clients; (2) risk of short payment from clients who balk at large fees; (3) risk of lost referrals from clients who fail to speak highly of your law firm to their colleagues; (4) risk of actual loss to your clients from errors in your documents; (5) risk of non-repeat business from clients who do not return; and (6) risk of lost potential business from clients who are turned away because you are either too busy or deem their work insufficiently profitable given your current fee structure.

Document assembly is a means to reduce these quantifiable risks. Properly implemented, document assembly will improve baseline work product; better forms mean better first drafts, period. When you move from “merge templates” to automated forms that contain real business logic and decision trees, you will reduce risk because you have addressed similar issues consistently with the same text across multiple clients and multiple transactions.

Further, when you work with templates, as opposed to the document you did for another client, confidential client-specific metadata never gets into the document. If you have any concerns, HotDocs 2008 has a feature that strips the metadata, if any, from the template during assembly. Such automation systems can be developed centrally and then made available to multiple offices using Windows Terminal Server; smaller offices can dedicate a PC and make it available using Windows Remote Desktop, GoToMyPC, or LogMeIn.

Finally, automation reduces the risk of non-completion — the decision of a law firm to abandon a project half-way through because it has become too costly. In fact, systems free up time for more document review and client-facing consultations.

WHERE IS THE ROI?

Before you can sell a $50,000 to $100,000 project to your partners, you need to make a business case for automation that suits your practice.

1. Identify Potential Points of Growth. Law is a business. Where can your business grow? There are opportunities to get more work from existing clients. There is an opportunity to handle existing business (particularly fixed fee business) more efficiently. Perhaps, you can bring more “contingency” cases if the cost of initiating each action is reduced. Certain types of actions have fee-shifting provisions, but the typical fees are too low, unless you automate.

2. Evaluate Risk of Inaction. If you do NOTHING, there are risks, a number of which were enumerated above. If your competitors stand still and do nothing, you will be OK. If you automate and eliminate the “risks” you will be more profitable.

3. Consider Client Perceptions. What could you do if you had “more time?” Spend more time with each client, turn around documents faster, provide more cost-effective services, and you will bring more value to your existing clients and get new clients.

DETERMINE YOUR BASELINE

So what should go into your calculator? Start with baseline measurements.

1. Define the Market and the Deliverable. The product of a law firm is not “time.” Any ROI calculation requires you to define a set of deliverables. What are you actually producing: an estate plan, a closing, a loan package, or a corporate formation? That is what your clients are shopping for. Identify what the market will pay for those “deliverables.”

2. Drafting Time. Currently, how much does drafting the documents you intend to automate cost? Be sure to factor in the cost of the initial draft by a junior attorney or paralegal, the secretarial time, the review time by partners, and the cost of revisions and redrafts.

3. Turnaround Time. The time from assignment to delivery is often overlooked by attorneys, but not clients. Clients expect to receive documents shortly after they meet with the attorney. Measure, by document type, the current time it takes from client meeting to delivery of completed documents.

4. Work to Collection Ratio. Measure the time that is: (a) not billed, (b) written off, and (c) not collected. If you can “eliminate” this time, it frees up time for clients who will pay full-freight.

DETERMINE THE COST OF DEVELOPMENT

Now that you have decided to “automate” a defined set of documents, you need to look at the costs of developments. The initial choice is whether to buy or build. Buying has the advantage of a fixed cost. There are several automated form systems marketed by LexisNexis, Westlaw, and independent developers. If you buy a system, you need to determine whether the documents produced by the system meet your needs and match your drafting style.

If you don’t buy, you can purchase a document assembly platform, such as HotDocs, qShift, Exari, Pathagoras, or DealBuilder, and build it yourself or retain a consultant to work with you on designing a custom system. You need to factor in the subject matter expertise of the consultant, as well as the cost of your time and your staff in the development process. Do not look just at the “dollar cost” of the engagement. Consider that while the consultant is working on the system, you can focus on getting new clients or do client work.

When engaging a consultant, don’t just look at the hourly rate. Some consultants are more productive than others. You are better served to define a set of documents and send them to the consultant for a project quotation and time estimate. If you choose to build it yourself, and even if you work with a consultant, be prepared to spend substantial non-billable time and money.

CONCLUSION: BALANCING THE EQUATION

When all is said and done, you should not commence a project unless the ROI for the entire project is returned in profits within six months of delivery. If you can’t conceive of getting all your money back within six months, you have either chosen the wrong processes to automate, or the wrong people to do the automation.

There is a strong business case for document automation. Don’t let “gee wiz” and “can do” rule the day. You must dispassionately review the ROI for your particular project, and determine that on-balance you will be better off, more profitable, and carry less risk if you automate than if you stick with the status quo.

Copyright 2009 Seth Rowland. All rights reserved.