TechnoFeature: A Systemic Approach to Legal Document Automation (1): Building Technology Bridges

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. This week, Seth explains how to get started, constructing a bridge between mere templates to a full automation system. This article contains 1,684 words.

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The Case for Document Automation

Darryl Mountain (Ontago, Inc.) recently submitted a scholarly piece to the International Journal of Law and Information Technology, titled “Disrupting conventional law firm business models using document assembly”.  In this piece, Mountain looks at document assembly software programs: dealbuilder, ghostfill, and hotdocs (to name a few) in the context of how they are, and will be shaping the practice of law—worldwide. To users of document automation, his conclusions will not be surprising.  However, to those on the fence, or to those trying to convinces others to get off the fence, this should be good reading.  CLICK to read article

For other articles on document assembly, please CLICK HERE.

Lessons from SuperBowl XL – I Can’t Get No Satisfaction

SATISFACTION … 40 YEARS LATER

Superbowl XL was a tour de force, with the largest audience of any show all year.  It is the one football game I watch each year … “I watch for the commercials” and the “half-time” show.  This year, Mick Jagger of ther Rolling Stones performed the half-time show … without a “wardrobe malfunction”.  At the age of 62, Mick Jagger opened with the remark, that it took 40 years from when he burst onto the Rock ‘n Roll scene to make it to the mainstream of the Superbowl XL (“40″).  Dancing around a giant tongue (stuck out at full length, as in a “Brooklyn cheer”) he launched into a rousing rendition of “I can’t get no Satisfication …” and I tried, and I tried, and I tried.

A DECADE LATER

It has now been over a decade since I left my comfortable “New York” litigation practice to enter the area of document assembly consulting.  In the ten years, document assembly has gone from “fringe and novel” to “mainstream”.  For many attorneys it is a central part of their process, whether it be for generating high-volume pleadings, prepare probate applications, or drafting wills and complex tax-sheltering trusts.  This article is a reminsce on the past decade in document assembly.

THE JURASIC PERIOD

When I first started writing on document assembly, in the early days of the commercial internet, I was flamed as a traitor.  I took the position, which I hold now, that the billable hour is a dinosaur.  I argued that unless law firms changed their business model, they would soon find themselves priced out of the legal market by more nimble competitors.  I took the position that law firms who innovated and invested in their intellectual property, would rise to the top in terms of profitability per partner.

TRENDS TOWARD COMMODITIZATION

The response I received, to say the least, was caustic.  How could you “commoditize the law”.  Do people get legal services from “Walmart?” or “Lawyer’s ‘r Us.” The quality of legal services in this country will plummet.  Lawyers are unable to determine the “true cost” of services, and should be rewarded for the hours they labour.  Once you “fix prices”, lawyers will stop innovating and lower the quality of the services they provide.  We are serving as “advisors” to our clients – how can we put a price on that advice.  When I suggested that will value-billing and project-based billing, the effective hourly rate for service could reach into thousands of dollars per hour, I was told that lawyers who charged such fees should be brought before bar association ethics committees and disbarred.

ACTING AS AN ACCOMPLICE

Lucky for me, I was no longer practicing law, but rather “aiding and abbetting” my clients in the commission of these ethics crimes.  I was making it possible for my clients to “fix” the fee for a client for the delivery of a defined service.  The client would get a “cap” on the fee and a fixed expectation of the service to be rendered.  By defining the service with particularity, the law firm then had the incentive to invest in building intellectual property and systems to deliver that service with a minimum of time.  I spent much of my time, urging my clients to consider the R.O.I. on document assembly.  Most of the time, these projects were implemented only for “loss leaders” – services which were not profitable under the hourly model – and thus the investment would “save” the firm from having to write off hours.

TRY TRY TRY

For ten years , I got no satisfaction.  And I tried, and I tried, and I tried.  Yes, I found a number of enterprising attorneys who faced with the choice of hiring additional staff to handle a burgeoning workload, or investing in automation technology and consulting, chose the CHEAPER alternative – automation.  I would spend 30% of my time marketing and doing demos.  Ten years laters, I spend 5% of my time marketing.  These websites bring in several leads every weak … people who had already made a decision to automate.  The only question is whether the cost of our services would fit into their Return on Investment.  Many of our clients are pioneers, pushing the limits of automation.  They have played with HotDocs and Ghostfill, worked with merge fields and done simple automation.

FROM DOCUMENTS TO APPLICATIONS

And now they were ready to go to the next level, and build a custom application to handle a complete practice area.  Those are the inquiries we are now receiving.  Document assembly is no longer just for documents.  Mosts of our systems begin with a Master Information List to gather data and then a switchboard.  We invite you to look videos of our current systems.  Video Tours

DOCUMENT ASSEMBLY SOFTWARE

Over the years, I have worked with a number of Document Assembly Products. For more information on these products, click on links below:

  • HotDocs
  • GhostFill
  • DealBuilder
  • Smartwords
  • MasterDraft
  • PowerTXT
  • ThinkDocs
  • WinDraft
  • Perfectus
  • qShift
  • Microsoft Word
  • Corel WordPerfect

QC Techniques for HotDocs

Some thoughts you might consider in providing QC for your templates.

Test, test, test … That is is the only way to fully debug your templates.  There is no replacement for having someone else test your templates.  Be sure to have your testers send you their comments and their answer files.  For this purpose we have set up a private board for posting comments and issues (www.bashasys.net).

Once you have the answer file, run the assembly and spot the issues.  Keep reassembling until all the issues are resolved.  Use Word Comments and the Reviewer toolbar to add comments and then navigate through them.

In HotDocs, you can test portions of the template.  Just highlight (select) the port of the template you want to test, and then click on the Test button on the HotDocs Toolbar.

Law Practice Management -The Business Plan

Practice management is different from case management; any good business plan should include a strategy for processing leadsPractice management is different from case management. Case management begins once the client is signed up and the case is opened. Law Practice Management begins with at the door, at the web portal, as the auro that surrounds you in your everyday interaction. It is part of everything you do.

Just as you would invest in a product like Time Matters to manage your cases so that you can better serve your clients, get the necessary Time Matters training, retain the requisite Time Matters consultant, so you would wish to invest in growing your practice.

How many of you have written a business plan for your law practice? How many of you have sat down and laid out a P&L for your practice, identifying those areas where you would get the most return on investment.

I know these actions seem to be a thankless task. When you are already plugging away for 60 hours a week and trying to make ends meet, to have so “guru” tell you to take another 10 hours to develop a business plan.

But that is what I am doing. For if you look at your law practice with a critical “business eye” you will see that some of your activities are more “profitable”. You may decide that other activities are more fun (and less profitable), so that you should budget time for those activities.

Any good business plan should include a strategy for processing leads … a formal marketing plan that identifies where those leads are likely to come, and how to best turn those leads into paying (and profitable clients). One area, often overlooked in these plans, which call for fancy web sites, expensive “glossy pamplets” and strategic print adds, is the phone and email. Because the phone and email are perceived as “cheap” they are undervalued as a source of leads by many attorneys.

The phone call

Use Time Matters to log “every phone call”. This will give you a wealth of information and a baseline to determine which phone calls get converted into paying clients. Every call that comes in should be logged, and every called profiled as a contact. If you haven’t check, phone calls are now practically free with unlimited calling time phone plans. And if you get the person on the phone, they will listen for a minute or two.

The email

This mechanism has been most over-rated. The V&*#iag#$ra ads and other tonic sellers have destroyed this as an effective mass marking approach. But if you build up e-Newsletters and have subscribers, you can create an awareness among clients and potential clients of your capabilities. Give them content and they will read. Time Matters lets you track the results of your newsletter campaigns. Take a field and convert it to a check box and label it Newsletter. You can then export a list to a mass emailer (or use a Time Matters groups for the mailing).

Law Practice Management-The Business Plan

Practice management is different from case management; any good business plan should include a strategy for processing leads

 

Practice management is different from case management.  Case management begins once the client is signed up and the case is opened.  Law Practice Management begins with at the door, at the web portal, as the auro that surrounds you in your everyday interaction.  It is part of everything you do.

Just as you would invest in a product like Time Matters to manage your cases so that you can better serve your clients, get the necessary Time Matters training, retain the requisite Time Matters consultant, so you would wish to invest in growing your practice.

How many of you have written a business plan for your law practice? How many of you have sat down and laid out a P&L for your practice, identifying those areas where you would get the most return on investment.

I know these actions seem to be a thankless task.  When you are already plugging away for 60 hours a week and trying to make ends meet, to have so “guru” tell you to take another 10 hours to develop a business plan.

But that is what I am doing.  For if you look at your law practice with a critical “business eye” you will see that some of your activities are more “profitable”.  You may decide that other activities are more fun (and less profitable), so that you should budget time for those activities.

Any good business plan should include a strategy for processing leads … a formal marketing plan that identifies where those leads are likely to come, and how to best turn those leads into paying (and profitable clients).  One area, often overlooked in these plans, which call for fancy web sites, expensive “glossy pamplets” and strategic print adds, is the phone and email.  Because the phone and email are perceived as “cheap” they are undervalued as a source of leads by many attorneys.

The phone call

Use Time Matters to log “every phone call”.  This will give you a wealth of information and a baseline to determine which phone calls get converted into paying clients.  Every call that comes in should be logged, and every called profiled as a contact.  If you haven’t check, phone calls are now practically free with unlimited calling time phone plans.  And if you get the person on the phone, they will listen for a minute or two.

The email

This mechanism has been most over-rated.  The V&*#iag#$ra ads and other tonic sellers have destroyed this as an effective mass marking approach.  But if you build up e-Newsletters and have subscribers, you can create an awareness among clients and potential clients of your capabilities.  Give them content and they will read.  Time Matters lets you track the results of your newsletter campaigns.  Take a field and convert it to a check box and label it Newsletter.  You can then export a list to a mass emailer (or use a Time Matters groups for the mailing).

What does “integrated” mean?

What does “integrated” mean?

A good lawyer defines his/her terms, hence a technology expert should define the term “integration” and the levels thereof. Case Management and Practice Management programs talk about “integration” with other programs, whether they be email programs, document management programs, or billing and accounting programs. A good lawyer defines his/her terms. “Integration” is a feature. And yet, not all integrations are equal. Some are better than others. Even in the same firm, integration can have different meanings.

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The Value of “Polish”

What is “polish” and why is it so valuable to clients?  Surely if the functionality is the same, the polish is just “eye candy”, but then, perhaps not.  This article explores why polish takes so much time, yet repays itself hugely

I was once approached by a young man to provide one-on-one HotDocs training, unconnected to a particular consulting project. When I asked why he chose me over the vendor-based training of LexisNexis, he said, “BECAUSE YOU GOT POLISH”. I agreed, yes, I was Polish (my maternal grandmother was from Warsaw).

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