My last two posts have been on document assembly, so I thought it might be a good idea to follow the rule of threes and post again on document assembly.
So, I went back into the archives and pulled out the second article I ever wrote on legal technology. It appeared in Lawyers Weekly USA in November, 1996. The subject was document assembly, and I now blush at my level of enthusiasm and how stunningly wrong my predictions and sense of urgency about document assembly were, in retrospect. I actually burst out laughing today when I reread the last two sentences of the article.
OK, so I’m a true believer in document assembly. I admit it. I also believe that you might enjoy this article as a primer to my way of thinking about document assembly. I have not edited or updated it. I would, however, enjoy reminiscing with any other ShortWork users who might read this post.
The money quote:
Document assembly can greatly increase your productivity and efficiency in document preparation while also allowing you to incorporate lessons that you have learned and custom language for individual clients into your standard forms.
PLEASE REMEMBER THAT THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN IN 1996.
Document Assembly Saves Clients Money
A document assembly program is a software program that “automates” the preparation of legal documents. In simplest terms, a document assembly program allows a user to answer a series of questions which appear on the user’s computer screen and then uses those answers in a transparent fashion to create a completed draft of a document in the user’s word processing program.
Document assembly programs can be seen as a third stage in the evolution of document drafting, coming after the development of the typewriter and word processing programs. These programs run the range from Capsoft’s $99 Hotdocs program to $500,000 custom software.
My experience with document assembly began five years ago with a program called ShortWork which I used to create a set of estate planning applications which I use on a daily basis. I am now beginning an upgrade of those applications which will involve a conversion to another document assembly program, Caps Personal.
I have noticed three significant changes over the last five years in document assembly programs. First, the development of and focus on Windows-based programs. Second, better and more seamless integration with standard word processing programs. Third, much greater emphasis on ease of use and improved user interfaces.
Document assembly can greatly increase your productivity and efficiency in document preparation while also allowing you to incorporate lessons that you have learned and custom language for individual clients into your standard forms. Instead of trying to remember the name of the client whose trust contained your language on S Corporation stock, you can now answer the question “does the client own S Corporation stock?” on your computer screen and all the relevant language will be added to the appropriate places in your first draft.
The prospect of drafting finished documents in a matter of minutes is a realistic one. A year ago I demonstrated the Caps program at a firm meeting with the goal of producing a completed draft of a simple standard lease in less than a minute. I was successful.
I work in the area of estate planning. Estate planners have been among the pioneers in the use of document assembly packages. Estate planning documents such as wills, trusts and powers of attorney lend themselves well to document assembly in that they are standardized but also customized depending on the choices a client makes.
You should not, however, conclude that the value of document assembly is limited to this category of practice. Applications can be designed in many areas of practice: leases, bankruptcy applications, interrogatories, preparation of standard petitions, and real estate closing documents. The software developers will be happy to show you many examples.
There are two basic approaches to document assembly programs: (1) a program which allows you to automate your existing forms, and (2) a program that includes its own forms, but allows you to modify its forms so that they can be more like your own. There are pluses and minuses of each approach. Based on my experience, a wholesale conversion of your forms will take significantly more time than simply using or making adjustments to supplied forms.
That brings us to the real questions about document assembly, which is not which package to use, because there are a number of good choices. Who will implement the package? Who will maintain the document assembly forms? Who will be the person or persons using the package? Since I have five years experience, let me share a few of the lessons that I’ve learned.
The key to document assembly is advance planning. All of the time that you spend on thinking about which forms you want to convert, how you use and maintain your existing forms, how you see the document assembly package being used, what efficiencies you hope to maintain and similar questions is going to be time that is very well spent. Your planning process will help you choose a program that is well suited to what you want to accomplish and will help you focus on how you will implement the process.
My advice is to start small and build off of your successes. I started with a durable power of attorney which is a relatively simple document to automate. In that way, I could learn programming functions in a simple and straight-forward way. I used that knowledge to move on to a simple will. From the simple will, the next step was to move to more complicated wills with trusts and a variety of other options.
Another important piece of advice is to be sure to block out a period of time where you can work on implementing the document assembly package uninterrupted. While it doesn’t take a lot of time, perhaps 10 to 20 hours, to become comfortable with basic document assembly techniques, the process is highly logical and involves many steps. It is easy to get lost if you get distracted. If you work in a series of starts and stops, you will get easily frustrated. Remember: start small.
Document assembly is an excellent illustration of the “80/20” rule. The first 20% of the time you spend working on the project will get you 80% of the way to completion. Finishing the final 20% will take 80% of your total time. On the other hand, the 80/20 rule helps you think about how far you want to go in designing your application.
The goal of document assembly is to produce a draft of a document. Your goal should not be to produce a final version of each document for each client on the first attempt. If you can use document assembly to produce a good draft of a document in five minutes or less and then do a minor amount of clean up, you will be better off than you were without document assembly. Based on my observations, after implementing a document assembly package, I have seen decreases in total drafting time of about two-thirds over our previous method.
How do you pick a system? Decide on the level of sophistication you want in the package. Decide whether you want the package that comes with its own forms. Read reviews and articles, although be sure to note that a number of articles on document assembly are written by people involved with document assembly software companies. Talk to others who are using document assembly programs. Finally, the ABA’s Law Practice Management Section is an excellent resource.
Document assembly raises some important cost recovery and billing issues. If you are going to spend several weeks, a month or more on implementing a document assembly package, how will you recover that lost income? Second, if you are billing on an hourly basis for time spent preparing documents, how will you now bill for a document that takes you only one-third of the time that it used to take?
Three approaches to recover start up costs are (1) develop your system as you work on documents for clients and bill those clients; (2) surcharge your clients for a period to recover the start up costs; or (3) make no effort to recover the start up cost, instead assume that the system will pay for itself over time during increased productivity and the opportunity to do higher volume or higher-level work.
On the second question, use of document assembly requires that you consider moving to a value billing system. In other words, it may become more appropriate to charge a fixed price for documents rather bill on the basis of time actually spent on the production of those documents. There is no single answer. The answer for you will depend on your client base and your practice, and the implementation of document assembly may give you a good opportunity to examine your existing billing practices and make appropriate changes.
The document assembly software companies have found that lawyers prepare documents in a wide variety of ways. There is no standard approach to document preparation and software companies have begun to concentrate on the user: flexibility, user interface and ease of programming. This is one benefit of waiting until now to look at document assembly.
I would not, however, wait much longer to consider document assembly. Document assembly offers real productivity gains that cannot be ignored. The environment for lawyers and law firms has become increasingly competitive. Competition has, in many cases, become based on price, and document assembly offers you a way to cut your costs.
My best practical tips? Devote substantial time to planning. Think about the $99 HotDocs program as an easy way to get your feet wet. Think hard about the packages that include forms. Give serious thought to how you will update forms once the system is in place. And, if you are not the right person to do this project, or there is no one at your firm who can or will do it, consider hiring a second year law student to take on the job. There is no time like the present to get started on document assembly. Your competitors have.
A version of this article first appeared in the November 4, 1996 issue of Lawyers Weekly USA.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (https://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]
Learn more about legal technology at Dennis Kennedy’s Legal Technology Central page.
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