In this comprehensive guide to legal document automation, we've compiled everything you need to know: its benefits, vendor options, how to select the right program and processes, and how to implement that perfect document automation system for your legal organization. Here you'll find answers to all of your questions, such as:
- What is document automation?
- Why should you automate your documents?
- What are the different ways to automate your documents?
- How do you choose the right document automation software?
- How do you implement document automation?
What is Document Automation?
Quite simply, document automation is the automation of the document drafting process. Most document automation programs integrate with your word processor and use an interview (a series of questions) to collect relevant information during the drafting process. Once the questions are answered, whether by you or even the client over the internet, the document automation software generates a customized document.
Document automation software goes beyond filling in blanks. This is not glorified form filling or Mad Libs. With minimal training, you can create an automated document that includes or excludes paragraphs based on whether the client is married, how many (if any) children the client has, whether the operating agreement is for a member-managed or manager-managed company, etc. The automation power lies in the ability to condition text, make infinite and correctly punctuated lists, and perform calculations (not just dollars or numbers, but pronoun and verb conjugation, too).
Why automate your documents?
Document automation is the proverbial magic bullet for document-intensive practice areas such as estate planning, real estate, banking, and contracts. Document automation can literally revolutionize the way you work. Without automation, you could spend hours drafting complex documents. Maybe you already have! With automation, you answer questions and the program generates those same documents in minutes.
People are error prone. We’re busy, easily bored, and distracted creatures. On top of that, we’re terrible proofreaders of our own work because our mind often reads what we meant and not what we wrote. Computers don’t have that problem. In an automated document, you only enter case-specific facts (e.g., accident date, party names, addresses, etc.). The template does the monotonous work of including the appropriate paragraphs, excluding the irrelevant ones, conjugating verbs, punctuating lists, calculating numbers and dates, correcting personal pronouns, and replacing the items in need of replacement.
Reduce Training Time
New employees have a ton to learn. New-hire skills very from those who only need to know “how to” do something to those needing education on the substance of why they’re doing what they’re doing in addition to the “how to” do it. An automated document interview fits both of these requirements. The “how to” is “use the system” as opposed to “ask around to find out who did an operating agreement most recently, find and save their document as a new document, and start replacing.” On the substantive side, the document interview lays out questions in a logical order and only relevant questions appear based on prior answers. For example, if the automated document is a Will and you tell the interview that all children are over 18, you won’t see questions on minor guardianship. With the automated document, you train the new employee regarding both how to do something and the substance of why different provisions exist based on client need.
When onboarding a new employee, it is easier to train them to draft the document with document automation. Instead of training them about how to find the relevant text to replace, what to include, and what to exclude, you only need to train them on how to answer the questions. Adding help text to the interview can further reduce the training time required to onboard a new employee.
Offer Flat Fees
With document automation, you can answer the call of flat fees. Value-based billing makes sense when documents take minutes instead of hours to draft. Clients appreciate knowing how much something will cost upfront and you'll benefit from higher profitability.
Legal organizations usually possess a different starter version of each document for each fact pattern. For example, an estate planning firm might have different versions of a revocable trust for a joint trust - one for a married man, one for a married woman, one for a single man, one for a single woman, etc. Much of the templates are the same. Even a small change requires touching multiple starter documents. And since people are hurried and busy, not every starter document is updated with every change. Over time unintentional, but perhaps important and legally-binding, differences creep in.
Document automation consolidates templates by automatically including the necessary provisions and excluding the superfluous ones. As a result, the language is easier to update; it’s in one starter document, eliminating the risk of unintentional differences.
What are the different ways to automate your documents?
Gold Standard templates
Gold Standard Templates combine the best language in the legal organization into a precedent form known as a "Gold Standard Template." Once you create the precedent, you can automate the template using features in the word processor you already own. Word processor automation tools include text fields, multiple-choice questions, dates fields, conditional text, and macros to expedite the insertion of optional language. Gathering lists, nesting conditional language, and calculating things is challenging for someone without a background in computer programming.
Document Automation Software
Document automation software can do everything the word processor can do, but better and easier. Lists, nested conditional language, and calculating things are all easier with the right software. The interview (the series of case-specific fact questions) created with document automation software is incredibly powerful - the template designer can control everything about the sequence and content of the interview, ensuring that even new hires can assemble documents correctly.
How do you choose the right document automation software?
Choosing the right document automation software can be challenging. Once you’ve automated your templates, changing software requires a big investment. Vendors have virtually no conversion utilities to move you quickly and easily from a competitor’s software to theirs. Ask the right questions to ensure that any software you consider offers the tools you need to scale your template set as your firm prospers. Start with these suggested questions:
- Is a web-based version available?
- Is the coding done in your word processor or in a word processor designed by the vendor?
- Does the software support:
- Text variables;
- True/false variables;
- Multiple choice variables;
- Date variables;
- Number variables;
- Conditional logic;
- Computational variables;
- List creation;
- List punctuation tools;
- Nested lists;
- Repeated logic;
- Number, date, and text formatting options;
- Automatic interview generation;
- Interview customization;
- Reusable answer files;
- Generation of multiple documents at once;
- PDF output;
- Data collection from external parties; and
- Database integration
How do you implement document automation?
Once you select your software, it's time to implement it. Select a person (or team of people) who will code the templates. For each practice area, put that person in touch with a subject matter expert - the person who understands all of the nuances of the document. These two will work together closely for the duration of the implementation.
Then, find your language. If you have existing templates, start there. You may need to search through documents drafted for clients to find all of the provisions you need. Once you have the language, figure out what's different between them. Make note of intentional differences and reconcile unintentional differences. If you want to revise your language, now is the time to do it. You can always edit your automated templates, but you'll be time ahead if you make the edits now.
Once the intentional differences are annotated, it's time to create the templates. First, start with a blank document. Copy and paste the text without formatting. Properly formatting the new template is key. If you need help with using styles or other advanced Word features, get training first.
Finally, it's time to get down to the coding. Ready to get started? Contact us today to request your no-cost consultation with one of our document automation specialists.