Don't assemble documents like it's 1999

Jim Calloway, The Daily Record Newswire

Since the death of Prince you've probably heard the phrase "party like it's 1999" more than a few times.

It reminded me of someone who was actually doing law office technology consulting just before the new millennium. In those days you could pretty much keep on top of all legal tech developments with by subscribing to Law Office Computing and reading Burgess Allison's "Technology Update" column in Law Practice magazine.

It's interesting that the June/July 1999 issue of Law Office Computing covered technological issues that are still much-discussed topics today. The cover boasts an article entitled "Unlocking the Power of Document Assembly." That article, co-authored by my friend Marc Lauritsen and Alan Soudakof, outlined a 12-step program for successful document automation.

HotDocs was used for most of the examples in that piece and is still a huge player today. It has come a long way since then, of course, and currently offers decidedly 21st-century applications such as HotDocs Cloud Services, which enables you to embed HotDocs "interviews" (defined by the company as "wizard-like sequences of data-gathering forms") in your own web pages or business applications and to generate free, transactional documents, such as contracts, agreements, wills, trusts, etc. on a subscription basis.

One of HotDocs' newest products is Marketserves. Launched in early 2015, it's an e-commerce platform built on HotDocs traditional document automation technology that offers re-usable legal documents and forms to be used on any device with a web browser at any time, and is available for subscription from multiple bar associations and legal publishers, including LexisNexis and ALL-STATE Legal Publishing.

Many law firms are opting for less expensive but still extremely powerful solutions to document assembly, like TheFormTool and Pathagorus.

TheFormTool promises a "lightning-fast" learning curve for users to create engagement letters, fee agreements, leases, wills, intake forms and more. It offers time-savers such as automatic gender and verb agreement, pronouns and plurals, capitalization, and more than two dozen math functions, plus extensive formatting of numbers and dates, lists and complex relationships within or between lists.

TheFormTool PRO service, available for $89 for a lifetime license, claims a seven-fold increase in document assembly speed and elimination of document errors. A recent survey showed that customers reported saving 41 minutes of every hour spent on repetitive documents, according to the company's website.

Pathagorus points to its products' simplicity as among its major selling points. Whereas most programs create large templates that can be hard to compose and can require extensive programming to keep neat, Pathagorus employs familiar tools such as dropdown lists and alt-key commands to quickly insert additional clauses, paragraphs, images and tables to complete documents in short order. It also emphasizes simplicity in selecting the variables to insert: Where other programs require that you assign "LIKE THIS" codes and embed other special instructions, Pathagorus allows users simply to type variables into the document the way they want them to end up (in all caps, lowercase, bold, italics, Old English font, etc.), and they will stay that way.

Pathagorus does not offer a la carte automation services; it sells its full bundle of features for $379 for an individual user, although monthly subscriptions start at just $25.

Many practice management solutions include document assembly. For example, Smokeball started out as just a document assembly provider but has evolved to include practice management. It offers automated features similar to the companies above (pronoun matching, etc.) and also includes a customized "onboarding process" in which its "Client Success Team" teaches new users about document assembly by turning 15 of their most used docs into forms, and guides clients as they begin building their template library. Packages start at $69 per month (note again that Smokeball is a full practice-management service, only part of which is the document assembly feature).

Any veteran attorney who ever had to maneuver through multiple wills and trusts numbering 500 pages or more surely cringes at the thought of the days before electronic document assembly. The importance of automation systems cannot be overstated: They allow firms to minimize data entry, reduce the risks associated with human error and save time and money in too many ways to count. So when it comes to researching the right product for you, make sure you're up to date on the latest offerings. Don't leave your firm at the deadline singing, "Party over - oops, out of time."

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Jim Calloway is the director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. He publishes the weblog Jim Calloway's Law Practice Tips at http://jimcalloway.typepad.com.

Published: Mon, May 16, 2016

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