When Document Automation Makes Sense

(c) James Eidelman 1997-9

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James A. Eidelman
This document was drafted to help a large law firm who had acquired a "site license" to WinDraft decide where to begin in implementing it.   

Software for computer-assisted document automation is an add-in to word processing. It runs the gamut from what people in the artificial intelligence community would call "expert systems" down to what Mark Hellmann calls "fancy mailmerge."

Document Automation software, such as WinDraft, HotDocs, Scrivener, and PowerTxt, typically differs from the word processor's merge and macro facility in the following ways:

  Document Automation Word Processing Macros and Merge
Organized and interactive way of gathering the facts and making legal decisions. Yes No
On-line context-sensitive help regarding legal issues. Yes No
"Smart Forms." Power to change text automatically, based on the facts and data entered. (IF...THEN... rules are often embedded within the document in a lawyer-friendly way, or other approaches organize logic in a way that can be understood by lawyers and secretaries who are not programmers. ) I like to say that the computer can "think like a lawyer." Yes No
Saves the answers (data) in a way that can be reused for future drafts and with other documents. Yes Macros no, merge Yes
Can print out the data in a lawyer-friendly, auditable way. Yes (some) No



Strong Need for Automation

(Buy or build a "document assembly" application)

Weak Need for Automation

(Use a good form-bank and document management instead)

Criteria Description Examples Description Examples
    Transactional Litigation   Transactional Litigation
Speed* Need fast turn-around*

(See quote below)

Business acquisition, offer to purchase Emergency restraining orders No hurry Pension Plans, Employee Policy Manuals Civil Damages Complaints
Volume Reasonably large volume of matters that are similar enough to justify use of the system. Qualified plans (especially when the law changes), Business Acquisitions, Loan Agreements, Condo development, License Ageements, Corporate minute books Specialty litigation (same types of cases for different clients (PI, asbestos) or one client with lots of cases that are similar (jeep rollovers, gas tank storage cases, etc.) Infrequently do this type of work or each matter is truly unique Unique transactions (sale of ski resort) Unique commercial cases (Anti-trust case against Microsoft)
"Smart Forms" will help. Documents have enough complexity, individually or as a group, that having the computer "think like a lawyer" will help. Contracts, wills, patterns, variations on a theme, such as Standard Contracts, Wills, etc. Standard pleadings, motions, etc. May not be worth the trouble for documents that are simple merge documents without alternative paragraphs.    
Control of Content The firm can control the first draft of the documents, because they are unilateral, proactive, or we create the first draft for discussion. Unilateral documents (wills, trusts, pension plans, employee handbooks), first drafts of purchase contracts, leases. Pleadings that originate action (complaints, interrogatories, motions and supporting memos) Documents that are each highly negotiated before we create the first draft, or reactive documents in response to specific events or the documents of the other side. Unique negotiated contracts. Answer to complaint, stipulation, answer to interrogatories,
Revenue -- "Value Billing" Beyond the billable hour. Clients pay by the transaction, not by the actual hour. Wills, Condo conversions, Business Transactions, etc. Plaintiff's contingent fee work, Other litigation in which client agrees to "value billing" Client won't pay for efficiency and will only pay for hours "by the clock," or involves original research with unpredictable time. Transactions where model of time billing works better or client insists on it. Much insurance defense litigation
Cost System can be acquired from a publisher or built with in-house staff in a way that is affordable (or by consultants if cost-justified)     System can only be built by partner-level experts, and no partners are interested. No programming-literate staff.    
Need to capture "Institutional Knowledge" Firm wants or needs to "bottle" the knowledge and skills of an expert.     Everyone in the firm knows how to do it, (or nobody does).    
Need to lower cost Need to lower cost of handling transactions Wills and trusts, routine transactions Volume of simpler cases involving smaller amounts, pressure from competing firms or clients. Work that requires "hands-on" work by a partner High-leverage,

high hourly rate transactional work.

High-leverage litigation at high hourly rates. (High on Bill Cobb's "value curve.")
Legal Work is Document- Intensive Legal work product results in word processing documents Contracts, wills, deeds Pleadings, motions, written discovery Legal work that is handled verbally or without much paper output. Deal making, number crunching, counselling. Trial work, depositions, negotiations, research

* Regarding speed, an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Pushing the Pace" pointed out that "speed" has replaced "total quality management" as the new mantra of business.

"The latest big thing at many companies is speed, speed, speed...It's not the big companies that eat the small; it's the fast that eat the slow."

If your clients are into "speed, speed, speed," then document assembly technology is the only way to deliver complex documents fast and still get home for dinner.