Johannesburg – June 22, 2016 – For years, small law firms have faced the commoditisation of legal services.  Quasi-legal companies have bombarded primetime television with advertisements aimed at convincing consumers that just any old document will do, so long as it’s cheap. Operating in an inelastic market for legal documents (just because wills are going for $99 doesn’t mean consumers will buy more wills), small law firms have taken it on the chin, leaving many to scramble for additional sources of income.

Doing More with Less

The best answer for organisations looking to trim costs while maintaining quality, in many cases, is business process automation—transforming common, repetitive processes into automated workflows.  For law firms large and small, as well as in-house counsel, the best type of process automation is often document automation, which predictably yields tremendous ROI, both in terms of time and money savings but, paradoxically, also in terms of better work product.  Put another way, you’ll be able to generate transactional legal documents faster, cheaper, and with fewer mistakes stemming from human error.

As you embark on a document automation project, here are six steps to success that you should keep in mind.

  1. Leverage the Expertise of Senior Partners

When people hear the term document assembly, they may immediately think template, a light weight approach for generating simple documents, such as firm correspondence—a few variables, some simple business logic, a little quicker and a little better than doing it by hand.  Contrast this with templates designed to generate complex, transactional legal documents.  In this context, a template could be a word processing document or PDF form having potentially thousands of variables and uber-sophisticated business logic.  Templates are the domain of elite document automation systems, and here’s the important part: because such elite systems are capable of handling any level of complexity, you can actually build the expertise of your most experienced practitioners right into the template business logic.  You then design a custom interview—a wizard-like sequence of data-gathering forms—that walks junior staff carefully through the process of generating the same document that a senior lawyer would generate.  This approach is faster, less expensive and, ultimately, less prone to human error.  In a price-driven market, where you simply have to do more with less, leveraging the experience of senior practitioners may be more than a technological luxury; it could be a tenet of solvency.

  1. Let Your Clients Enter Their Own Case Information

In a price-driven market, it just makes sense to eliminate unnecessary steps, such as interviewing a client in person or over the phone in situations where it may not be necessary.  Elite document automation systems attack the problem by enabling you to design interviews so that your clients can enter much of the information themselves, right into a web browser.  Not only will this approach minimise your expense, but it will generally result in better documents. (A client is less likely to misspell his/her own name than your own staff might be.)  For example, with HotDocs, a Gartner best-of-breed document generation system, you can enable clients to fill out their own interviews one of two ways: (1) by emailing a link to the interview to the client, complete with login credentials; or (2) by embedding the interview into your firm’s own website, protected, of course, by a login procedure.  Again, this approach is likely faster and less expensive than however you’re interviewing clients now and it generally yields higher quality documents.

  1. Codify Best Practices

There are right ways and wrong ways to complete hundreds of different processes within your firm.  Doing things the right way saves time and money, while doing things the wrong way . . . well, costs time and money.  The key is to codify best practices by building them into your automated workflows, especially best practices for generating legally binding documents.  With enterprise-grade document automation systems, you can build best practice for generating a document right into an interview, providing guidelines and safeguards to users on a field-by-field basis. Using this approach, you can ensure that staff members follow internal policies and guidelines to the letter of the law.

  1. Mitigate risk

Generating and executing complex legal documents is risky enough under the best of circumstances—even with your best, brightest and most skilled staff calling the shots.  But if you’re faced with scaling back, you could, by necessity, end up relying on less experienced, less skilled staff members. As was explained in the previous steps, you can minimise the risk of human error compromising the integrity of an important legal document by building the experience of your best practitioners into the business logic of the underlying template and then ensuring staff members follow best practice as they enter transactional data into the interview.  Using your old approach, metadata from a past case or transaction can make its way into a circulated, executed document.  With HotDocs, only designated personnel can edit templates.  This approach keeps documents from degrading over time and insures that each new transaction results in fresh, clean documents, without any hidden metadata traps that can come back to haunt you.

  1. Shoot for Transaction Ready

Obviously, not all legal documents are highly structured and rule-based. Some documents are custom negotiated, top to bottom, with a little boiler plate scattered throughout.  With such documents, a template may be used to generate a good first draft, which will save some time, etc.  But other types of documents—estate planning or corporate formations, for example—may lend themselves to complete automation.  Again, you’ll need an elite system and the oversight of your best practitioners, but in the end, you’ll get the highest quality documents at a tiny fraction of the overall expense of doing it the old way and you’ll get them right off the printer, ready to negotiate.  Sound naïve? Well, it’s a practice that the largest enterprises in the world— banks, insurance companies, government agencies, corporate counsel, etc.—have been engaging in millions of times a day for decades.

  1. Speed up Document Production

Document automation, when done the right way (see the above five steps) isn’t just a little faster and a little less expensive than an old-school, search-and-replace, cut-and paste approach.  It’s radically faster and dramatically less expensive. One of the world’s largest banks trimmed its loan origination process, including the generation of all collateral documentation, from three days to under an hour.  A sprawling government agency that regularly produces an ultra-complex contract involving multiple government agencies, contractors, sub-contractors, and materials providers slashed the contract-generation process from three months to half of a day.