Document Assembly - New Jersey State Bar Association

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					               Reprinted with Permission from the April 2, 2007 Issue of:

   New Jersey Lawyer, the Newspaper

       Document assembly
    Taking automation a few steps further
                                By Carol L. Schlein

   Inexpensive PC-based word processing has been around more than 25 years,
yet many law firms continue to use the “dupe and copy” method for creating both
routine and complex documents. Copying existing documents to make new ones
for other clients is both inefficient and possibly a recipe for malpractice if you fail
to check every term to ensure it‟s been adapted for the new client‟s situation. If
you‟re not careful, you also can write over an existing client‟s final document.
   To address this, some law firms invest the time to make merge templates in
their word processor. In most firms, this means enlisting a motivated staff person
to learn the coding, organize the documents and set them up to be filled in. While
the macro and merge language in both Word and WordPerfect allow for
advanced coding and conditions, mastering the coding isn‟t for the faint-hearted
or the busy legal secretary. Sometimes, one ambitious person in an office would
set up merge templates only to have them abandoned when that person leaves
the firm.
   Billing based on the amount of time taken to perform a task discourages firms
from improving their efficiency. Even in practice areas that typically are billed by
flat fees or contingent fees, there seems little motivation to streamline the
production of routine simple documents or automate the preparation of complex
documents. Inertia also keeps many firms from re-evaluating their document
production processes. Ironically, what‟s missing in this analysis is the realization
that regardless of how a law firm charges, it could, without increasing
professionals or support staff, maintain its quality while servicing a larger group
of clients by automating documents.
   Corporate legal departments and corporations generally have been earlier
adopters of document assembly programs, probably because they‟ve always had
to focus on providing complex services with limited personnel.
   Document assembly programs have been around for decades. When I first
started my consulting business nearly 20 years ago, much of my time was spent
setting up merge templates and macros in WordPerfect 5.1 DOS. Back then,
programs like Capsoft (predecessor to LexisNexis‟ HotDocs) were available to
transcend functions available in WordPerfect‟s merge and macro coding
language. When WordPerfect moved to Windows, it offered a “legal edition” that
included HotDocs and a number of other products. With these extra tools, I could
achieve more-advanced automation of clients‟ form documents.
                                 Options for lawyers
  There are a number of document assembly programs geared toward
automating the production of legal documents and forms. In addition to HotDocs,
the other major player is Ghostfill by Korbitec Industries. Another approach,
working within Microsoft Word, is Pathagoras from Innovative Software Products
in Virginia. Rapidox from Directlaw is an online document assembly subscription
service providing access to questionnaires that can be used to assemble form
documents. There also are some state-specific or practice area specific-
document assembly options as well.
   Since I‟m certified on a number of other products owned by LexisNexis, it
made sense to get certified too on HotDocs. (Right now, I‟ve taken the test — an
investment of about 40 hours to code a series of templates and answer more
than 100 questions on a written test — and I‟m awaiting the test results and the
oral exam. So, you thought it was easy to be a consultant?) It „s been many
years since I‟ve worked with HotDocs and it‟s been greatly enhanced during that
time. Functions that formerly required advanced knowledge or coding are now
more accessible. Additionally, HotDocs templates can be linked to data stored in
most practice management programs. This means contact and matter
information can be accessed to complete either complex or routine documents.
   Document assembly is particularly suited to transactional practices involving
trusts and estates, real estate leases, and commercial and corporate
transactions. While complex documents can be set up with merge fields,
document assembly programs allow you to limit the number and type of
questions, and control the answers and their formats.
   We‟ll look at the functions available in HotDocs as an example of what
document assembly programs can do to streamline and improve document
production. Without going into detail on the different versions and modules,
HotDocs has two main components. HotDocs Automator creates or codes form
documents such as those from state and federal government agencies. Firms
that regularly complete forms for specific government agencies may find this or a
similar product worthwhile.
   Whether coding a form or creating a template for the firm‟s documents, the
commands and functions available are similar. While coding a merge form for all
the variations for gender can be time-consuming and not for the average office
worker, programs like HotDocs let you quickly assign a gender variable to the
occurrences of he or she, his or her and then specify which variation you want in
particular locations within a document.
   If a document requires information about different people in a transaction, a
document assembly program can be coded to be conditional so that it asks only
about the appropriate players or number of people involved in a transaction. For
example, if you indicate in a trust document there are two beneficiaries, the
template will ask only about the needed information for those two beneficiaries.
Filters or conditions can be set based on criteria appropriate to the document.
   Dollar or number amounts can be defined to show as numbers or words (e.g.,
twenty-five). Calculations can be incorporated including those based on days or
dates. Numbers can be limited to a specific range of acceptable answers.
True/false variables can be used to determine what other information is asked or
inserted into the assembled document.
   Setting up a list of options in the macro language of Word or WordPerfect is a
challenge even to those of us who have coded many merge and macros over the
years. Setting up a multiple-choice variable in HotDocs is much simpler. If/then
coding can control the results in the assembled document to allow one or several
phrases to be included in the resulting document.
   HotDocs and its competitors also include clause library functions to save
different variations of documents as clauses, then select them when creating a
new document.
  Firms using a practice management system like Time Matters, Amicus
Attorney or Practice Master can link documents as merges or as HotDocs
templates. Making the links between the documents and the practice
management system lets you leverage the power of document assembly with
data already in the practice management system.
  Getting started with document assembly can seem overwhelming; the trick is
to start with a document that‟s used regularly. Coding a relatively simple
document will result in immediate benefits. Advancing to more-complex
documents will allow your firm to share its knowledge with newer staff while
serving clients better by giving them higher quality documents faster.
Carol L. Schlein is president of Law Office Systems in Montclair, a training and
consulting firm specializing in law firm automation. Copies of her previous columns
are on, which also lists upcoming meetings and training classes. For
information, e-mail or check the website. Schlein formerly chaired
the Computer and Technology Division of the ABA Law Practice Management Section
and can be reached at

Questions for Carol L. Schlein on law office technology may be e-mailed to New
Jersey Lawyer at or faxed to (908) 226-0165.