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. Improvements 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. Variations 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 losinc.com, which also lists upcoming meetings and training classes. For information, e-mail email@example.com or check the website. Schlein formerly chaired the Computer and Technology Division of the ABA Law Practice Management Section and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions for Carol L. Schlein on law office technology may be e-mailed to New Jersey Lawyer at email@example.com or faxed to (908) 226-0165.