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The newsletter of the ISBA's Standing Committee on Legal Technology

June 2012, vol. 19, no. 4

Document assembly software 101

If you’re a solo or small firm practitioner, chances are you do a fair amount of your own document production. Even if you never touch a keyboard, someone on your staff spends a fair amount of his or her time generating those documents. Whether you’re a litigator drafting pleadings, a transactional lawyer generating contracts, or an estate planner creating wills and other estate planning documents, most of us spend a lot of time creating documents.

Document Creation – beyond the typewriter

My firm is proud to be celebrating its 150th anniversary. Every once in a while I run across an old file with typed letters and documents and wonder what it must have been like to practice in the days of typewriters and carbon paper. Despite the rattle of the typewriters, it was probably much easier to focus because a new e-mail didn’t pop up on a computer screen every five seconds.

Word processing programs revolutionized the production of documents, making it possible to create many more customized documents with much greater efficiency. As many attorneys have either embraced or grown up with that technology, many of us are now directly involved in producing those documents. Since the old saying “time is money” holds particularly true for attorneys, we all strive to be more efficient (and profitable) with our practices.

Many of the documents we solo or small firm practitioners produce have similar elements. For example, our office handles a lot of foreclosures for local bank and credit union clients. Many of those documents, from the initial demand letter to the complaint, notice of foreclosure, motion for entry of judgment, the judgment, deed, etc, have similar elements (e.g., mortgagors, mortgagee, lien holders, recording information, legal description, common address, etc.). Transactional lawyers may work with documents such as real estate contracts, leases, asset purchase agreements and the like that also have similar components. Likewise, estate planners may start from a few core wills or trusts, as well as power of attorney forms for health and property.

Problems with the Cut-and-Paste / Search-and-Replace

The traditional approach for handling these documents has been to save them somewhere on the computer system and customize them for each particular client, either by cutting and pasting, searching and replacing text, saving over forms, or some combination thereof. While this is certainly a much better approach than busting out the old typewriter, it still has its problems.

One problem is “the disappearing form” – either you forgot where you put it or someone else moved it. Another problem is created when the form is altered – either inadvertently by forgetting to use “save as” rather than “save” or on purpose when someone changes a form to fit their purpose (which may not fit your purpose).

A problem that makes your malpractice carrier’s ears perk up is the potential for errors inherent the cut-and-paste or “save as” methods. When you start from an old document to create a new document, you necessarily have old stuff that you either need to take out or blanks to fill in. Needing to take old stuff out creates the risk of leading old stuff in, such that the new trust you are preparing for “Jane Blow” may have remnants of the “Joe Smith” trust you started from (including mismatching pronouns). Or the judgment of foreclosure that you drafted for the “Bob Johnson” foreclosure may have a mistyped legal description, or one from the last judgment your office prepared. Needless to say, it is better from a client satisfaction and malpractice standpoint to avoid those problems.

Enter Document Assembly Software

Not only do we want to avoid problems and have lots of happy clients, we also want to avoid tedious work – both for us and our staff. This makes us all happier, more productive, and more profitable.

Generally, document assembly software is software that automates the creation of documents. Like most software programs, there is a wide variety of providers offering many different products with various capabilities. However, the programs generally utilize a database to gather the common elements for a particular matter and then apply those elements or variables to document templates, which can then be edited in the user’s standard word processing program.

Imagine the estate planning attorney who is drafting a basic will for a client and powers of attorney. With a document assembly software, the attorney or his staff can input all of the relevant data (client’s name, spouse, children, etc.) and apply those variables across the documents without using the time-consuming and unreliable cut-and-paste or search-and-replace methods. Once the software applies those variables to the documents, they can be further modified to fit the client’s needs.

As previously mentioned, there are a variety of document software programs available, with a variety of features, complexity, and cost. Many of these are specifically developed for attorneys. The following are some of the industry leaders:

Hot Docs (http://www.hotdocs.com/) – according to the ABA in a survey from 2009 (http://www.americanbar.org/groups/departments_offices/legal_technology_resources/resources/charts_fyis/docassembly.html), Hot Docs is used by 53% of those using document assembly in their practices, making it the dominant player in the field. Hot Docs offers a free introductory webinar on its Web site.

ProLaw (http://www.elite.com/prolaw/) – ProLaw is a Thomson Reuters product. According to its Web site, “ProLaw combines case and matter management as well as time entry, billing and accounting capabilities within a single integrated solution.”

ProDoc (http://www.prodoc.com/) – ProDoc is a Thomson Reuters / West product. This is a subscription-based product with state-specific documents (which do not include Illinois).

Pathagoras (http://www.pathagoras.com/) - Pathagoras is a plain-text based Microsoft Word add-on that utilizes the user’s existing documents. A 90-day free trial is available through the Web site.

XpressDox (http://www.xpressdox.com/) – XpressDox is a Microsoft Word add-on or Web-based document assembly tool. A 30-day free trial is available through the Web site.

SmoothDocs (http://smoothdocs.com/) – SmoothDocs is targeted for small businesses, including attorneys. A free version is available through the Web site.

The Form Tool (http://www.theformtool.com/) – The Form Tool is a Microsoft Word add-on. A free version is available through the Web site.

Some practice management software also incorporates document assembly features, but that is a whole separate beast (see Don Mateer’s article in the February 2012 COLT newsletter).

As is the case with any new product (software or otherwise), there is a learning curve with these products. Some claim to be easy to learn and ready to use in three minutes. While it is true that you may be able to watch a three minute video and understand conceptually how the product works, the reality is that it will take a significant investment of time to really understand how the products work and to incorporate them into your existing systems. In the next article on document assembly software, I’ll relate my experience with incorporating one of the add-on products in our practice.


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