I was asked recently to share how document automation has benefited my practice. I thought I’d share some of that experience here.
The Old Find-and-Replace, Cut-and-Paste Method
I run a multi-state, internet-based law firm. I don’t position myself as a supplier of legal forms in the LegalZoom model. The real value that I add is in the consultation phase of the representation. But at the end of the day, there’s still a lot of documents to be drafted.
I started using HotDocs in 2008. Before I made the switch, I had a file of form templates that served as the starting point for my drafting. I would go to the template, open it in Microsoft Word, then start editing. My editing process went something like this:
- Find-and-Replace. Do a find-and-replace to add all of the names and contact information to the document. To cut back on errors, my templates used placeholders (e.g., @CompanyName). I could search for @CompanyName and replace it with “The Company Name, LLC.” I did this for each variable I was replacing.
- Cut-and-Paste. Once all of the basic information was integrated into the document, I would start the custom drafting. The templates that I used contained all of my most commonly-used clauses, so that cut back on the custom drafting that was required. But, for most documents, I did need to cut-and paste at least some clauses from other documents, then customize them to fit the document I was drafting.
This was a clumsy but workable solution – when I was only drafting one document. The real inefficiency came into play when I had to generate a large number of documents for a single client. In that case, each of these two processes had to be repeated over and over and over. Not the best use of my or my staff’s time.
In addition to the time and redundant work involved, the system was prone to error. We tried our best to be meticulous about drafting and proofreading. But it was inevitable that, every so often, we would misspell a word, fail to include or exclude a clause from a document, use a wrong name, have inconsistent subject and verb tenses, uses the wrong indefinite article … you get the picture.
I don’t know if it’s just because I’m a perfectionist, but this drove me nuts. The constant threat of error hung over each client project. Each time documents went out, there was always this back-of-mind concern that I would receive an embarrassing call from the client or someday be sued for malpractice due to an error that we didn’t catch. To correct for this, we threw even more resources at it by endlessly proofreading and re-proofreading to correct all errors.
The Document Automation Method
I switched to document automation (using HotDocs) in 2008, with a full-scale implementation in 2010. To say that document automation freed up our resources and allowed me to practice law more efficiently would be a gross understatement. Document automation literally transformed my practice.
More Efficient Document Production = Greater Profit Margin
I am a big advocate of value-based, flat-fee billing systems (I’ll save that topic for another day). Because I use flat fee billing, every minute of time that I spent drafting documents resulted in a lower per-hour rate.
Document automation has greatly reduced the amount of time that I and my staff spend on drafting. Being able to generate documents more quickly has had a direct and noticeable impact on our bottom line. Because of the efficiency of an automated drafting system, I now make more money per document. Being able to produce the same documents in much less time has greatly increased our profit margins.
And the best part is that I haven’t had to increase the cost to the client. If anything, I was able to lower some fees due to these internal efficiencies.
Error-Free Document Production = Peace of Mind
There’s no question that document automation has helped our bottom line. But that’s not the primary benefit. For me, biggest benefit of document automation is peace of mind.
I have a document automation system that I can trust to produce error-free documents. I am comfortable that every name, address, phone number, noun, verb, and clause will be correct on each of my documents.
That’s not to say that custom drafting isn’t required. I would say that documents generated by HotDocs are usually around 95 percent complete. But I am more confident that whatever information is in the documents is correct. I don’t have to worry about a prior client’s phone number having been carried over to the form. I know that “Jr.” and “Sr.” will be used appropriately throughout the document and that Mrs. Jones will always be referred to as a “her” instead of a “he.”
Knowing that these things are taken care of frees up frees up my psychological energy to focus on whatever custom drafting is required. I am no longer “in the weeds,” working through these little-but-important issues that used to take up so much of my time.
Here’s a quick example from this week: I’ve got an out-of-state client that seems to be constantly nervous. I had mailed a set of documents to her late last week and told her to expect them within a few days. Come Monday, I got a call from the client saying that the documents hadn’t arrived. The first question was whether there had been some mistake on the address.
Without even looking at the file, I was able to say, with confidence, that there was no problem with the address. I knew that the client’s contact information had been input into HotDocs correctly because we had already mailed tons of correspondence to the client. I knew that the address for this most recent package was automatically-generated as part of the cover letter that we mailed to the client. So I knew there wasn’t a problem with the address.
I told the client to wait a few more days. I received an e-mail Monday evening saying that the documents had arrived that day and were correctly addressed. Knowing that there wasn’t a problem with the address saved me layers of stomach lining while we waited. That wouldn’t have been the case had we relied on the old method.
Do you have any similar experiences with (or any questions about) document automation? Let me know in the comments below.