Moving to document automation might seem like a minor change, but law firms can radically improve operations with it. A well-implemented document automation system can reduce expenses, increase profits, and even win new clients.
A recent Thomson Reuters webinar, “Document Automation: Workflow Strategies for Competitive Firms”, focused on how law firms use document automation and how it’s led to increased productivity and costs savings, which can be substantial. According to webinar host Anatoly Soyfer, a senior marketer at Thomson Reuters, the average lawyer spends 2.75 hours a day on drafting. As there are roughly 975,000 lawyers privately practicing in the U.S., that adds up to $6 billion in billable time essentially “written off” each year.
How does document automation work? Systems like Contract Express generate documents from templates uploaded into the software, with user questionnaires to fill in each specific document. These generated forms also offer prompts, incorporate information from other databases, and can be quickly routed to specialists for review and approval.
Automation can cut drafting time of some client documents to mere minutes. The law firm Dentons found that its venture technology group, one of the first groups to embrace document automation, has gone from needing six to eight hours to create a first draft of incorporation documents to needing only about 15 to 30 minutes today.
You can download and listen to the webinar recording of “Document Automation: Workflow Strategies for Competitive Firms” here.
Document standardization via automation greatly streamlines operations. Silvia LeBlanc, director of Knowledge Management at Morgan Lewis, said during the webinar that her firm faced a situation in which “everyone would create their own versions of various forms. We had these mushroom clouds forming around our forms,” she says. “You could no longer to tell what that singular form was. So, we really wanted to create a central form repository.”
Morgan Lewis, which started using document automation software in early 2016, also wanted to create mechanisms for contextual learning, enabling its associates to get up to speed on a new practice area without having to constantly check in with partners.
Dentons had similar goals. “We didn’t want for our partners to need to spend time with every new associate who was learning to draft the same documents,” says Kathy Valentine, the firm’s Knowledge Management Solutions Manager. The firm wanted software with “a complex decision tree logic” that would lead associates through forms, letting them know “what are the ramifications of choosing this or that question? What are other things to take into account?”
Eric Wood, a Practice Innovation and Technology Partner at Chapman and Cutler, said one of his firm’s aims with document automation was “to have consistent work product with minimal errors.” Automation “has fundamentally changed how some practice groups work, and that has ramifications for everything these groups do,” he said. For example, “if we lose a key mid-level associate, we can bring someone new in, teach them to fill out the questionnaire, and get the same results.”
When a law firm implements document automation, it should ensure that its lawyers have time and incentive to embrace the software, allowing them input for designing document templates. Start by asking various practice groups to nominate one form to begin with, “something easy, that [automation] would make a significant difference to,” LeBlanc said.
Both Morgan Lewis and Dentons found letters of engagement to be an ideal “square one.” “That’s a good example of how to showcase all areas of functionality, but also everyone can relate to it,” Valentine says. “Every lawyer knows what it’s like to have to produce a letter of engagement.”
Also, manage early expectations. Don’t expect templates “are going to be absolutely perfect the first time,” she adds. It’s more important to get a form template implemented quickly, allowing lawyers to make changes and corrections. That said, it’s also imperative to have a “squeaky clean” document before doing any coding. “You don’t want to take a document and find out it’s not properly numbered, that section breaks don’t make sense, or that cross-references aren’t automated or wrong.”
Keep in mind how the average lawyer approaches filling out a form. “Set defaults wherever possible,” Valentine says. “If an answer to a question is almost always ‘x,’ make ‘x’ the default.” Having the right tone is also important. Sometimes a questionnaire should be conversational, as if talking to a client; other times, it should be more like a term sheet that has a standard flow of questions.
When a law firm implements document automation, it should ensure that its lawyers have time and incentive to embrace the software, allowing them input for designing document templates.
One way to help partners buy into documentation is to encourage “practitioner sponsorship.” Essentially, if there’s a partner who “owns” a particular form, make him or her the point person on keeping the automated template updated. “We have a process where our knowledge management attorneys may go back to the attorney and ask, every three months, should we change it or not?” LeBlanc said.
She adds that another benefit of document automation is that it becomes a “passive collection of practice data.” After a few months of usage, Morgan Lewis can give practitioners breakdowns on what the average settlement was, how that compared to the rate of opposing counsel, and other information to spur competitiveness and productivity.
For Chapman and Cutler, a finance boutique that does a high percentage of fixed-fee work, they need cases to done “as quickly and as efficiently as possible. [And] document drafting is the most time-intensive component of our workflows.” Document automation has even opened up a new revenue area, as Chapman and Cutler now helps clients automate their own documents. “We’re directly building things for clients — work they had been doing internally,” Wood says.