The majority of law firms use document assembly simply to insert merge fields into documents. Of course that makes sense, since for most legal document templates this is all that’s needed, and in fact simple merge fields or ‘stop codes’ as they were called in the old days also bring the biggest gain in productivity from document assembly. But there are also those who don’t think document assembly is necessary. For example, there is a perception in the profession that Microsoft Word® can create templates just fine on its own. In fact, many of the document assembly vendors themselves believe that document assembly software is only required for complex documents. Personally, I disagree.
The first reason I say this is that document assembly software is inexpensive. At just a few cents (US) per user per day, the gain in productivity from document assembly makes it a no-brainer. Even basic document assembly pays for itself in no time. For example, document templates can be created by legal secretaries themselves, without the need to wait for the IT department or a super-user to create them. This saves time and reduces expenses. Template libraries can be created easily, which means that document templates can be found without users having to wade through folder after folder on their hard disk. Letterheads are simplified through the use of a single letterhead for the entire firm, and document formatting is standardized. Another benefit of document assembly is that accuracy is improved, since the bulk of the document doesn’t change. Typically, users cut and paste information from one contract to the next, but the problem with this is that from time to time sensitive information from the previous contract is forgotten in the document, which is not only embarrassing, but can potentially invalidate a legal agreement. For this reason alone, law firms would be well advised to insist on the use of document assembly!
One potential problem with the implementation of document assembly is that most large law firms attempt to enforce a central template library on all users in the firm, preventing them from creating their own templates. In my opinion, this is counter-productive. While there is clearly a need to do this for some templates such as letterheads, facsimile cover sheets and certain other often-used contract or agreement forms, by far the biggest gain in productivity comes from users having the ability to create their own templates. It’s not simply that this is faster; it is also because law firm partners prefer to use their own content, since they know it better. It is a known fact that most centralized template libraries don’t get used much in practice for this very reason. Then there is an argument that junior partners should be using templates created by their more experienced senior colleagues, and this makes sense. It does however mean that a template which is going to be used by others needs to be more rigid, which takes much longer to create. In my experience there is a need for both: A central template library as well as local templates created by the users themselves.
Some document assembly systems require more training than others, and some systems available on the market today are difficult to implement. Having said this, there are a number of new document assembly systems which pride themselves on ease of use. One caution, however, is that some of the new ‘easy to use’ systems are only easy to use because they don’t do much! So a good document assembly system should be ‘quick-start’, but allow the user to create more sophisticated templates as they become more proficient in the use of the product. But although basic document assembly brings the biggest productivity gain for law firms, there are some documents that lend themselves to more complex automation. So document assembly functions such as conditional logic (If…then, and keeping or deleting blocks of text), calculations, lookup lists, etc. are also needed. Of course, document assembly goes much further than that, with the ability to import data from data sources such as Excel spreadsheets, Outlook contacts, and SQL databases. This allows more advanced users to create their own document solutions. Examples of such systems are Litigation, Debt Recovery, and Property Transfers or Mortgage registrations. In fact, document assembly can even integrate with bespoke software systems such as your legal accounting system. Put simply, document assembly can be whatever you want it to be.
However, going back to what I said earlier, although document assembly systems can handle almost any complex document task, the biggest gain in productivity comes from basic document assembly usage. When secretaries are empowered to produce their own templates, you’ll be amazed at how much better they cope with their workload. You’ll also find that they produce documents faster, which improves customer service.
An industry ‘guru’ recently wrote that document assembly is the next big wave for law firms. Those firms that use it will prosper and those that don’t will lose out. Why? Because firms that re-use documents will be able to do so at a lower cost than those firms that don’t. Firms using document assembly will also produce documents faster, offering a better customer service, and the re-use of existing documents and information will allow them to increase billing.
It makes sense, doesn’t it?