We love document automation around here: it’s kind of our thing. It’s one of Rally’s foundational features. I use it in my practice every day. Without legal automation, Rally may not exist.
But is it for everybody? Maybe not. While most law firms would benefit from document automation – not only is it a great tool for increasing your output as a lawyer but it may actually get you more clients – there may be some reasons to avoid it.
Do any of these sound familiar?
Most firms reuse their pleadings, templates, form letters, and other work that they completed for past clients on current cases. That makes sense. Why reinvent the wheel? It’s more efficient and you’re far less likely to end up with silly mistakes when you keep building on top of the foundations that you have already established.
However, it’s totally possible that everything you do is bespoke — rework is minimal. And it would not pay off to build document automations for documents that you might use once or twice per year. Automation is amazing for documents that you use all the time – form letters, templates, the every week stuff. I don’t have a formula or calculator to tell you how often you need to use a document in order to make automation pay off, but I think you get the point: automate the stuff you do regularly, do not automate the stuff that is one-off or sporadic.
If your work is mostly sporadic or bespoke, document automation will not really help you. Its whole purpose is to allow you to create documents in a matter of seconds from existing data, based on the template and data sources, such as a questionnaire.
However, one thing to keep in mind before dismissing document automation as a rigid solution when you need flexible documents: the template doesn’t have to be rigid – it can contain conditional logic, alternative clauses, and are much more flexible than you would imagine if your experience in automation is a fillable PDF or an old-school mail merge letter. Also, you can always edit the document after it is generated. Document generation is meant to be a lightning fast means to reach a starting point, not the entire journey.
Reputable, ethical attorneys do not inflate the number of hours that they bill to a client. It’s not unheard of, but when it is discovered, you not only lose the client, but you may face a bar complaint. So please, do not think that we are implying that style of billing.
What I am talking about are the attorneys that love practicing under the traditional billable hour model. It is a model that rewards taking your time, slowly building your legal work product in a bespoke manner, custom tailoring answers for every single client. The longer you take to help the client, the more you get paid. And it is easy to hear Jiminy Cricket in the back of your head telling you that what you are actually doing is paying extra attention and providing critical cautious care to your clients’ needs – not over-billing.
There are times that call for that. Multibillion dollar deals should not be derailed because somebody rushed through the legal documents. But most of us don’t deal with those types of clients, and for your everyday small business or middle-class client, they would rather get a non-critical, routine document drafted quickly and efficiently from a cost perspective than to have you hand-tailor something at $500/hr.
We are not all nerds that grew up with a 486 PC running Windows 3.1, and who started building websites off of HTML code in junior high. It doesn’t take that level of nerd status to use document automation, but it is not as simple as sending an email either — at least for most people. Most platforms require you to build your own templates, which is time-consuming and requires technical knowledge. Many will require you to map out your branching logic to help decide which clauses to insert, and to consider all of the “what if’s” that you want to build into the document before the template is built.
Of course, this is the point where we highlight the fact that there are some legal tech companies that offer concierge template building services. (Shameless plug: Rally is one of them). This means they will help you build out your template library so that you can get to lawyering and stop trying to learn a DIY interface on some other platform.
I don’t think there are too many lawyers who only go to court and never file any pleadings. All court cases are initiated through pleadings, settled through pleadings, and very often won on paper alone.
With that being said, I do know a ton of trial lawyers that barely touch the paper themselves — they keep an army of support staff to handle the paperwork, with a focus on going to war in depositions, meetings, and courtrooms. That’s amazing — everybody has their own strengths and maybe you just want to focus on the courtroom.
If your system is working for you, and your support staff is not concerned about efficiency, it may not be the right time for document automation.
As a counterpoint, businesses are run on systems, while support staff comes and goes. Adding a document automation system means you can plug in new employees and onboard them more quickly, so that when your favourite paralegal leaves, your firm does not suffer in the interim. With your support staff working more efficiently (and with less chance of human errors), you might even be able to amp up your caseload and spend even more time in the courtroom.
Did we mention that document automation reduces drafting mistakes, helping you win that paper war for cases that never even make it to trial?
Been there. For most young associate attorneys, the only thing we have input on is maybe what we get to eat for lunch. Senior attorneys dictate the course of cases, and they will dictate what software is used at your firm. They may ask for your input, but if you suggest something paradigm-shifting or revolutionary, most will get scared and insist that you return to ancient practices.
Here’s the truth: as we all get older, we all want to stick to processes that we are more comfortable with. For most attorneys that have spent decades practicing law the traditional way, those systems work for them and efficiency and technology are not their game. The way things have always worked is their game.
My advice to a technologically inclined associate attorney is to focus on learning as much of the lawyer game as possible during these first few years, and then, if you’ve got an itch you can’t scratch with regards to technology, scalability of the business, etc. then open your own shop or join a more tech-minded firm in the future –once you have a very solid grasp of legal practice and procedure.
It may only take a couple of years to become a competent lawyer, at which point you can take your legal expertise and match up with your tech interests, to create something newer, bigger, better. But it is very unlikely that you are going to change the minds, hearts, and practices of all of the senior attorneys in your firm and bring them over to the world of tech and the future of law.
I know a lot of prosecutors, public defenders, and child-support attorneys that work for the government. Their status is similar to that of a senior associate, in a way. For one, they typically have legal assistants to prepare the actual documents so they don’t have to worry too much about document creation, efficiency, and automation. They spend most of their time in a courtroom.
Even if they wanted to implement document automation and technology, if you have ever dealt with government bureaucracy, layer that on top of established senior attorneys in their offices, and you can imagine the Herculean task that it would take to convince the office to embrace document automation. They may be using some sort of older document automation, such as HotDocs templates, but cloud-based? Probably too scary and too modern.
If you are one of these brilliant tech-minded government lawyers, know that most of my friends who were in your shoes later went into private practice. Much like an associate in a private firm, I’d suggest you focus on being the most brilliant lawyer you can now, and when you go to private practice, fight the good fight to marry your technological interest to your legal skills.
Again, been there. Document automation isn’t free, unless you are the sort of uber nerd who can spool up your own server, install open-source software and write things in YAML. Even if you can, do you have the time?
For most solo attorneys, time is an eternal struggle. We know that we can adopt new and better tools to buy back some of our time, especially document automation tools, but we don’t have the upfront time to set up those systems. Most tools are DIY, all have learning curves, and the ones that are not DIY typically cost a premium upfront to pay somebody to build out your templates.
Here is the hard truth: running a business costs money. Running a scalable business costs even more money, which can be especially challenging upfront. You cannot do everything yourself. It’s a lesson I have been trying to learn for ten years now. I built my own marketing automations, website, document automation, and if I had just paid somebody brilliant to do some of this work for me, I probably could’ve scaled everything a lot faster.
Again, this is an opportune time to give a shout out to these platforms’ concierge services and to outside consultants. They help you build out templates so you can get to work faster. Here is one more encouraging note for those of you that are on the fence: automation is infinitely scalable. It has an upfront cost, but once you start generating documents, you will pay off that upfront cost in only a few cases.
There are only a few legaltech companies offering these kinds of services and Rally is proud to be one. Learn more about these types of plans.
Since you’ll be churning through the rote work on these cases so quickly, you will be able to take on even more cases, help more people, and generate more revenue. It’s the hockey stick curve that startups aim for: the exponential growth that lawyers can almost never achieve when they stick to drafting things by hand and the traditional billable hour model.
This is another one I can relate to. As I’ve mentioned a few times already, I’m a nerd. I have tried every single document automation platform out there. The one that I chose to start building on was later acquired by a larger company. I’ve tried to make the document automation features in my practice management software work, but they required far too much building and pseudo-code in the documents for me to ever really make a true go at it.
In a way, I’m back to square one and I have the fear of migrating what I did build onto yet another platform. Not to mention the factors of “does this integrate with my other software” and “is this so complicated that I won’t be able to make any changes without reaching out to a support team?”
Take a day. Take two days. Block that time off on your calendar. Or, do as I did and block out one afternoon per week. Do demos of new products, find one that works with your needs, and after that: just build something. Anything. Experiment, revise, and build a second thing. After a project or two, you’ll find pain points that you need to address in the next build or by switching platforms.
During those three or four months you’ll have built something that helped your practice, you’ll be way ahead of the guy who is still comparing feature sets and deciding which platform to commit to.
Remember this: the best tools are the ones that you actually use, not the ones you sign up for and that collect dust. So all of this analysis and research is an important step, but you can’t let it keep you from moving forward.
Get a high-level overview of the legal automation landscape so you can easily see what’s right for your firm.
I know a handful of solos who didn’t like the law firm environment, so they started their own firm. Then, when they started their own firm, they didn’t like aspects of running a business, so off they went back to a law firm. After years of toiling away, trying to make the practice of law work for them, they finally realized, some sooner than others, that what they really didn’t like was being a lawyer.
It’s hard to make that call. We all went to law school to become lawyers and practice law. Many of us went with ambitions to help human beings, to change the world, to be the next Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
What are we, if we are not lawyers?
That same indecision and lack of commitment to a career path keeps us from buying in 100% and making the commitment to long-term tools and larger systems. We want to buy piecemeal software off the rack on a monthly contract so that we aren’t making a commitment to anything.
Understandable. If you’re not ready, you’re not ready. What I will say is that if you are frustrated by the practice of law, but still love the law itself, as a solo you have the unique opportunity to shape your business and practice the way you want them.
Don’t let anybody else tell you how to practice law. If you want to throw as much technology at the problem as possible, so you can focus on the humans and clients, by God, document automation is probably your answer. If you really enjoy focusing on writing everything bespoke, maybe you need to find high-end clients and larger deals so that it makes sense to spend hours grooming through clause libraries to find just the right language for that multimillion dollar deal.
Find your happiness and make it work for you.
That’s probably where I’m at right now. First I couldn’t decide on a platform. Often, I don’t have the time, especially with a precocious toddler needing every spare minute. In a few months, my family has to move to another new state for my wife’s last year of medical residency, where I have no bar card.
I honestly am not sure where I’m headed with my career. Do I wind up my practice entirely? Do I stop offering services directly to consumers and only operate through divorce lawyers? Do I take all of the knowledge I have accumulated over my years of practice and turn that into a legal software product, rather than a law firm? To quote a great heroine, “I’ve got a thousand reasons to go about my day, and ignore your whispers, and hope they go away…”
But somewhere, amid those whispers, the call of doing more work, more efficiently, and helping more people, is still pulling me back to document automation in some form – law practice, legal website, co-counsel to other attorneys. Once I’m done making excuses, and I’ve found my next path through the dark forest (okay, seriously, name that movie), maybe then I’ll get around to automating.
What about you? Do you have an excuse - or a legitimate blocker - that is keeping you from automations, systems, and building the practice of your dreams? Or, are the excuses a thin veil to stop yourself from the uncomfortable experience of trying something new.
My recommendation? Try something and see where it takes you.
Oftentimes success comes from getting out there and trying something new. We interviewed Lachlan of LegalVision, he told us how he was able to scale his law firm (he’s one of the fastest growing companies in Asia-Pacific) and increase his profitability per lawyer once he built out the right systems and technology.
If you’re ready to see what automation tools may work for your firm, I would recommend getting a copy of our comparison guide. Inside, we stacked up the leaders in legal automation, comparing the pros and cons of each so you can get a better sense of what may work for you.