Get Onboard with Document Automation, But Proceed with Care

Two pieces of information converged today to convince me that lawyers, particularly solo and small firm lawyers, must learn to use document automation software if they are to survive, and that the business of law in the age of technology is, basically, just one big self-feeding loop.

The first piece of information was an article in the April issue of Law Technology News detailing how DLA Piper has used a web-based document assembly application to allow start-up clients and prospects to DIY a series of eight “routine” documents such as employment, non-disclosure and invention agreements. So, DLA Piper is now in essentially the same business as legalzoom, albeit with the intention of gaining what the article described as more profitable and interesting premium work from these clients and potential clients by offering the self-prepared documents without fee. The article went on to detail how the firm’s lawyers also use the document automation application in-house to greatly cut down on the length of time needed to prepare first drafts of many other documents that are not offered to clients for self-generation.

Lawyers who handle repetitive matters – and let’s face it, the documents for just about all matters can be standardized to a grater or lesser degree – need to adopt tools that will let them do the job as carefully and accurately as possible in the least amount of time possible. There is no good reason to reinvent the wheel, day after day. When clients are constantly pushing for lower fees, or just walk away when they can’t afford the (often hourly) fee you quote them, reasonable though it may be, it really makes sense to invest some time in perfecting the templates from which your documents can be generated and then leverage that time across as many matters as possible. If you do your homework up front, and then charge a reasonable fee based on what the matter is worth to the client, you should still be able to make a nice return on the time you’ve invested. And, as the article shows, if you don’t do it, someone else will. Large firms can easily turn what has been bread and butter for small firms into business-generating loss leaders for themselves.

The second piece of information came from closer to home. I had lunch with one of our bar commissioners today, and he reported that he’s just taken on his first client experiencing legal problems as a result of a document created through legalzoom. Needless to say, he did exhibit a certain degree of satisfaction about this, which any practicing lawyer can easily understand. But after we parted I couldn’t help but wonder whether he could have initially captured this business, and prevented the client’s problem, if he had only automated the document in question and offered the client both the paperwork and some personalized legal advice for a fee somewhere in between the hourly rate for starting from scratch and the legalzoom price.

So the moral of this story is that as technology marches inexorably forward, lawyers are going to have to learn to use it or get priced out of the market but, when preparing your document templates, you must draft as if all matters of this type are one-of-a- kind.

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