There are three big players in the Document Automation field, they are Exari, Contract Express and HotDocs. None of these give a very clear picture on their websites of how they work or how they differ, so I shall endeavour to fill the gap. What follows is a very high level summary of how Document Automation programs used in the legal industry differ.
While Exari started as Document Automation software, this is now just one element of the platform they offer. Their ‘DocGen’ tool, Power Author, is XML based. To automate your document, you import a template into the web based repository, then automate the template through Power Author. Using this Document Automation software, the developer marks up the document by selecting the relevant sections of text and either dropping in a variable or click and select to apply conditions. The structural elements are represented graphically, so it’s easy to read the text you’re working on.
Creating the logic is pretty simple, too. You can import simple logic phrases from an excel sheet so everything’s there to apply, and you can build more in PowerAuthor. If you want more complex logic, this is really easy to design. The platform contains a logic creation tool with a ‘click to insert’ interface that won’t let you create logic that doesn’t work.
Word is not completely annexed from the development process; it’s still your start and end point (or at least one of the options available). You can even export a version of the mark up into a word format. This is a great means of communicating with a client that wants to engage with the mark up, but complex logic does not translate fantastically through the InstantAuthor mark up, so, for me at least, it’s not an alternative for automating in the software. Most importantly, though, you’re not tied to word. PDF is a standard alternative output, for example, and its possible to start from non-word templates, such as xml.
Apparently, the most important thing to know about Contract Express is that it is owned by Thompson Reuters. This may be a bit childish, but it’s pretty aggravating to spend the first five minutes of research time trying to clear branded sign up banners from my screen before I can even read about the product they are trying to sell. I thought we realised this with pop-ups, but apparently TR didn’t get the message. Anyway…
Under all the branding, Contract Express is housed primarily in Word. The template is drawn from, marked up and edited in Word, and the output is in Word. The questionnaire is web based, but other than that, you don’t have to leave the word environment, except to import to the server.
The appeal of this is that Word is familiar. Even the legal industry, infamously slow to adopt new technology, depends on Word as one depends on a limb. This is empowering for Legal experts without the skills, language and resource to work with more technical software, but may be frustratingly limiting for those with the technical skills. Reviewing your documents gets complicated as your logic comes in, and bug fixing is a bit of a nightmare as you sift through pages and pages of commands looking for whatever it is you didn’t get right the first time.
This software does have one feature that makes it stand out, though it benefits the user rather than the developer. While running the questionnaire, you’re able to preview the output so you can see the impact your responses are having on the output document, which, in my experience, goes down quite well with users.
HotDocs is also Word based, sitting inside your ‘word processor’ – whether this means it has capacity to work within word processors other than Word, I can’t say, as I’ve not come across anyone in the legal industry that doesn’t use the Microsoft tool, but from their wording its possible it may work with GoogleDocs or Pages. Development through this add on is ‘select and click’; not quite drag and drop, but close.
This strikes me as a little more friendly, as there is less typing or copying of commands needed in development. However, I still think that it makes reviewing and updating your document unnecessarily convoluted.
My perspective on Document Automation software…
As you might be able to tell, I am most familiar with Exari. Personally, I don’t understand the obsession with Word for development. To me, it seems counter-intuitive to limit yourself by building Document Automation through a platform that is, at its core, just a word processor. I find it unnecessarily complicated to type out the commands, worry about their syntax and, when it all goes wrong, spend hours poring over the entire document looking for the one missing * or ]. Particularly as there is software out there to do it better.
Personally, I find the Power Author interface is pretty intuitive, but I’m comfortable with that kind of technology. I don’t understand the obsession with Word, but I can empathise with those that cling to it as familiar. Having started in History, I do remember how daunting it was to sit down with a programming interface for the first time. Clunky automating from Word may be, but it had a purpose; it removed that first barrier to entry. Still, I really hope that we can get over this fear, sooner rather than later. After all, technology is not such an unknown anymore.