Document automation systems are old, stable and useful, and so rarely adopted in practice?
20th October 2018
I recently stumbled upon a slightly satirical glossary of legaltech/lawtech terms accusing document automation of being “a system for generating a tailored contract or other document based on the answers to questions. Document automation systems are old, stable and useful, and so rarely adopted in practice.” As someone who automates documents for a living, I thought I’d take a minute to unpack this.
“A system for generating a tailored contract or other document based on the answers to questions”
Accurate. Working with lawyers and their chosen Document Automation Software, automation experts design a series of questions that will eliminate the square brackets in a precedent. Different teams take different approaches to the level of detail in the questionnaire.
Off the shelf systems available from the legal information companies will tend to take the approach of providing a ‘good first draft’ as these are designed to cater to everyone. This will complete all of the repetitive work, giving the user a document on which they can work their magic.
Firms may develop their own systems in-house, or purchase something bespoke. This allows them to use their own precedents, rather than those provided by the legal information company (think PSL/PLC), and ask more detailed questions tailored to their specialisms.
“Document automation systems are old, stable and useful…”
In terms of legal tech, I suppose they are old, yes. Document Automation is one of 10 ‘disruptive technologies’ identified by Susskind in ‘the end of lawyers’ in 2009, which, compared to things like blockchain and legal design, makes document assembly pretty darn ancient. To put this in perspective; document automation was disruptive while iPhones were still on the 3GS.
Clearly, we’ve come a long way since Document Automation was disruptive. They’ve been around long enough now that people have got to grips with the technology, so they are reliable and user friendly – even for non-technical people. You can also find a wide range of documents ready for drafting by now, as those that create them have had time to build them.
There are some serious benefits to be had from document automation. For me, the biggest has to be reducing the time legal professionals spend on word processing. I don’t know about you, but after all the investment I made in my legal training, both in terms of money and time, I was horrified by how much time could be spent just on the characters ‘[s]’, let alone their associates agreements. It reminded me of conjugation exercises we used to have to do in French class. That was not what I signed up for. Until I began to get my hands on precedents, it had never occurred to me how much work there was to do to a document before you could actually start to work on the specifics for a case. So, automation frees up lawyers to do the legal work for which they are uniquely qualified.
If we consider that from the client’s perspective, getting the lawyer to the legal work faster means that they are getting better value for money. Don’t forget, that time that a lawyer is spending conjugating verbs and other general word processing is billable. Given how competitive the market is, this kind of value add can give firms a real advantage.
…and so rarely adopted in practice?
Well, as I said at the outset to this article, I design Document Automation systems for a living; I’m not in practice. In some ways that gives me an advantage in answering this question, as usage metrics and client demand drives my development. On the other hand, I don’t have any contact with people that don’t use our systems. Still, it’s not true to say that these aren’t used in practice – if that were true, I’d be out of a job. That said, Document Automation systems haven’t been adopted universally. Different practice areas have adopted the technology with different degrees of enthusiasm. Wills have particularly benefited from automation, as has the business of law.
A trend I have spotted that may explain this claim is that lots of firms seem to have tried and failed to implement document automation systems of their own. Like many fads, lots of people tried this, found that it was harder than it looked, and didn’t get the results they’d hoped for. Now there is an increasing demand for this resource from dedicated teams with the knowledge and skill set to do this well. Where they have been retained, it has been in markets were reducing cost and minimising time to delivery has been the driving priority for the buyer – markets such as Private Client.
And the impact on jobs?
In every industry, people are talking about the threat technology poses to jobs. The legal industry is no different; you don’t have to look far to find someone saying that robots will take over 90% of jobs in the industry. Maybe that’s true – unfortunately, my crystal ball is on strike, fearing that technology will make it redundant, so I really don’t know.
What I can tell you is that document automation, at least in its current form, is nothing to be feared. In fact, its set to make your job more interesting; reducing the time you spend on boring stuff and increasing the time you spend on the work you trained to do.
And to the claim that greater efficiency will reduce the number of jobs? Well, when was the last time you were underutilised? Never? That work isn’t going anywhere, you’ll just be able to do it more efficiently. And if there’s not enough work, automation may help make you become more competitive.