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Document automation

What is document automation and its value for legal professionals?

Image Credit: REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Practicing law is document intensive. Whether it’s a contract, license, partnership agreement, deed, will, or mortgage—the process of legal drafting can be time consuming and tedious. Many firms are turning to document automation to reduce the repetition and increase efficiency, standardisation, quality, and profitability.

But is document automation worth the investment? That was the first topic in our recent Document Automation Webinar Series, where we asked panellists to look beyond the fad and discuss what it really takes to make the most of this technology. Whether you’re an expert or a novice with document automation, going back to the basics can help you match priorities with next steps.

What is document automation?

Document automation is a quick, easy, and more accurate way to produce legal documents. It uses your firm’s existing legal documents to generate robust, automated templates for future use. “It takes some of those monotonous tasks out of your day”, said Shirlee Gardiner, Senior Legal Secretary at Farha Legal Ltd. “It also gives you the ability to update individual standard form documents easily, which is also a great time saver.”

To stay productive and competitive, firms spend a lot of time and money maintaining the intellectual property they accumulate in their practice. Document automation is designed to absorb this legal know-how and apply logic to make it easily accessible and reusable. “You gather that asset skill that’s in your senior lawyer’s head when you automate a document”, said Kate Stanfield, Director of Knowledge Management at Collas Crill LLP. “So, when they leave the firm, that’s still there.”

Why should firms invest in document automation?

Document automation is more than just a technology trend. Different firms will use the technology in different ways, making it imperative to determine your unique business needs. But no matter what those needs are, firms agree on one thing: for many,  value of automation lies with highly repeatable work.

“The best value is when you can gather the data once and then populate it into a whole series of different documents that are involved in a transaction. That’s where you get massive cost savings, time savings, and quality savings”, said Stanfield. Her firm reports document automation reducing up to 70 percent of time spent on legal drafting.

How to get started?

Firms often make the mistake of thinking document automation is a ‘magic bullet’. But investing in the technology won’t inherently make your transactions quicker and better. The starting point is figuring out what business problem you’re trying to solve and setting realistic expectations: Is there a genuine business need for it? Who will use it? How and for what purpose? If the document is not often used, there’s no return on the time and effort spent on automating it. “It can be really exciting to automate a share purchase agreement, but if we only do one twice a year, then is it worth all the time and resources?”, commented Stanfield.

Once you have a strategy in place, then you apply automation software. This requires understanding the logic of what’s needed in a document, how you will collect the data that populates the documents, and what is the best language for different clauses. “It’s still based on your own information—your good underlying documents”, said Stanfield.

Firms should also be careful not to expect too much or too little and to make sure they have the resources to automate those documents. “[And] don’t underestimate the time that it will take there”, added Cassandra Waddy, Director of Product Management at Thomson Reuters. “Be prepared for a little upfront work.” Document automation is a process that needs to consider the end user experience as well as the end product itself.

Who should be involved in deciding if document automation is right for the firm?

If you don’t have the internal resources in your firm, a trusted, skilled vendor can help you get up to speed quickly and ensure you get return on your investment. Consider who will do the coding and if you will need managed support services. “You want to go with the providers that are making it easy for you to automate”, said Waddy, who highlighted the many opportunities that solutions like offer with contract analysis tools.

Training is essential both for user adoption and continued improvements—another reason why you need to be clear about your purpose. Are you looking to save time for your secretaries, lawyers, or IT team? Because people adapt to change in different ways, it’s important to highlight the benefits when introducing a new way of working.

Value generating for legal professionals

Whether it’s improving your firm’s reputation for quality, speed, and service or ensuring compliance, security, and risk management, there are huge benefits to document automation. With only one place to go to create a particular document, document automation provides peace of mind that the asset is always up to date. The speed allows firm employees to focus on other value-added tasks, which can help boost profitability. And by offering self-service documentation for clients, you achieve differentiation in a highly competitive market.

Document automation has evolved quite a bit from its mail merge origins. Continuous technological advancements are expanding the possibilities for improvement. So, once you grasp these basics, you’re ready to start exploring ways to use this technology to your firm’s advantage.

Listen to the webinar ‘Document Automation – Back to Basics‘ on demand.

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