What Is Document Assembly?

I asked the attendees at my Idaho State Bar talk about their use of document assembly products. Very few hands went up. If you aren’t using a document assembly product, you’re not alone.

What is document assembly? It’s fancy fill-in-the-blank software. It allows you to create a template and fill in the variables with the information for a specific client. It comes in really handy for producing routine documents that you have to produce hundreds or thousands of times over the years.

The software is sophisticated. It can do things like fix “child” and “children” based on how many kids the parties happen to have. It guides you through gathering the required information and knows to skip questions that aren’t pertinent. For instance, if you respond “none” to the question about how many children the parties have, it won’t ask you questions about child support, custody, etc. It knows to fix things like “him” and “her,” and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Document assembly software is handy even if you run a small practice with a limited number of clients. You don’t have to use it for every document or even for every part of a document. Some attorneys use it—initially, at least—for creating court captions and signature blocks. Later, they take it to the next level and add various provisions to the process. They build one step at a time to a full questionnaire that leads to the completion of an entire document.

Some document assembly systems make it easy to start small and grow. Others require a more comprehensive approach to system design and essentially require you to think through your entire workflow before jumping into the first document. We’ve settled on Pathagoras. It’s tightly integrated with Microsoft Word, and it makes it easy for us to take an incremental approach to adding provisions and documents to our system. It’s not perfect, but it’s a workable solution.

We’ve been using document assembly products for years. We started with HotDocs (which languished for some time and has recently made a strong comeback) and GhostFill (which left the legal marketplace). Pathagoras is easier and less sophisticated than some of the other products, but it works for our approach. It’s important for you to find something that you’re going to use rather than buying something and putting it away for later (which never comes).

I’m intrigued by ContractExpress (watch the interview), but I haven’t tried it yet. It’s a cloud-based system and looks good. Typically, big firms have been the target users for ContractExpress; only recently has the software focused on the needs of small and medium firms. I really like the idea of renting the software and letting it live on someone else’s server.

DirectLaw is another cutting-edge product worthy of your attention. It takes document assembly to the next level and enables you to assemble the documents and sell them, via its system, directly to clients.

The reality of our lives is that we create lots of documents. Shaving seconds or even many minutes off the time it takes to create these documents can have a dramatic impact on our bottom line. Document assembly systems are much, much more efficient than hunting for a “go by” form and cutting and pasting. Document assembly helps you standardize your approach to documents and ensures that your entire firm is working from the same knowledge base. When you improve your agreements and other forms, you’re improving them for the entire team.

Take a look at the websites for the various document assembly products and evaluate them. Many of them offer some form of free trial. If you haven’t dabbled in document assembly before, it’s time to start now.

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