“So much work, so little time.”
It’s a constant refrain in law firms, and it’s no exaggeration. The demands on lawyers’ time are perpetually growing — meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking away.
As law firms and legal professionals look for better ways to maximize their efforts, more and more are turning to technology for the solutions. Many of these future-thinking organizations are trading in time-consuming manual processes for efficient automations.
And the results are pretty impressive.
But what do you need to know before getting started with legal document automation? This guide has the answers, including key benefits of document automation, different software options to consider, essential features to look out for, and guidelines for how to select the right solution and get a great ROI.
Automation is a rapidly-growing trend in the legal industry — and for good reason. By using technology to execute tasks, processes, and workflows without (or with reduced) human involvement, automation allows law firms to deliver legal services faster and at a lower cost.
Legal document automation refers to automating legal document work — particularly the labor-intensive, tedious tasks that take time away from more interesting, high-value work. With legal document automation solutions, law firms can automate workflows like generating contracts, agreements, applications, opinions, pleadings, and even entire sets of documents.
Is there a difference between legal document automation and document assembly?
Some argue that document automation refers specifically to the template development process while document assembly describes the process of generating customized documents from a template.
The truth is, many people in the legal industry use these terms interchangeably. You may also hear the term “ document generation” used. But ultimately, they’re all describing the same thing: building templates that can be auto-populated to create custom legal documents.
Odds are, you’re already using automation. Electronic signatures, online intake forms and queries, contract lifecycle workflows… These are all forms of automation that help lawyers and legal professionals work more efficiently.
Because legal work begins and ends with documents, adding automation can have a big impact on just about any lawyer’s day-to-day workload.
Consider these six key benefits of legal document automation for lawyers and law firms:
The data doesn’t lie: automatable work fills as much as 23% of a lawyer’s day. These are tasks that don’t actually require human intervention, such as administrative work and other rote processes.
And let’s be honest: no one goes through all the hard work and expense of law school hoping to spend a quarter of their day copying and pasting text, scanning documents, or printing out pages for wet signatures.
Automating administrative tasks saves time that lawyers can instead spend on meaningful, revenue-generating activities.
Errors happen — that’s just a fact of life. But when it comes to legal work, even small errors can turn into costly mistakes, both for law firms and their clients. Fortunately, automation can help reduce the occurrence of errors and improve the overall quality of work products.
For example, legal document automation software can pull data directly from the client relationship manager (CRM) or practice/case management system into a standardized template. This easily eliminates the tedious challenge of transcribing case numbers, party names, necessary dates, and other straightforward details. Then, lawyers can focus the majority of their time and attention on any unique or complex aspects of the case.
The final result? Prompt delivery of high-quality products.
Tedious, time-consuming tasks can significantly increase stress and contribute to burnout, especially when they detract from more meaningful work.
Automation, on the other hand, can reduce the amount of administrative tasks on a lawyer’s plate and free up time. Whether that time gets spent on higher-value tasks or improving work-life balance is their choice.
As legal services become more commoditized, the number of clients a firm can serve will directly correlate with how efficiently it can deliver legal products.
Using automation, law firms can templatize many routine legal work products such as leases, wills, employment contracts, uncontested divorces, incorporations, etc. Instead of monopolizing valuable time, simple matters can be dealt with quickly and help lawyers to establish new client relationships effortlessly.
Automation doesn’t have to be relegated to behind-the-scenes work. In fact, it can be quite impressive in client-facing applications.
Consider an automated client intake process. Using a self-service form, the client inputs all necessary information which is then automatically merged into a templatized engagement letter and passed to the client for electronic signatures. The entire process can be completed within minutes. Meanwhile, your firm is shown to be fast, attentive, accurate, tech-savvy, and modern — and that can make all the difference when it comes to winning new and returning business.
Given all these benefits, it should come as no surprise that automation can lead to big improvement for your firm’s key performance indicators, or KPIs.
Fewer avoidable errors? Check. Increased efficiency? Check. More (and happier!) clients? Check. Better talent retention because lawyers aren’t burned out on menial tasks? Check, check, check!
Given all the possible benefits of document automation, it’s no wonder the legal industry is taking advantage of this technology. But how do you know you’re getting the value you want from document automation and assembly tools? How do you ensure you get a strong return on your tech investment?
The most obvious answer, of course, is to measure. First, you’ll need to establish benchmarks for important key performance indicators, such as: How long does it take your team to compile documents with their existing manual workflows? How many documents are you manually creating?
Once you’ve set up your document automation processes, take each measurement again. Ideally, your drafting time will decrease (even if you’re only able to partially automate the process), and you’ll see a significant time savings that your team can put toward more meaningful work.
If you’re able to set up client self-service, you may end up producing more documents per month as well. This can dramatically increase your ROI as it allows you to deliver a higher quantity of work at a lower cost to your team.
Another way document automation can deliver ROI for your organization is by helping maintain your template library.
Most law firms have a sizable repository of past cases to draw from — in fact, that precedent bank is often considered a strategic advantage and competitive differentiator. But that can also mean digging through dozens of variations of the same type of contract when you’re trying to manually assemble a new one. You’ve also got to continuously review and maintain your various templates to ensure they’re up to date.
Document automation can drastically improve that process by consolidating all the various permutations into one master template. Using conditional logic, the document automation software can add or remove content to fit the needs of the case. When there are changes to legislation, it’s also much easier to update citations in your master template than to go through each template variation individually.
As with drafting time, you can also measure time spent maintaining document templates before and after automation to see how it improves.
Almost always, the same data is used repeatedly throughout the pendency of a case or matter within different sets of documents. To maximize the ROI from your document automation, you will need a system that allows you to reuse the data that has been input in order to build automated documents. To leverage the data repeatedly, the data must be stored in data tables. Having data tables means names can easily be modified and data reused to create additional automations and workflows.
While harder to quantify, another source of ROI can come through improvements to your firm’s reputation and client relationships.
Among the key benefits of document automation are increased consistency and decreased drafting time. In other words: better legal services delivered faster.
And that’s exactly the kind of thing your clients will rave about.
Make no mistake: automation can’t replace an astute lawyer. But while there are many day-to-day processes that are well-suited to automation, some workflows can only be partially automated. And of course, there will always be the unique and sensitive matters that require bespoke treatment by the best talent your firm has to offer.
So how do you determine when automation is the right approach?
When you’re trying to decide if a task or process could or should be automated, you’ll want to ask yourself a few questions, such as:
To get started with legal document automation, you’ll need to find the right software. There are several varieties to choose from. It’s important to understand the differences, strengths, and weaknesses of each option so you can select the best solution for your firm.
Some practice management platforms provide basic document automation features, such as client intake portals, e-signature, and the ability to populate documents with data from the practice management software. However, they do not include the complex legal logic necessary to complete most legal documents. These solutions are best suited for simple document automations of a more administrative nature.
Standalone document assembly software solutions may offer more advanced or specialized document generation tools than those included in a practice management suite. For example, they may offer template libraries for specific jurisdictions and/or practice areas. Or they may have additional tools to review, approve, or e-file the created documents.
Keep in mind, however, that to reap the full benefits of automation, a standalone software added to your technology stack must integrate with your primary document management (or practice or case management) platforms.
Naturally, a robust document management platform will offer a complete suite of document automation and assembly tools to support even the most complex legal logic, including calculations, lists, loops, and conditional clauses.
One key benefit of this option is that the automation is built into the same interface you’re using to manage your documents. As a result, you can automate document workflows even further — not just generating them, but reviewing, approving, collaborating, sharing, organizing, and securing them.
Document automation software is a powerful tool for law firms, but generating customized documents is just one small aspect of document management as a whole.
Legal document management covers a broad range of essential tools and capabilities, including:
… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
When you’re considering a document automation solution — whether standalone, or as part of a practice management or document management platform — there are a few features you’ll want to look for.
Simply put, there is no document automation without the ability to create templates. A template will allow you to identify fields in the document that should be customized to each client, case or matter. When you generate an automated document, those fields will be filled based on source data from your CRM, practice management software, etc.
Some document automation solutions will come with a built-in library of documents and court forms for certain jurisdictions and practice areas. This can save time, particularly if your firm has not already amassed its own library of frequently used documents.
Once you’ve generated a document, where will you store it? A document automation solution should offer secure storage for your documents — or better yet, a seamless integration to your document management system (DMS), so that it can be promptly stored in the correct matter file.
For documents that are the same every single time, basic document automation capabilities will do the trick. But what about document types that occasionally include extra clauses or other variations from the standard format? This encompasses most legal documents.
To automate these more complex documents, you need to apply conditional logic. These rules allow you to display additional text, fields, or clauses in a document only when specific conditions are met.
This is a can’t-miss feature because conditional logic greatly expands your document automation opportunities.
There are many ways to automate document processes and workflows, but when we talk about document automation or document assembly, this is the central point: automatically populating document fields with data from another source. In other words, no more copy and paste!
In order to reuse data that has been entered into the system, it must have data tables to store the data. Within the data tables, edits can be made to the data as needed, and it can be reused multiple times, negating the need to re-enter the same data over and over again. This increases the time-saving gains from your automation system exponentially.
Work doesn’t always happen at work, which is why all your essential systems should be accessible on your preferred device, wherever you need to be.
When you’ve generated the rest of the document automatically, it only makes sense to automate the remaining steps of the process too. Sending the customized document off for electronic signature and then automatically and securely filing the signed document takes the process across the finish line!
Some features are nice-to-haves, but software integrations are absolutely essential. Your document automation solution should integrate seamlessly with your core platforms, such as your document management system, email management system, and practice management software.
Truly seamless solutions allow you to work directly within Microsoft Word to create automations. This can make the process significantly easier as it allows your team to work within an interface they’re already familiar with.
Keep in mind that most automation tools specialize in either Microsoft Word or PDF formats. If you expect to use both document formats, make sure the document automation software you choose will let you automate forms and documents in both Word and PDF formats.
If you want to create happy clients without lifting a finger, select an automation solution that allows clients to self-serve. With a self-service portal or online form, your clients — new or returning — can select the services they need and generate the fully customized document they need in minutes. All that’s left for your firm to do is collect the fee.
Legal work begins and ends with documents — that’s why document management and automation software are such critical systems to get right. But with so many options to choose from, how do you select the right one for your firm?
Use the list of document automation features above to help you determine which automation features are essential. Knowing your deal breakers will make it easier to quickly eliminate solutions that are not a good fit for your team.
If you’re looking for a document management system with document automation built-in, you’ll also want to explore the other features of the DMS to ensure it offers all the capabilities you need. Keep in mind that a cloud-based platform will offer the most flexibility when it comes to ease-of-access, third-party integrations, and more.
The cost of document automation software can range from inexpensive tools with basic features to higher-end products offering a robust suite of advanced automation capabilities. Pricing can also vary based on how many users you need, as well as whether you choose a standalone product or one that’s part of a practice management or document management platform.
Depending on your firm’s typical caseload, fee structure, and goals, the ROI on document automation can be significant for saving time, replicating expertise, improving work-life balance, and attracting and retaining top talent. You’ll also want to take these things into consideration as you go through the software selection process.
When it comes to document automation, you want a solution that fits well into your existing tech stack. If you choose a standalone product, having a strong API connection to your core platforms is absolutely essential. Without seamless integration, there will still be manual steps to the process as you transfer documents from the automation software to your document management system.
Alternatively, you can choose a document automation solution that’s built directly into your document management platform. With this option, your users can create fully-automated document assembly workflows — from intake to storage — without having to learn an entirely new user interface.
Software that’s too tough to learn often goes unused — and your investment goes down the drain. That’s why you want a no-code solution for document automation. No-code software gives lawyers the flexibility to create sophisticated, customized automations without requiring them to learn complex coding languages.
There’s no better way to get a feel for a software platform than trying it out. A test drive allows you to experience the software interface, explore the available features, and experiment with new workflows. Make sure to test drive any document management and/or automation software you consider adopting for your firm.
Any software you use to create or store confidential documents must be secure. Before selecting a document management or automation software solution, you should thoroughly vet the security capabilities.
It’s worth noting that, instead of managing all security needs in-house, many law firms are relying on third-party providers to support security and compliance. By selecting a DMS with robust built-in security, firms gain pass-through compliance certifications, more advanced capabilities, and quicker security updates.
Getting started with document automation can seem a bit daunting, but here’s the thing: it can be an absolute game changer for your firm. And besides, just because your legal expertise is extremely valuable to your clients doesn’t mean it has to be extremely laborious for your team.
With document automation, you can deliver high-quality legal services at scale while reducing the burden of tedious tasks. In fact, automating all that expertise is truly a win for everyone — your lawyers, your clients, your firm as a whole.
(Everyone, that is, except your competition.)
It should come as no surprise that automation is a fast-growing trend in the legal industry. And there’s no time like the present to take advantage of all the benefits document automation has to offer.
If you’re interested in exploring the possibilities of legal document automation at your firm, there are many software options available. One solution worth considering is PatternBuilder by NetDocuments.
Built directly into the cloud-based NetDocuments content management platform, PatternBuilder is a no-code legal document automation solution with advanced capabilities including conditional logic, end-to-end process automation, multilayer security and compliance certifications, and more.
Explore what PatternBuilder can do for your firm – schedule a demo.
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