Document automation and knowledge management – preaching but not converting

The biggest successes in law office automation have always been the no-brainers. Projects where the benefits of the new technologies (such as wordprocessing and digital dictation) are so obvious they outweigh any reservations and are embraced by users without a fight – not least because they don’t seek to supplant the end-user but merely bring efficiencies to tasks they’ve always done. So, typists keep on typing but without having to retype entire documents every single time they are amended – and lawyers keep on dictating, without having to fret where the tape is in the transcription queue.

All of which prompts the question: why has there been no similar success in the fields of document drafting and knowledge management?

LexisNexis is currently making a fresh foray with into document automation with its new LexisDraft system and HotDocs has just launched a cloud service – but will they enjoy any greater success than earlier document assembly/automation initiatives?

What is odd is document drafting technology should be another no-brainer. Putting together a new document from clauses culled from earlier documents, law firm boilerplates, third-party precedents – and even choice wording spotted in other firms’ documents – is how lawyers have always operated and probably always will.

It used to be done by marking up old documents and then physically cutting and pasting clauses together. Now it can be done in a fraction of the time on screen. But why no similar success?

It is a similar story with knowledge management. Another should-be no-brainer. Rather than endlessly reinvent the wheel, lawyers have always drawn on their own and/or their firm or chambers’ intellectual capital when it comes to addressing legal problems. So, once again, why has the take-up/adoption – call it whatever you like – been less than successful in most law firms?

Could it all be down to branding and the fact the two disciplines are being “sold” to lawyers in such an unattractive way that it’s hardly surprising the buy-in is so poor.

The words “document assembly” mean very little to anyone, but “document automation” smacks a little too much of cutting the human element, the lawyer, out of the loop and heading down the road to de-skilling and, by implication, downsizing. When the first WP systems appeared, they were called “automatic typewriters”, a term redolent with will-the-last-secretary-turn-off-the-lights-when-they-leave before being rebranded as word processing. So why not call document automation what it really is: a far more lawyer friendly “digital drafting”?

Same goes for “knowledge management”. To a lawyer this sounds like some kind of filing system for law librarians – and given the obsession some firms have had with creating their taxonomies and legal thesauri, this is not an unreasonable assumption. Add in the fact that in the early days, KM systems were being “sold” to lawyers as a system that can capture all their know-how in case they were run over by a bus, and once more you are in the realms of trying to sell a product with a negative marketing message. What is knowledge management? It is a way in which fee earners can practice smarter lawyering – now that is something lawyers can buy into!

Charles Christian is a legal IT commentator and speaker with over 30 years knowledge of the industry. He is publisher and editor of the Legal IT Insider global legal tech industry newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @ChristianUncut.

One thought on “Document automation and knowledge management – preaching but not converting”

  1. I agree that lawyers tend to cobble together new agreements from a pick and mix approach to “earlier documents, law firm boilerplates, third-party precedents – and even choice wording spotted in other firms’ documents”.

    But what clients want is documents and agreements that they can read, understand, use and trust. Digital drafting provides is a quicker means to produce complex documents which clients only buy as a distress purchase. The wider question is how does it serve our clients actual business needs?

    Sarah Fox
    Author of the 500-Word Contract

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