I have been working with law firms for a long time now – around 30 years. Over that period, technology has changed how we work a great deal but the way documents are produced and shared has remained pretty much the same. In particular, documents may be drafted from precedents, proofed and shared with other lawyers and clients with greater speed, but the mechanics of production have remained fairly static to date. However, as working in the cloud becomes accepted, alongside live collaboration on documents, there are some big changes on the way.
In this article I look at what is evolving in the world of document drafting, what steps need to be taken to prepare for this, and how web technologies can offer new opportunities to improve production processes and offer new services for clients, particularly with the growing impetus to share and collaborate on documents online in real-time, on both websites and on mobile devices.
In these days of new media, it is easy to forget that it is still the quality of legal documents that is at the heart of legal service. Clients need to be able to rely on well-crafted documents and agreements produced as efficiently as possible. Clients also want greater visibility of the drafting and production process. They want to collaborate faster and get results quickly, making sure they get value for money.
In the world of cloud computing it is now entirely possible to post a document to a shared workspace and have both clients and colleagues editing and noting changes in real-time. However, law firms need to be confident that their documents are high quality and error free and that a document shared with their client will reflect well on their reputation.
With the move towards cloud-based services and Internet integration we can use the Internet to help us deliver documents and through them legal services, more efficiently.
To take advantage of the way the internet is changing the way we work, there are some fundamental processes in document production that need to be reviewed to both minimize risk and prepare for a new way of working. I’m going to look at a few ways that we at LexisNexis are helping firms improve the document production process.
At the heart of all documents there are 2 important elements, the content (of course) and the structure of the document. While there is no question that content is king (hence the need for good precedents and research solutions) it is often forgotten that a good template structure is also vital. If a document doesn’t have a good house style, numbering can go awry, the content can be misinterpreted and time, effort and reputation are at risk.
This used to be the concern of the back-office team, but as more and more lawyers are drafting and correcting their own documents, it’s now incredibly important that both the content and structure of the documents are understood by everyone working on them.
If you haven’t already joined, have a look at the UK Document Excellence Group website (UKEG). This is a not-for-profit user group established 10 years ago by like-minded individuals working for law firms wrestling with document production issues and is run entirely by volunteers.
LexisNexis have been supporters of the UKDEG standard for some time now and we are making sure all LexisNexis precedent content is downloadable in UKDEG format, making it easy to integrate with your own house style.
We have also been helping firms develop their house style. This enables them to download Lexis documents in their own templates, ready for use. This can make a huge difference. Through this process we can often spot improvements that can be made to house style templates so that not only Lexis documents, but all the firm’s document production is improved.
Checking the draft
Being efficient means re-using and recycling wherever possible but how do you make sure you are up to date? How do you check for errors quickly when a deadline is looming?
Our own solution is the LexisDraft product. This is a simple Word toolbar that allows lawyers to check both content and structure of their drafts for inaccuracies (such as inconsistent numbering, editing mistakes, etc.) and to check citations to cases and legislation for currency. Draft also gives access to selected Lexis precedents from within Word itself.
Tools such as Draft become part of the normal Word environment. You no longer have to go to a website to get to content, they bring content and proofing services to you as and when you need them.
As tools become more agile and easy to use, document automation has really started to take off and lawyers expect to be able to produce many documents now by completing a questionnaire. This reduces errors and also time spent assembling not only simple documents, such as wills, but also complex suites of documents, such as a Share Purchase Agreement. Automating a document (or document suite) will take time, not because of the technology, but because it means taking a careful look at existing documents and processes. It does take effort to get right but once in place this allows for more work to be delegated and streamlined and also for more services to be offered direct to clients via the web. If you haven’t yet got document automation, then it is a good time to start including it in your strategy.
”Document assembly is and will remain forever a fundamental technology. If one looks at the heart of legal work, it’s about the production of documents and document assembly is an enabling tool that automates and streamlines that process.” (Richard Susskind OBE in Legal Technology Journal)
To start with, just automate some simple parts of the document process and build up gradually. Many projects fail because they are overcomplicated. It may be better to keep some of the more complex parts away from the automation process, so that junior staff can compile the more basic elements and then pass it on to senior lawyers for the next stage.
Do also consider maintenance. It’s all very well automating a document or suite of documents, but how do you keep them up to date? Don’t forget to plan for review and maintenance.
The Lexis team has a comprehensive suite available. However, firms may also want help developing their own tailored suites of documents. We work with our customers to offer Lexis®Smart Bespoke automation services. This offers great opportunities for savings and for working collaboratively with clients.
Mobile and cloud
As mobile devices become a standard part of the lawyer’s toolkit, then taking documents with you wherever you go is becoming a standard part of the way we work. Where documents have been automated this can be a fantastic benefit; clients can answer a series of questions, have a discussion and a draft can be produced in a meeting. It’s a great way of doing business and impressive for the client.
Taking Word documents onto a mobile device is now more common but not all the formatting will look the same on different devices. Check how the document will be rendered on a mobile device before sharing.
With cloud services, it is now much easier to have shared workspaces on the web where you can collaborate in real time with both clients and colleagues. Editing in real time is much easier and again offers both opportunities and risks. Making sure that the drafts you share in the cloud are both structured correctly and have been fully proofed can help to mitigate those risks.
We are also seeing increased take-up of our Lexis®Smart White Label service which helps our customers provide self-service documents to clients via their websites. Richard Susskind predicted that this would become a major revenue stream for the future:
“Packaged on-line legal services can give rise to substantial income and profit; indeed, on some occasions, much greater profit than is possible when selling one’s time on an hourly basis.” (Richard Susskind OBE in Legal Technology Journal)
Now the age of online services is well and truly with us, this will become a standard part of the way we work, whether offering services direct to clients or as part of the trend towards collaborative working.
Real-time collaborative working is already here. Here are some points for action:
- Set up a consistent house style; review and benchmark this using the UKDEG initiative
- Make sure your documents retain their look and feel when going mobile and on the web
- Take a look at cloud collaboration and Office 365. Make sure you plan for client demand and make sure your documents are protected when you move into collaborative working.
- Think about the drafting process, look at your production and make sure that proofing is integrated into new ways of working
- Plan for automation, automate sensibly wherever possible, talk to your clients and customers about their requirements and develop your strategy, not forgetting review and maintenance.
Make sure that all your lawyers have sufficient training in document production and collaboration. Clients are now starting to demand evidence that their lawyers are technically competent and law firms are developing competency standards to provide reassurance. Have a look at the LTC4 initiative – Legal Technology Core Competencies Certification Coalition. This is an exciting collaboration of over 70 law firms, who are developing training standards to meet the requirements of this new era mobile working.
Ann Hemming is a Product Implementation Consultant with LexisNexis. Ann has worked as a consultant and knowledge management and learning and development professional with a number of law firms and suppliers.