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Legal Document Automation Guide

What is legal document automation?
What are the benefits?
How can I start automating?

Legal Document Automation Guide

What is legal document automation?
What are the benefits?
How can I start automating?

Table of Contents

Law firms use document automation to rapidly draft and generate documents, including forms, agreements, letters, and other legal documents. In this guide, learn more about the benefits of law firm document automation, how to get started, features to look for in your software, and how to launch your document assembly tool in your law firm.

Legal document automation can provide many benefits for law firms, including saving time, reducing errors, reducing stress, and improving the quality of your work product.

Here, we discuss the basics of document automation software, document management best practices, and how you can (and why you should) implement it in your law firm.

Ready to get hands-on? Start your free trial of Gavel, or sign up for a free law firm document automation consultation.

What is Legal Document Automation?

Most lawyers, law firms, and legal professionals spend a significant amount of time drafting documents and forms (or reviewing and editing them, at the very least) on Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or using PDF forms. Then, there's the document management challenge of ensuring consistent naming and document storage.

However, with any word processing software, the attorney often ends up wasting time on looking for the right template, piecing language together from multiple documents, and entering client information.

Gavel infographic on "What is Document Automation?"

Legal document automation software automates some or all of this document generation process (that's right, you don't have to fully automate all your legal documents to benefit from legal document automation).

As a baseline, document automation is software that allows you to collect data and generate documents automatically, based on rules that you set up in the software. Many legal startup software platforms offer document automation that is built via legal workflows. Read about what document automation is here.

Legal Document Automation vs. Document Assembly

What is the difference between document assembly software and document automation software?

There are varying definitions of the term "document assembly," but most sources use that term to refer to the process of inserting data into a template with fillable fields to create a finished document.

Most sources would also agree that legal document automation is broader and more complex than document assembly. The term encompasses the process of automating your document drafting (including assembly), and it often refers to the automation of more complex documents or document sets.

For example, the most effective document automation platforms incorporate custom fields, complex logic, custom forms or questionnaires, and dynamic (adaptable) templates.

Most law firms are already using a form of automation

Whether they know it or not, almost every law firm is already automating their document drafting in some form.

At a basic level, using templates (or even keyboard shortcuts) is a simple form of automated document drafting.

Using automation software does not always require the creation of a 100% complete document. It can refer to partial drafting as well.

Many software platforms provide limited automation tools such as static templates, mail merge (using data from a spreadsheet to fill simple fields in a template), or using shortcuts to insert blocks of text (such as Microsoft Word's Quick Parts).

Law practice management platforms often offer automated templates as a form of document automation. These usually fit the "document assembly" category with static templates connected to the client data stored within the practice management software.

The fact that almost all law practice management tools include a document assembly software feature shows that more and more attorneys are using and benefitting from document automation.

How is it different than document management?

Standalone digital document management software serve a very distinct role.

While document assembly software and automation platforms help create legal documents, legal document management software focuses on the storage, organization, management, and tracking. Document management software allows for a searchable, central location for these records.

Automation software like Gavel also provides some document management functionality to name, organize, and store. Because Gavel has a public API and multiple integrations, it also seamlessly integrates with other records and document management software, as well as law firm practice management software.

The Benefits of Law Firm Document Automation

There are many benefits of implementing automation software for law firms, including:

Saving time on administrative tasks

When it comes to legal technology, legal automation has consistently been one of most tried-and-true tools for efficiency. 

Additionally, when it comes to specific law practices where drafting documents eats up a larger portion of time, legal document automation can play a key role in improving efficiency and reducing costs.

We were curious to know exactly how much time our clients saved, so we surveyed 50 lawyers in corporate law, family law, and estate planning. The results? By using Gavel's legal document automation software, they have saved upwards of 90 percent of the time they had previously spent on crafting legal documents

Consider a simple example: if you are creating a client intake form, you might use document automation to populate the form with information from your firm's database.

Your document automation platform should integrate with your legal practice management software (whether it uses something like our native Clio integration or a Zapier integration to connect with all your other software).

This would free up your time so that you could focus on more important tasks, such as meeting with the client and providing them with legal advice.

Improving the quality of work product

In addition to time, document automation can also improve the quality of your work product.

By automating the repetitive and error-prone tasks associated with document creation, you can focus on the meatier and more value-added aspects of your work.

Even attorneys who have templates can make errors when filling in client information. Or, if you use your previously drafted documents as a template, the "find and replace" function of your word processor will not always catch the previous client's information, especially if there are typos. Document automation reduces and often completely prevents these errors.

You will also reduce the rate of human error. No more wondering whether you forgot that choice-of-venue clause in your client's contract, or your associate accidentally used outdated language from a previous pleading. Implementing document automation tools helps you create dynamic document templates that standardize your language while also adapting to the specific facts of your client's situation.

Reducing stress

The benefits of document automation extend beyond time savings and improved work product. Automatically populate your legal forms to reduce stress, both for you and your team.

Creating a document from scratch is often a stressful and tedious task. In fact, many lawyers find the document creation process to be one of the most frustrating aspects of their job. This is especially true when deadlines are tight and the pressure is on to get the document right.

Document automation can take some of the stress out by automating repetitive tasks and ensuring that documents are error-free.

Lawyers are also often overworked, and document automation can help with that as well. If you are spending less time on administrative tasks, you will have more time to focus on billable work. This can lead to a healthier work-life balance and reduced stress levels.

Increasing the number of clients you can serve

In addition to reducing stress, document automation can also help you increase the number of clients you can serve.

If you are spending less time on drafting client documents, you will have more time for business development, and you'll have the capacity to handle more cases. This can actually lead to more billable hours and, as a result, more revenue for your firm.

Impress Your Clients

After implementing document automation software, your clients will be impressed with the professional quality and quick turnaround of your legal work. This will reflect well on your firm and may lead to more referrals.

In a recent survey ranging from solo law firms to the AmLaw 50, 75% of attorneys received unsolicited compliments from their clients about the efficiency and clarity of the intake process built on their legal automation software (Gavel, of course!).

Improving Your Law Firm's KPIs

Document automation can also help improve your firm's key performance indicators (KPIs).

Here's just a few of the KPIs that you can improve by using the right software:

  1. Utilization rate. Number of hours billed divided by hours in the workday.
  2. Realization rate. The hours that end up on the final invoice vs. the hours actually worked.
  3. Collection rate. The number of invoiced hours collected divided by the total invoiced hours.
  4. Billable hours. Some attorneys assume that increased productivity means less billable hours, but that's generally not the case. You are usually saving time that would have been written down or uncollected, and any extra time allows you to increase the number of clients you serve.

How to Implement Legal Document Automation Software

Document automation can be a challenge to implement, but there are many ways to do it effectively. Legal document automation can help you achieve your goals and improve your bottom line.

Here are some tips on how to implement automation to create documents in your law firm:

Identify your goals

Before you start automating your documents, it's important to take a step back and identify your goals.

What do you hope to achieve by automating your documents? Once you have a clear understanding of your goals, you can choose the right software and tools to help.

Analyze your workflow

The next step is to analyze your workflow.

How do you currently create and manage your documents? What bottlenecks or pain points exist in your process?

Automating your documents will be much easier if you have a clear understanding of how your workflow currently works.

Choose the right document automation software

There are many different types of document automation software on the market, so it's important to choose the right one for your needs.

Do you want a cloud-based platform (usually easy to learn) or on-premise (often requires a developer to implement)? Does the new software work with the technology you already use? Does it have a public API that allows it to connect with any legal practice management software? If it's robust enough, it could even replace your law practice management software.

We cover this in more detail in the section below.

Train your staff

Once you have chosen the right software, it's important to train your staff on how to use it.

Document automation can be a big change for law firms, so it's also important that you get team buy-in. The right training can help get everyone on board and comfortable with using a new system.

Make sure to use the training resources available from the platform.

Most software companies offer free training and support to get you started.

Monitor and optimize

After you have implemented document automation, it's important to monitor your process and make sure it's working as efficiently as possible.

Are there any areas where you can improve? Are there any bottlenecks in your process?

Regularly monitoring your procedure will help ensure that you're getting the most out of your software.

What is the right software for your firm?

There are multiple software platforms on the market, so choosing the right one to automate document creation for your law firm operations is key. We've curated a cross-industry list of best document automation software that may be helpful for you to understand your breadth of options.

Here are the primary considerations we see at Gavel, not only when people first decide to automate, but also after they fully embed and understand the most critical features to their practice area:

1. Supported Document Types.

Which document types are supported? Does the platform support all Word, docx and PDF documents?

If you already have Microsoft Word templates, you will want to make sure that they also have a Word add-in that you can use to easily create documents so that you can maintain all the formatting in your legacy documents. If you work with PDF legal forms and court documents, make sure they support PDFs as the input document. Many platforms support turning a Word document into a PDF document, but they may not support using the court form in the first instance.

2. How Robust is the Document Generation?

On robustness, the primary considerations are (1) how complex can the logic get, and (2) how many documents can you generate at once (some only allow one template at a time) and how customizable is this?

With respect to logic, here are other benefits you should be looking at so you can automatically populate forms based on legal issues stemming from your matter:

  • Question logic (to determine which questions and data points will be gathered based on other data in a particular matter).
  • Page logic (to determine which categories and groupings of questions will be shown).
  • Output document logic (which docs are generated from a particular automation workflow).
  • Internal document logic (how should the document actually be generated? This may be the most critical, so make sure this is highly customizable).

Now that you've verified that all of these types of logic are possible, make sure that within that logic and the document rules, you can set up:

  • Simple variables (like mail merge) and format those (e.g., automatically capitalizing specific instances of a variable or formatting a number with a specific number of decimals).
  • Conditional logic to determine what portions of a document should show/not show. Make sure the conditional logic can be nested with no limitations as to how many layers of nesting is possible.
  • Date calculations to calculate the amount of time (days/years) that have passed between two dates or to add or subtract time from a date).
  • Numerical calculations to add/subtract/multiply/divide different numbers that you may have collected in the matter's workflow.
  • Repeating items/lists. Are you collecting a list of children? Do each of those children have their own assets? These are lists (or "repeating items") within repeating items. Make sure the platform supports this and allows a variety of ways to output this data into your documents and workflow.
3. Ease of Use.

It is critical that this platform be intuitive. For example, Documate has a free trial that allows you to see how easy it is to set up. There is also unlimited customer support by email, phone, screenshare, and a Slack community here.

4. Client-Facing Capability.

Can you send your questionnaires out to clients, have them answer the questions on a mobile-friendly interface, and then get the assembled documents back with all the data stored in the platform? This will help save time and meets the digital convenience that clients will expect.

5. Ability to White-label.

Whether you're using the software internally or externally, you may wish to maintain internal brand guidelines. If this is important to you, check to see if the software allows you to add your own logo and favicon.

6. Integrations and Public API.

A public API (application programming interface) is the gold standard, as it allows seamless integration with any other software that also has an API. The open API should allow for pulling information (including custom fields), pushing out data, and allowing the most recent version of any new documents to be posted to the software of choice.

7. Electronic Signatures.

Does the platform support electronic signatures, and do you want to use their internal signature function or integrate with a platform like DocuSign? Documate has both an internal signature function that allows users to sign directly on the screen (helpful for court legal forms that may not accept e-signatures), and it also integrates with DocuSign.

8. Is it cloud-based or on-premise?

While this used to be a more debated question a couple of years ago, cloud-based platforms have become standard in the legal industry and it is very rare for a firm to prefer on-premise solutions.

Whether or not you go cloud-based (you should!), make sure to ask the vendor for their security documentation to ensure you're meeting any ethical obligation, and also ensure that the data storage is adequate for your matter management.

9. Client Portal.

Can your clients log into a cloud-based platform, store data and have questionnaires shared by you with them? If you're creating an online legal services platform, this is an important one that Documate provides.

Can you use document automation in your practice area?

The short answer is yes. We discussed above how almost every attorney is using some form of automation in the document drafting process to create automated legal documents (whether they know it or not).

The key is to understand that you do not have to fully automate your document drafting.

Sometimes you may only want to automate a "skeleton document" containing essential headings, formatting, and/or certain blocks of text.

Keeping this in mind, here are some of the most common practice areas where attorneys are already using automation platforms:

What legal documents should I automate first?

If you are new to automation, start with easy documents while you learn how to use your platform.

Here are some frequently used documents:

  • Client intake forms (can be PDF, Microsoft Word, or even automate into an email)
  • Client contracts/engagement agreements
  • Court forms
  • Demand letters
  • Simple contracts
  • PDF forms
  • Employee handbooks
  • Employee onboarding forms
  • Wills
  • Trusts
  • Healthcare directives
  • Power of attorney forms
  • Settlement agreements
  • Probate petitions
  • Standard motions (in various practice areas)
  • Medical record requests
  • Discovery requests
  • Jury instructions

The Bottom Line on Legal Document Automation

Whether you have a solo law firm or you work in a legal department with hundreds of people, document automation can be a game-changer when implemented with the right platform.

If you are ready to streamline your practice and increase efficiency by 90%, start your free trial of Gavel today. Want some hands-on instruction? Sign up for a demo here.

Written By: Dorna Moini and Molly Anderson

Dorna Moini is an attorney and the CEO and founder of Documate, a no-code platform for building document automation and client-facing web applications for the law. Prior to starting Documate, Dorna was a litigator at Sidley Austin. There, in her pro bono practice, she worked with legal aid organizations to build a web application for domestic violence survivors to complete and file their paperwork, which led to the idea for Documate. Dorna also teaches the Legal Innovations Lab at USC Law School.

Molly Anderson is an experienced attorney with a passion for bringing creativity and innovation to the practice of law. She practiced law for over 10 years, with experience in complex civil litigation, small business representation, and local government law. In recent years, Molly has focused on using legal technology to improve the legal industry.  She became passionate about legal innovation when designing and running her client-centered law firm.  Molly now uses her experience to educate other attorneys and encourage innovation as the Director of Content Strategy at Documate.

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