Dennis Kennedy recently mentioned on his web site a new article on document assembly. It’s by Darryl R. Mountain, it’s called Disrupting Conventional Law Firm Business Models Using Document Assembly, and it can be found in the International Journal of Law and Information Technology. (A pdf version is available here.)
It’s a thoughtful article, but I’m not the intended audience—I’m already acutely aware that document assembly is a technology that could drastically change how law firms go about drafting contracts. And I’m also aware that in the U.S., law firms have been slow to embrace document assembly. So as I read the article, my mind wandered instead to a question that’s been on my mind intermittently over the past few years, namely when is someone going make a bet on an ambitious, broad-based document-assembly initiative?
With that in mind, I was very interested to see a notice by Richard Susskind, the writer on technology and the legal profession, in today’s Times of London. This is what Susskind had to say:
Lawyers are in the business of drafting documents and the time for wide-ranging systems to produce them automatically is almost upon us. For many non-lawyers, these systems are long overdue. Now a new document-assembly offering is on the market—PLC FastDraft by the Practical Law Company (www.practicallaw.com/1-203-1674).
The long-term impact of this type of technology cannot be overstated. From 1980 to 2000, the legal world made rather heavy weather of this challenge. But more recently, several tools have deservedly attracted much greater interest (such as DealBuilder at business-integrity.com and HotDocs at www.capsoft.co.uk), although the take-up has not been pervasive. Generally, for serious commercial work, it has been up to law firms or in-house counsel to buy the tools and build document generation systems themselves by inserting their own documents and expertise. The PLC FastDraft approach is different—on offer are finished, off-the-shelf sets of automated documents in given areas of law. Four modules are available (asset purchases, share purchases, leases and sale of land) and there is an ambitious pipeline of further applications.
This caught my eye because for the past five years I’ve sporadically—on my own and for a time with others—been attempting to drum up interest in the U.S. for such a document-assembly venture. To my knowledge, so far no one has been willing to commit to the idea. Certainly not law firms—the largest firms are sufficiently profitable that they have no reason to want to change, whereas the hungrier firms don’t have the resources. That’s why I’ve long believed that such a venture would have to stand alone. The people at PLC FastDraft would seem to be of the same mind.
Why am I so keen on this idea? For one thing, the economics are very attractive. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the way law firms draft contracts is profoundly inefficient. If a mid-market law firm were to subscribe to a document-assembly engine that allowed it to produce a broad range of corporate documents, that law firm would be able to produce customized first drafts very quickly while keeping its staffing lean. It would charge any client a premium hourly rate for any documents so drafted, but given how fast the system would work the client would still end up paying significantly less than it would have under the traditional system, meaning that the law firm could be more competitive. In addition, it could bill to other matters the time saved and thereby become more profitable.
And while quality by itself is unlikely to drive change in the legal profession, an independent document-assembly system could produce drafts that are of a far higher quality than those produced by the traditional system. For one thing, an essential element of any document-assembly initiative would be a rigorous drafting house style, which would ensure clarity and consistency. That’s what prompted me to write A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, which remains the logical candidate to act as the house style for any such initiative.
A third reason for my enthusiasm is that the time is ripe for this sort of venture. Whereas previous document-assembly initiatives got bogged down in developing their own software, sophisticated off-the-shelf document-assembly software is now available. And companies such as Cisco have become increasingly vocal in demanding that their outside counsel use technology to deliver legal services more efficiently. That makes it more likely that law firms would be willing to consider using an independent document-assembly library.
So what now? I’d like to start working again towards making this concept a reality. If you’re interested in participating, by all means contact me.