Law Firms and Document Assembly: Q&A with Ken Grady of SeyfarthLean Consulting LLC

Ken_GradyAt the ReInvent Law conference in New York earlier this month, I found myself sitting in front of a group of people from the law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP, or rather, from its consulting arm, SeyfarthLean Consulting LLC. I ended up chatting with Ken Grady, the CEO. (That’s him to the left.) Because I’ve long been aware of Seyfarth’s interest in document automation, I thought it would be a good idea to do a Q&A with Ken, and that’s what you’ll find below. Perhaps it will inspire other law firms to take a closer look at document assembly (while paying equal attention, of course, to the language loaded onto any document-assembly system).

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Q: Tell my readers about your background.

A: Today, I’m CEO of SeyfarthLean Consulting LLC, a subsidiary of the law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP. I joined Seyfarth in September 2013, after I retired from Wolverine Worldwide, where I had been general counsel. Including Wolverine Worldwide, I was in-house counsel for 20 years, most of that time as general counsel at three different Fortune 1000-size companies. Before going in-house, I was in private practice, ending up as a partner at an AmLaw 100 firm. The first company where I worked (Fortune 500) moved me into operations management for a while, which gave me the opportunity to learn lean thinking in the U.S and Japan. As a result, I’ve been using lean in the practice of law for 20 years.

Q: What is Seyfarth doing with document assembly?

A: Document assembly, or document automation, is part of a large suite of methodologies and strategies we bring to clients under our SeyfarthLean umbrella. Almost 10 years ago, we started using lean six sigma, evolving it into process improvement for the legal industry. We added agile project management and proprietary technology solutions to build a robust approach to improving efficiency and quality, and reducing risk, in delivering legal services. To those dimensions, we have added proactive solutions, which we call Architected Solutions, and other strategies designed to help organizations improve performance and reduce risk.

Seyfarth uses document assembly to address process steps where brute labor solutions do not make sense. By that I mean, traditionally we have used associates or paralegals to do document-automation-type work. They have worked from forms, templates, and checklists to assemble documents. The labor costs are high and controlling quality is more challenging. By identifying those opportunities and replacing them with document automation, we free up in-house attorney and paralegal time to focus on where they add value. The automation process improves quality, and at the same time significantly cuts down the cost of preparing each “thing” (think of a thing as a unit – a document). We can use the same approach within the firm to reduce document preparation time and achieve consistent quality with fewer resources.

Q: What document-assembly software do you use, and why?

A: We use ContractExpress as our primary document-assembly software today. We still have many applications running on HotDocs, and certain practice groups continue using HotDocs to maintain compatibility with applications previously built. Though not a document-assembly program, we also use an augmented version of Neota Logic as a front-end decision-tree application working in combination with ContractExpress.

We use several criteria when we evaluate software packages. We look for strong programs that will give us a flexible solution, work within our overall client-solution environment, and help us deliver cost-effective solutions to clients. Because we deliver a suite of proprietary solutions to our clients through an interactive custom portal, all third-party software solutions must be compatible with that portal. Because of the time we spend working with the software developing custom client solutions, we also want software we think has staying power in the market.

Q: What determines whether a project is suited to document assembly?

A: For Seyfarth, the first question always is, “what does the client need?” If we have a client with a specific need, we will look to that opportunity as a way to use any or all of our tools, including document assembly. Beyond client need, we look at many factors.  For example, we look across clients for opportunities that would address an issue many clients face, even if each client faces it infrequently.

This second type of opportunity can lead us to develop solutions used within the firm rather than directly with clients. If our attorneys frequently draft a certain type of document and there is enough consistency across drafters, it might be a good opportunity to use document assembly. We also look at document assembly in the context of process simplification. For example, some clients have asked us to help reduce law department workloads by applying combinations of project management, process improvement, and technology solutions. A department may get a large volume of similar questions, which lead to drafting certain documents. We may use a combination of interactive decision-tree logic and document-automation software to develop custom solutions to reduce the volume of calls to a law department.

Q: What’s the proportion of projects for clients versus projects for use by your lawyers?

A: We don’t track our solutions along those lines, but I would say the majority of our projects are for clients. Our culture strongly favors focusing on clients and solutions that improve the delivery of legal services to those clients. As a result, there is a bias in our system causing us to look first to client pain points and ask how we can address those pain points.

We do see, however, a growing trend among firm lawyers to move towards document automation. As they see the success we have with clients, they see more internal opportunities. This is part of a broader trend we call intraprenuership. Intrapraneuriship involves lawyers finding creative ways to use our SeyfarthLean philosophy, methodologies, and strategies to improve the delivery of legal services and enhance their roles as trusted advisors. We also find our skill at developing solutions increases each day, helping us become more efficient at building both external and internal document automation solutions.

Q: Have you devoted any resources to the language used in document assembly, so you don’t have a garbage-in-garbage-out problem?

A: Yes, we spend significant time on the content of the documents. As a law firm, we strive for high-quality work product in everything we do. Our SeyfarthLean approach gives us a solid platform to focus efficiently on quality. When we develop document-automation solutions, our initial focus is on content. We may have many attorneys working on content, reviewing and tweaking it to make sure we are comfortable with the base document. We also put a lot of effort into developing the decision-tree logic.

For example, we developed a separation agreement using document automation. Because we are a multinational law firm and our labor and employment practice touches all 50 states, we took our time to make sure the final product worked well in each state. That effort involved many of our attorneys. We also have a back-end quality process to check documents coming out of the system. A reviewing attorney can quickly check to make sure the language unique to that agreement was properly selected and inserted.

Q: Have you encountered resistance from lawyers who feel that document assembly strips them of some autonomy?

A: A big part of implementing document automation is addressing culture change. When the culture changes, part of the participating population will be more resistant to change than the rest. That resistance is normal, and we anticipate it going into each project. At a certain level, the question comes down to whether the variability, which you called autonomy, adds value or is wasteful. If it adds value, then we want to capture it in our document automation by, for example, adding alternative clauses the user can select. If it is wasteful, by offering variability without benefit, then we want to remove the variability, so we increase quality and reduce waste. Once we conquer fear of the unknown and show the benefits of automation, those who may have been skeptical at the outset seem to become supporters. Client enthusiasm is a powerful curative when it comes to lawyer skepticism.

Q: Have you done any cost-benefit analyses for your document-assembly projects?

A: At this stage, the benefits of most document automation projects so clearly outweigh the costs we don’t need to do a formal cost-benefit analysis. Even in situations where the balance may be closer or even fall on the side of more cost than benefit in the near term, we think it is important to invest in developing this area—our knowledge of our clients’ processes—so we move forward. I think, as we get deeper into using document automation, the question will become which of our many solutions provides the appropriate cost-benefit mix for a particular situation. Sometimes, process improvement through process mapping, task reduction or elimination, and workflow changes offers a better approach than simply automating a weak process. Other times, simple document automation combined with process improvement is the appropriate solution.

Q: Where does the future of document assembly look like to you?

A: I think document automation will grow and spread at a fairly steady rate. If you look across the broad spectrum of documents lawyers produce each day, there is a tremendous opportunity for at least partially automating converting many or even most of those documents. The hurdle today is not the technology, at least for most basic documents. Rather, the hurdle lies in transferring the logic, analysis, and knowledge that reside in lawyers’ minds into the decision trees underlying document automation. As we see software such as Neota Logic become available to help with the decision-tree process on the front end, the range of possibilities for document automation quickly grows.

Q: Thank you, Ken, for taking the time to do this.

A: My pleasure!

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.