19 May 2008

Cyberspace June 2008

Job satisfaction

Some people like routine, and, more importantly, repeating a process usually makes you better at it until you become an expert. However, some tasks in practice are repetitive, and you might consider whether they're candidates for some sort of automation. You probably know that most lending institutions or debt collection agencies have armies of clerical staff, technology, and only one lawyer to prepare documentation. At the same time, it's obvious to us that many things require the attention of a lawyer on an individual basis.

Large corporations with in-house legal teams face the same issues. A property developer retains consultants such as surveyors, water experts, interior decorators and others on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis. These agreements are usually in the tens of thousands of dollars, so must be managed. However, the risk in these contracts is usually relatively low (the risk usually arises in the selection of the consultant and the wording of the brief - not the terms upon which it is engaged).

Preparing documents can be tedious, but it's capable of automation. Microsoft Word has rudimentary document assembly in its merge feature. However, real document assembly software such as HotDocs (http://www.hotdocs.com) or Rapidocs (http://www.rapidocs.net) goes much further. You build "interviews" which collect information from the user to fill in blanks and customise the document. The interviews can change dynamically, adding or removing questions dependant on previous answers, and pull in clauses from a central library.

The ability to fill out a "package" of forms at once is a great feature if you have to prepare a few court forms at once. You can even fill in as much as you know now, and go back and fill in the blanks later. I can imagine that some lawyers are probably filling in the details during an interview with a client, resulting in a part or fully completed document by the time the client leaves the office.

You can set rules, such as "You can only retain a surveyor for less than $50,000 - after that you must get individual advice on the contract." The software might ask a question about whether one of the parties is a trust entity - if so, stop the process and get the legal department involved. Working out these rules is a critical component of the process, as is integrating with other systems you have. There's no point in re-typing a client's name or address when it's already stored in your practice management system.

Risk arises when non-legal staff amend precedent agreements or use them in ways not intended by the draughtsman. That means that you either have to remove the risk in allowing laymen to prepare contracts, or keep all contracting in the legal team. The latter will result in low job satisfaction for the lawyers, who will spend a disproportionate amount of time on low-value work. It also means that there is a delay to the business - they have to brief the legal team, await legal deliberation and finally use the resulting documents (which may require further amendment). However, if you don't adequately remove risk in delegating control over routine contract matters to the business units you end up with the legal team enhancing the likelihood of poor outcomes.

In a similar way, as a private practitioner you may have a steady stream of such work from a client or type of client. It's easy to do, low risk and pays the bills (eg: some Family Court documents might be candidates). Your client gets a useful document and knows that there is PI insurance standing behind you. You both benefit. If you can safely automate document production you reduce the time and risk spent, feel happier, and charge a per-unit rate that reflects the benefit to your client - not the hours you spent on it.