What is document automation? And how can SME law firms leverage it to generate competitive advantage?

(Blog post on document automation for SME law firms originally published in August 2017 here.

Written in advance of Thomson Reuters Live Webinar on the topic. The live webinar in which I spoke is available here and the recording and presentation are also here.)

Back in a May 2017 industry analysis piece (‘Don’t Dodge a Faster Draft’) for Legal Practice Magazine, I concluded that the question for SME law firms shouldn’t be, ‘Are you using automation technologies?’ but ‘Can you afford not to?’
Yet despite the increased challenges of serving clients profitably (the second greatest challenge for SME law firms in Thomson Reuters Legal UK & Ireland’s 2016 report: ‘Pedal harder, pedal smarter’), and attention that firms are giving to generating efficiencies in other areas of workflow (e.g. matter management), document automation remains underutilised in SME firms. Indeed, according to Briefing Magazine’s 2016 report, ‘Solving the automation puzzle’, even where document automation tools were used firm-wide, just 2% of surveyed firms said these were fully utilised.

So what is document automation and why should the SME law firm make it a core part of their armoury?

What is document automation?

At its most basic level, document automation is a software solution enabling users to create first draft documents more quickly and accurately than manual approaches. There are a variety of tools that users can use to automate the drafting process. Users drafting the documents can in some cases complete a questionnaire or Q&A form to enter transactional data. Party names, key dates, deal amounts and percentages can be inputted to drive the inclusion of certain clauses or paragraphs in the document. Questionnaires can act as dynamic decision trees guiding the user through transactional data. Responses can create a suite of related documents sharing this data. The data can also be captured for reuse, as well as for reporting.

‘Time savings of 80% in creating a document’

At Thomson Reuters we have a number of drafting and document automation solutions. Contract Express provides a well-maintained precedent bank containing all the automated documents for a piece of work, providing time savings of 80% in creating a document, compared with the time for traditional methods. Drafting Assistant can also check for citation and proofing errors, with the help of the Westlaw UK and Practical Law integrations, right within Word, saving yet more drafting time.

Our solutions also provide a pathway to full automation. Firms can begin with proofing and checking tools and standard precedents, such as those included in Practical Law, and progress to full customisation of their own documents using questionnaire approaches via Contract Express. They can also then use these to collaborate directly with clients. Lawyers can access templates anywhere, any time, and make key gains around speed, efficiency, and accuracy.

… And why should SME law firms embrace document automation?

‘Pedal harder, pedal smarter’ highlighted serving clients profitably as the second greatest challenge for SME law firms. But for the lucky firms with clients coming through the door, it will be the greatest. How can firms address increasing client demand for better, faster, cheaper legal services?

‘60% of legal time is spent on drafting

A bread-and-butter element of lawyers’ work, up to 60% of legal time is spent on drafting. Yet many lawyers admit they lack the time to check this work. They feel under pressure to deliver more. In this context, it is astonishing that more firms have not looked more closely at document automation. Reimagining the drafting workflow is central to reducing the cost of service delivery. What would you do if you had back the savings of 82% of drafting time that Contract Express could provide you with? Imagine the additional documents that could be drafted, the additional efficiencies and revenues gained?

But it’s not just about managing profitability. Providing the best possible client service is critical to business survival, growth, and competitive advantage. Firms cannot afford to skimp on service in a market where there is wide availability of potential substitutes. Clients expect value and expect their lawyers to creatively use tools that generate this. Tools in drafting automation solutions – citation checking, proofreading – enable accuracy, management of risk, and high quality. This directly translates to client satisfaction. Firms can free up time for fee earners to engage in added value activities, to build strong client relationships, and to look for new business. So, again I ask, ‘Can you afford not to embrace automation?’