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[Note: This column was originally published by the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section of the American Bar Association in Probate & Property, Vol. 14, No. 4 (July/August 2000).]
Computerized Document Drafting
By Daniel B. Evans, Technology-Probate
Probate & Property
Past columns have covered systems sold with "pre-programmed" forms for drafting wills, trusts and other estate planning documents. (See "Windows Software for Estate Drafting," July/August 1998, and "More New Document Drafting Systems," March/April 1999. Also see the note at the end of this column about Internet access to past columns.) This column considers some of the tools available for a law firm that chooses a "do-it-yourself" approach for some or all of its computerized document drafting needs.
What Kind of Software?
A firm that decides to automate its own forms must consider what type of software is most suitable to its needs. Several different types of software are potential candidates.
Word processing programs. One approach uses the
"merge," "macro" or other programming-like
capabilities of a word processing program to create a drafting
system. For example, the merge process in WordPerfect and
Microsoft Word can be used to fill in the blanks in forms.
The advantage of this approach is that the firm already owns the necessary software, so very little out-of-pocket cost is involved. It may not take much time to set up if all that is needed is the ability to fill in the blanks in a series of forms. Creating a sophisticated automated system using nothing but word processing software, however, can be tedious and time consuming.
Case management tools. Most case management and general purpose office automation systems now have or claim to have "document generation" features that one can use to create documents from the client and case data entered into the system. These features are usually of two types. The more common type acts as a kind of "front end" for a word processor or document drafting "engine" (described below), taking data from the database created by the case management system and using the "merge" features of the word processor to insert the data into forms. Some other systems may generate documents independently of a word processor, inserting the appropriate client and case data and saving the file as a text file. Both kinds of case management systems make it easier to create simple drafting systems that work with word processing programs alone, but may not be able to create a system that selects alternate clauses, calculates answers or performs other complex functions.
Document drafting "engines" or "shells." Finally, some software companies have created specialized software to automate document drafting or assembly. These programs act as a platform for the user to create a drafting system, but do not necessarily include any legal forms. These kinds of systems usually contain sophisticated features not found in general purpose word processing programs, such as the ability to write dates in different ways, to select the genders for pronouns automatically or to convert dollar amounts into words. More importantly, these programs should make it easier to create and save the logic of the decisions that must be made in drafting the document.
Which Software to Use?
Many lawyers get all wrapped up in the choice of what software to use, although this may be the least significant of all of the decisions to make. The selection of software is often insignificant because the most important and time consuming part of the process is the collection and organization of the forms to be automated. Well organized forms can usually be automated within a number of different systems. Also, the most important feature of drafting software may be the ability of the software to work with other software that the law firm uses, such as word processing and case management software. That compatibility may be so important that the other features of the software are irrelevant.
Word processor compatibility. If documents are to be edited before being printed, then it is important for the document drafting system to create documents in the word processing format that the firm already uses. The alternative is to convert forms to a different format (usually messy) or use two different word processing programs in different parts of the firm (also messy, and possibly confusing to lawyers and staff). Fortunately, the majority of law firms today use either Microsoft Word or Corel's WordPerfect, so word processor compatibility is usually not an issue.
Case management compatibility. If a firm already has a client database, whether by way of a case management system or a customized database system, it may be beneficial for the document drafting system to be able to use client and case data from the existing database system, and perhaps also transfer data from the document drafting system back to the existing database. This is to avoid re-entering data or maintaining duplicate databases.
Selecting alternate provisions. Different document drafting systems have different ways of selecting alternate provisions or clauses for documents, and the selected system should use a method that is suitable to the firm's needs.
Checklists. Some software uses a "checklist" type of system, where the user can select from a large number of different provisions. That kind of system might be appropriate for documents such as pleadings, where there can be a large number of alternatives and there is not necessarily any logic or pattern to which provisions to include and which to exclude for any particular case.
Outline. Other programs use an "outline" or "decision tree" approach, where some early selections can exclude later possible selections. That kind of program seems to be more suitable for documents, such as wills and trusts, that have a greater need for internal consistency.
Gender. A common problem is getting the gender of pronouns to agree with the genders of the various parties named in the documents, and most programs have a way of dealing with this issue.
Number. Dealing with different numbers of parties in a document, or different numbers of things named in the document, can create problems that some programs deal with more easily than others. For example, different numbers of trustees for a trust may require different numbers of signature lines. The executors appointed by a will may require a reference to "A" or "A and B" or "A, B and C," depending on the number of executors, and may also require changes to verbs from singular to plural to agree with the subjects of the verbs. These problems might seem like details, but may need to be addressed for documents to be grammatically correct.
Calculations and logic. To reduce the amount of information to be typed in, the program should be able to convert the information to different forms, perform calculations with the data and perhaps apply logic to eliminate questions that are redundant or unnecessary. For example, a program may be able to convert numbers to words, so that amounts can be written as both words and numbers (which lawyers like to do). And a program might be able to "know" not to ask for the name of the spouse, or what marital deduction formula to use, once the program has been "told" that the client is not married.
Managing the System
Even if you choose the "right" software, you will still run into problems if you do not manage your system well.
Think big, start small. One
common mistake is to get too ambitious and try to start out creating
the ultimate will drafting system. Start with one commonly used and
relatively simple form and automate it first. A durable power of
attorney is usually a good test. Use it for a while and work out the
bugs. If problems are discovered, either because the form does not
cover common situations or because software or hardware
incompatibilities exist, solve those problems and get comfortable
with the system before moving on to something more complicated.
When creating a system for more complicated documents, such as wills and revocable trusts, it may be better to start with the most complete form (such as one with a marital deduction formula, bypass trust, marital trust, trusts for children and a corporate co-iduciary) and then work backwards, adding the questions or conditions that are needed to remove provisions to create a simpler form of will or trust.
Keep the system efficient. In this as in all
automation efforts, it is a good idea to remember the 80/20 rule. It
usually takes 20% of the total effort to achieve 80% of the result,
and 80% of the total effort to achieve only 20% of the result. Thus,
it is possible to create a drafting system that will handle 80% of
all client problems after only 20% of the work is complete. To
automate the forms to serve the last 20% of the clients will take
80% of the total effort, or four times more work than serving 80% of
As a practical matter, trying to make a system handle all possible drafting situations will make the system too complex to be usable. Lawyers will get tired of answering questions that never seem to apply to what they are working on, and may go back to drafting by the old cut-and-paste method if the system is too complicated. The system must not include more questions or options than are necessary to serve most of the clients most (not all) of the time.
Document Drafting Software
The following programs are document drafting "engines" or "shells" that lawyers can use to automate their own forms. Some of these publishers may also have pre-programmed forms for sale that can be adapted by the user.
InterActive Professional Software
HotDocs and Capsoft
Intercon Associates, Inc.
The Technology Group, Inc.
Want to look up past columns? For the last four years, the Section has put the text of columns on the Internet as they were published. An index of past columns, and the software covered by those columns, is now available through the Technology and Economics (K-2) Committee, at http://www.abanet.org/rppt/cwp.html.
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Evans Law Office
Daniel B. Evans, Attorney at Law
P.O. Box 27370
Philadelphia, PA 19118
Telephone: (866) 348-4250