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Crowdsourcing Document Assembly Apps to Build the NextGen Law Library

How the Minnesota State Bar Association is using document assembly to grow their online law library and compete with LegalZoom.

By Thomas F. Officer

May 3, 2019

Mike Carlson, Attorney Editor at MSBA

The impact of document assembly apps on the legal industry is growing. More and more lawyers use document assembly technology to streamline work and cut down on drafting errors. Meanwhile companies like LegalZoom are seeing record growth as more Americans seek legal help through online self-help tools. How do more lawyers take advantage of this new wave of change in legal service delivery? That’s exactly the question Mike Carlson is working to answer.

A vision for the next generation law library

Mike Carlson is the Attorney Editor at the Minnesota State Bar Association (MSBA), a voluntary organization that includes approximately 50% of all attorneys in Minnesota. One of the bar's most popular member benefits is the Practice Law Library (the Library), an online collection of legal documents and forms.

Before joining the MSBA, Mike worked at Thomson Reuters as a WestLaw reference attorney. That’s where he discovered the potential of document assembly.

"When you look up a form on Westlaw you have a couple of options: you can click on the link for Easy Edit, which allows you to open up the document in a Word editor and edit it directly, or you can click a link to Build it Now that allows you to assemble the document right on Westlaw. When I came to the Bar Association, I knew that ease of editing and creating legal documents was something I wanted for our members."

The challenge

Part of the reason why the Library is so useful is that it includes rare, jurisdiction-specific legal documents.

"The Library is not a collection of all the most popular documents, like you might find on Westlaw. Instead, it has the practical, less popular documents that are used by our members in their daily practice."

Where else could you find a template for a Gun Trust except from the handful of Minnesota attorneys who understand how this complicated legal process works? Thankfully, MSBA members are active participants in the Library community, and it's not uncommon for one member to ask for assistance and for another to respond by sharing a model template. It’s then Mike’s job to take that model template and connect it to a document assembly program that can help lawyers quickly complete the template.

Mike's goal is for every template in the Library to have an associated document assembler. That way members can produce the documents they need for their practice with the click of a button. But therein lies the challenge: Mike doesn’t have the time to turn every template that members share into its own user-friendly document assembly app.

"In an ideal world, I would have less to do with building what goes into the Library. I would love to have more members not only offering up templates but also building the document assemblers to help others use these documents. That would let me act primarily as a curator of the law library."

Finding the right tool

Mike decided to use Community.lawyer's App Builder to help MSBA attorneys build their own document assemblers. Why? Because it addresses what he believes is the central obstacle to the widespread use of document assembly in the legal industry.

"I think one of the biggest challenges for the adoption of document assembly is the sense of ownership over the document by the attorney. When you use [other products], your first interaction with the document is the user interface of the document assembly program itself; you're not looking at the uncompleted form, you don't know what the content of the form is, which means there is no relationship with the document before you begin populating the document assembly questionnaire."

One of the unique features of the App Builder is the ability for the app developer to provide end-users with complete insight into both the underlying document and the branching logic of the associated questionnaire. This allows attorneys to "look under the hood" of the document assembly app before they decide to use it.

"This provides more touch points on the process for those attorneys who really want to know what's going on. I've heard from others, including large law firms, who build these complex agreements that there will be one member of the firm who has some coding experience and they'll build a document assembler for the firm. But in the end, that attorney who built the assembler is the only one who uses it because they can't sell it to their colleagues who, although they understand the benefit, don't have access to the logic of the app which means they can't form opinions of their own."

Another benefit of Community.lawyer, in Mike’s view, is that any lawyer can build a document assembly app, regardless of technical background.

"Building an app is visual and easy to understand. It was not a high bar to get over the initial hump of learning the App Builder. I have almost no coding experience but I was able to learn it, and I feel like that's important for adoption."

Beyond the Library ― Helping members compete with LegalZoom

Mike believes that providing MSBA attorneys with an easy way to build their own document assemblers will not only help grow the Library but may also help law firms compete with LegalZoom.

"A lot of our members operate in the same end of the marketplace as LegalZoom. These members are solo and small firm attorneys and when they talk about LegalZoom they are filled with frustration."

For many middle class Americans, LegalZoom has created a new paradigm for buying services that were typically only available through an attorney. Step-by-step questionnaires are increasingly becoming the preferred method to assemble corporate filings, estate plans, and many other forms.

Mike believes that lawyers who build public-facing document assembly are well positioned to compete alongside LegalZoom because they can offer an easy-to-use, jurisdiction-specific online product and the guidance of an attorney.

“It’s the best of both worlds ― modern technology plus the experienced counsel that only a lawyer can provide.”

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