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Written by Thomas Officer
Thomas is a cofounder and Design Lead at Afterpattern.
Why automate documents
The reason for automating document creation (also known as "document assembly" or simply "document automation") has evolved with the functionality of modern document automation software.
Initially, law firms used document automation software to create "internal" workflows that could be used by the professionals inside their own firm (i.e. lawyers and their staff). These internal workflows allowed law firm staff to streamline the creation of complex documents, turning tedious, time-consuming tasks into rapid, human error-proof processes.
Today, efficiency and error reduction are still the primary reasons for adopting document automation software, but as the technology has advanced, a new reason has emerged for adopting this practice in your law firm: to build products that compete head-to-head with LegalZoom and tap into new revenue streams.
The new generation of document automation software allows you to not only create traditional, "internal" workflows but also "external" workflows meant for direct use by the public. These external workflows provide the public with an online questionnaire that collects information in real-time, gives information, and guides the user through a legal process. At the end of the questionnaire, the information collected is used to generate a new document.
How document automation software works
Document automation software allows you to create workflows that assist in the creation of electronic documents, including Microsoft Word documents, PDFs, and even emails.
At the heart of these workflows is a document template, a framework for the final document you want to create. The template is populated with data from an online form and/or a database. Depending on what software you use, the final document can be automatically uploaded to your favorite document management system.
The primary differences between document automation software tools are:
How complex you can make the document template; and
Whether you can populate the template with data from a database, an online form, or both.
The value of complex templates
A complex template includes conditional rules that allow you to go beyond mere "find & replace" (searching for specific terms, like "client name", and replacing it with data). Such templates can produce a wide range of final documents, allowing you to subtract entire clauses to fit the facts at hand.
The differences between a database and online form
Whether you can populate your template from a database or an online form determines whether the value of your document automation will primarily be efficiency or new revenue.
A database (for example, your practice management system or CRM) allows you and your staff to re-use data. An online form (for example, an interactive questionnaire like TurboTax) allows your legal practice to create LegalZoom-like products for the public.
Examples of LegalZoom-like products
Building document automations for "external" end-users is at the heart of the movement to "productify" services. Here are some examples of document automations that collect data with an online form and are designed for "external" end-users:
CDC Eviction Declaration: Helps tenants send letters to their landlord. This online form was successfully used by more than 40,000 tenants in 4 months.
Criminal record expungement: With less than ten multiple-choice questions this online form determines whether a particular conviction or charge can be expunged in Kentucky.
Debt collection lawsuit answer: This online form automatically fills in the correct forms for responding to a debt collection lawsuit, including an application for a fee waiver, if you are unable to pay the filing fees.
How to start a document automation project
No matter what document automation tool you use, you will have to start every document automation project the same way: by mapping out the logic for your templates.
First-time document automators often believe the “hard part” about document automation is learning a new software tool — but the real challenge is actually this initial step, which has nothing to do with software. Take a look at the documents you'd like to automate. Write down exactly what business logic or rules are used to determine how this document is generated; you can save this information in a spreadsheet or draw a diagram with decision logic. This outline will be essential for you no matter how you choose to move forward.
How Afterpattern can help
Afterpattern allows you to build a robust document automation system for free. You only need to purchase an Afterpattern subscription to use advanced features (e.g. sending emails) or to sell your automations to public or other professionals.
Add robust conditional formatting to your templates
Go beyond "find & replace" with templates that can change dramatically depending on the facts at hand.
Use data from online forms, database, or API
You can auto-populate your document template with data from any source. Use the free Afterpattern database or use our integrations with Clio and Google Sheets.
Use Afterpattern's free e-signature feature to collect signatures from end-users, or use our integration with HelloSign to collect signatures from remote users.
Build automations for internal and external end-users
Whether you want to create document automations for "internal" efficiencies or to transform a manual service into scalable products for "external" end-users, Afterpattern offers one flexible platform.
A growing ecosystem of developers for hire
Not sure how to build your document automation system? Don't have the time to build it yourself? Hire an Afterpattern developer; this is faster and far more affordable than hiring a traditional software engineer.