Monday, March 19, 2007

Fees, Automation and Business Clients - it is a long one

I have been trying to rebuild my office systems after two crashes in the past three years. Then several things came together in the past few weeks which impacted on that long term project. So, I decided I might as well combine them into this post.

I began my experiments with office automation over thirteen years ago. I was solo practitioner dealing with Indianapolis firms and computer automation seemed to hold a key to success. I really began when I first started to use Symantec's Q & A for DOS 4.0.

Q & A no longer exists, so let me give you a brief description. Symantec bound a pretty darned good flat-file database with a okay word processor. The database and the word processor shared a macro language and one could inject the database's programming into the word processing documents. This was in addition to the usual mail merge capabilities for the word processor. The word processor could not compete with a stand alone word processor like WordPerfect 5.1 (remember, this is the time of DOS) but it was far more than adequate for preparing pleadings and writing appellate briefs. I still have yet to see a word processor and database so closely bound together, and which with the macro language could be brought even closer. Wikipedia (of course) has an entry for the software and details the history.

By the time that Symantec stopped producing Q & A, I had invested heavily in programming Q & A. I had databases for attorneys, cases, calendar, and clients. Using information contained in the databases, I could manage a case and prepare documents without a secretary easily and inexpensively. I do miss it.

While I was practicing in Indianapolis between 2000 and 2002, I became acquainted with HotDocs. HotDocs automates documents. I still use HotDocs in my practice. When I wrote above that I was reconstructing my office systems, I meant rebuilding my collection of forms that were automated with HotDocs. Which I did over several years (if one includes the forms that were converted from Q & A Write forms, that would be many, many years) and includes many, many forms. Probably nothing has hindered me more in my practice these past few years than not having the full capabilities that I had and had grown very accustomed to having.

With this background, I was very surprised to read what two eminent writers on legal technology wrote on document automation. The first came from Adams Drafting.

I understand the point: no company wants to pay a steep hourly rate for the dubious privilege of having a partner scissor-and-paste together a contract.

On the other hand, one could conclude from the quotation that drafting contracts is a rudimentary undertaking that can safely be left to associates. That brings to mind a scary vision of largely clueless associates hacking at forms of questionable quality and relevance.

The solution isn’t to have partners more involved. Instead, associates should be less involved: drafting should be commoditized.

I thought that turning documents into commodities was now a self-evident proposition. With Q & A I learned to breakdown the documents into the boilerplate and variable parts. HotDocs merely continues that process.

Then I read this from Dennis Kennedy:
Document assembly, properly employed, offers a quantum leap over increased typing speed and lets you apply the knowledge and expertise that you've developed over the years. That is the flip-side of commoditizing drafting and a very interesting place to be.
Another idea that I did not know that I was executing on my own or of its exoticness. I decided to include the statute or whatever authority supported a term in a document into the document. I use WordPerfect, so I used its Comment feature. Word and Open Office both possess a similar feature. I could also put hypertext links into the Comment instead of text.

I must declare that I got these ideas from an English and Irish practice. Over there, they have been using what they call a professional support lawyer. (For an idea of what this type of lawyer does, here is a job posting from Dublin and this agency of professional support lawyers.) I once considered leaving the private practice to pursue something along the lines of this second example; albeit closer to the Wabash than the Atlantic.

I cannot say that being automated has brought me any appreciation from my clients, but neither have I made a big deal of it. I think I have been too annoyed by the systems being not up to my standards. Instead, I have had clients unhappy with my not having a secretary and having a home office. Which lead me to some reactions to Mr. Adams and Mr. Kennedy.

I would say to Mr. Adams: partner involvement makes a good impression on the client who will never understand the same results could be had from commoditizing the documents because the attorney never educates the client since the attorney thinks the knowledgeable client will balk at paying a suitable fee.

To Mr. Kennedy, I would say that you forget one component of the office and especially the smaller office: the secretary. After returning to Anderson from Indianapolis, I was talking with a former secretary about HotDocs. I recall that the Indiana State Bar Association offered a version with some stock Indiana forms. She could not see how the investment in HotDocs would be of any benefit over Word's templates and cut and paste. It was not from a lack of intelligence on her part, and I would not say that it was due to a poor explanation on my part. It could be that the attorney she worked for had a practice limited to personal injury and criminal defense. I do think that there was more than a bit of job security in her views. I think in smaller offices (and maybe also in larger ones but they are not within my experience) secretaries make much of the software decisions and certainly most of the word processing decisions. A short-sighted view on job security may come into play.

I think another post from David Kennedy nails the self-interest in job and income preservation.

The money quote from Susskind's article:

"The top US law firms are hugely and satisfyingly profitable. Accordingly, they seem to be moved to change more by the threat of competitive disadvantage than by the promise of competitive advantage. Without hunger for change, without the worry of being left behind by the competition and, vitally, without clients clamouring for new forms of service, it will be business as usual for the US legal behemoths for many years yet. They will wring every last cent out of the increasingly unsustainable practice of hourly billing and will steer well clear of innovative IT."

The full post is here. I could not find the original Susskind article, though.

These posts and the project of rebuilding the HotDocs library were in the back of my mind and came popping up the middle of last week. I was in Indianapolis for the Trial Advocacy Skills College. The program emphasized using a trial notebook. I saw that this was a way to unify and organize the HotDocs documents. Not that it will work for all cases but only for those that are in litigation.

It also means revamping my office contracts. Those documents which can standardized with HotDocs will be charged on a flat rate basis. That leaves the hourly rate for non-standard documents and interacting with clients.

That same change in office procedure will apply even more to my transactional practice. That is drafting the contracts, non-compete agreements, non-disclosure agreements and so on.

I also think the time is past to inform clients about the benefits of using this kind of technology. It may be that some will not understand and others will not care so long as the results are to their liking. However, only by educating clients on the benefits will there be the changes advocated by Mr. Adams and Mr. Kennedy. Of course, I am also hoping that when clients understand the advantages that this will aid my practice.