Saturday, April 14, 2007

Where are the official forms?

I once worked for a legal services program that started in Michigan. I should have been worried when they asked about official court forms. I remember telling the fellow from Michigan that Indiana has no official forms.

The Indiana Supreme Court created protective order forms with a required format soon after that conversation. One can find those forms at the office of the local county clerk.

On Law Guru, people continue to ask where to find Indiana's forms online. The Indiana Judicial Center now has forms related to child support modification.

Hamilton County has forms required by local rule. These forms include family law, criminal, and probate forms. Still nothing for anyone wanting to file the initial documents (pleadings for those lawyer readers who need precision). The Delaware County Clerk has some forms online also for family and civil suits, but no probate. So far as I am aware, this is the only site with a civil complaint form. No probate forms, though. Marion County has forms online which really do not have much practical use for litigation.

I have not looked at the sites for all 92 counties and there may be more counties with forms on their websites. Let us say that this is a survey of my usual practice area.

I suppose I have puzzled you if you are a lawyer from a state with official forms or a non-lawyer from Indiana. If no official forms, how do we Indiana lawyers do what we do? My short answer is this: we steal. My slightly longer answer is: we still and use our wits.

We steal forms from our predecessors and our contemporaries. I know I use pleadings forms that I got from the attorneys in the office where I first started and who knows where they got their forms. Stealing a form requires knowing (if the pleading is a complaint or a petition) that the form properly states the law. Which in turns also means that the pleading works. No sense stealing something that does not work.

I also started by buying form books. I guess that form books constitute another form of stealing. I will tell you that I finally understood the abstractions of civil procedure by diligently reading and using and copying from form books. Nowadays, I refuse to purchase any formbook that does have a CD-Rom with electronic versions of the forms.

Every office needs a scanner and optical character recognition software (OCR). Take the form that you like, scan the document, and then convert the image into text. Converting to text allows you to manipulate the text and to re-use the form over and over again.

I take that text file one step further and convert the text into a HotDocs form. You need to know the variables to design the forms but I think anyone practicing any length of time can see where the variables are in the form. What this does require is time and hard work. I find it useful - automating documents like this allows me to dispense with a secretary to do the typing.

Problems exist with this method when the desktop dies as it did two nights ago. One can get too dependent on them. I am still in the midst of reclaiming all of my old forms into HotDocs forms and I am still getting a bit flummoxed when I find that a file I think I have has not been reclaimed for HotDocs. I wrote generally on the problem of computer dependence earlier.

Document automation increases the costs for a law practice. Short term those costs include the costs for the scanner, OCR software, the HotDocs software and the time for converting the forms. While the process poses some intellectual interests, the process must benefit the client. Remember that benefiting the client benefits the practice.

As I see it, the less time I spend drafting common documents means more time spent for dealing with the client and the more complex parts of the case. Which does bring another point to mind: the more that does a certain area of law, the more that you will develop a library to deal with that area of law. I found this particularly true in my collections practice. Collections require a volume of cases. Business law provides a similar sort of repetition suitable for automation. Family law provides a similar basis for automation as there is a great repetition of issues.

All this brings up a question about fees but I will save that for another post.

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