Saturday, May 5, 2007

practice managment- notes on automating documents

I began using HotDocs in 2000 when I left my practice to work for a firm in Indianapolis. I mentioned in a post on my Indiana Civil and Business Law Blog that I used Symantec's Q & A for many years before that. So I converted many of my Q & A forms to use with HotDocs. In fact, I got a copy of HotDocs after I left the Indianapolis firm. Q & A had faded away by that time and I became rather attached to HotDocs.

With HotDocs you take the variables in the documents and replace them with fields. When you go to assemble the document, a window pops up and asks questions which go to fill in the fields. When finished with assembling the document, HotDocs asks whether you want to save the answers. You do want to save the answers. You will want to use these answers later. The best way I can describe how HotDocs handles answers is analogizing to sweeping a floor with a broom. By the end you should have a lot of answers that can be used in a wide-ranging set of documents.

Now all that leads to an important point when constructing forms - one must recycle the same questions in exactly the same form. "Opposing party's name" in one form does not give an answer to "Respondent's name" in another form. Fortunately, HotDocs provides the means of copying the same questions from one from to another. You just need to make sure that you add them to actual form.

By the Spring of 2003, I accumulated a rather large collection of forms under HotDocs. Then I had a major crash and no back up. (Note: back up often and make sure that you can restore what you back up!). So I went back to recreating the forms, but I got delayed in finishing that job when I became in-house counsel for one of my business clients. After I left that position to return full time to my private practice, I found a backup disk with most of the pre-2003 forms. Yippee! Then I found a small problem with these old forms.

When I started to recreate the old forms and create new ones, I changed some of the terms and also some of the programming in the forms. In other words, I changed some of the questions from the older forms. So a bit more work.

Why go through all this effort?

  1. Quality control - I can be sure that the documents have fewer errors with consistent look. I can say that not all errors have been eliminated but I have far fewer than when I use cut and paste (or search and replace). I still had a very embarrassing error when the programming in an Appearance was for a different Appearance form.
  2. Improve production. I have not had a secretary for years now. I grew severely disgruntled with what I had had for secretaries in the past and I used them very little for document production when I had them. HotDocs allows me to produce document after document without a secretary just as quickly (or more quickly) and accurately (or more so) as with a secretary. Automating the documents allows me to spend less time preparing standard documents and more time with the clients and dealing with the substance of a case.
  3. Knowledge management.
Knowledge management? Better people than myself have defined knowledge management better than what I will. For me, it is collecting the forms and case law and memos and statutes for a particular area of law or type of case where I can recycle them. As I age so does my memory so why put any more stress on my gray cells when I can use a computer to do this? Besides, I think the clients expect us to have all the information possible (wish that we could do that!) at our fingertips. I have quite a bit on tap but still not where I was before the crash.

One thing I started several years ago is using the comments function in my HotDocs templates. If I am basing a form on a statute, I insert into the comment a copy of the statute. I also created hypertext collections of case law. I add a hypertext link to the page with the case law. To get access to the law supporting the form, I only need to open the comment.

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