You’ve spoken with the potential client. You’ve checked for conflicts and done the necessary research to know whether this is a case you should take or not.
Now you need to generate a document.
What document depends on how you plan to dispose of the client. Are you accepting the case? Then draft a retainer agreement or engagement letter spelling out what you are going to do and any other terms that you have discussed with the client. Are you rejecting the case? Then send them a letter explaining that you are not representing them, identify any critical dates they need to consider – like a statute of limitations – and potentially refer them to another lawyer.
So. Write a letter. The end. Right?
Not entirely. The legal profession revolves around words incorporated primarily into documents. This is where the rubber hits the road of your practice. You need to have a system to ensure that the appropriate documents are created, are transmitted, and are saved so that you can capture the activity you do for your actual and potential clients.
One of the easiest ways to automate your practice is to use document templates or precedents. These are documents that you have created before or have purchased or received from others and tailored to your own practice.
Legal research databases Westlaw and LexisNexis often have forms or precedent databases that cover a wide array of practice areas, and the forms can be downloaded as templates. Many of these will also be available in a law school library’s collection. If you do not have access to them from within your own online subscription, call your local county law library or the law library at the law school from which you graduated, and see if they can help you get what you’re looking for. The American Bar Association also is a good source for forms but, as with the legal publishers, you will need to verify and update them to work in your jurisdiction. Another excellent source are the continuing education providers in your jurisdiction – lawyers frequently share their own templates in CLE materials.
The benefit of using templates is that you can cut down the repetition of creating business documents. If, for example, your rejection letter is always the same except for the potential client’s address and the critical dates element, then there is no need to draft a new letter each time. When you consider that you can probably automatically merge the client’s address into a template, then you’re down to just the statute of limitations or other date information to insert and confirm.
Your word processor – Microsoft Word, Corel WordPerfect, etc. – is your entry point to both creating and managing your documents. (See Word Processing for why you will probably want Word) Once you create that first letter – or first of any document – it can be saved as a template. Literally, File > Save As and choose the template option for your program. Templates can be stored on a shared network drive so everyone in your law firm can access the same files.
A Metadata Caution
While it can be easy to create templates, it is important to ensure that each template only contains information relating to the letter, not to any client. If you have created a template and it is customized to the matter of Mrs. Smith, and then you save it as a template, the new template will retain those customizations unless you remove them.
Even if you remove them the next time you open the template, the document will retain the original information in its metadata. You might unintentionally disclose not only who your clients are but details about their case, contract details, whatever information was incorporated into the document you re-used. Microsoft Word has a metadata removal tool and you can buy dedicated ones to ensure each Word document is cleansed of unnecessary metadata.
An alternative approach is to only use your word processor for drafting documents. When you are ready to transmit the final document, convert it to PDF, not in whatever your word processor’s native format is. I think this is a persuasive reason why.
This will remove the metadata and will also have the benefit of identifying all of your final documents for the client file. If, in the future, you need to provide the client with her file, it will be easier to winnow out draft work product from those files that actually matter.
Even if you are printing out and mailing paper documents, creating a process that generates metadata-free final documents can reduce the likelihood that, in an exceptional case, you will send something that you shouldn’t.
Templates and Document Automation
A template is just a reusable document. You can have them in your e-mail program, in your word processor, and in other software. Templates can be enhanced using macros and other content reuse tools. Microsoft Word includes Quick Parts, where you can develop a library of paragraphs or text clauses that you can then re-use across multiple documents.
If you want to insert the address information for someone, you can use the Mailings tab in Word to access your Outlook contacts list. These sorts of connections need to be set up – so that, for example, Word knows where to put the last name or the first name – in the template. But once they’re there, you can forget about how it works and just enjoy the productivity gain. Most case or practice management software for lawyers will include this sort of integrated document assembly.
Macros are small programs that can automate repetitive actions. If you know how to write simple computer code, you can create your own. In many other cases, you can purchased add-ons that inject this functionality into your software. In others, your integrated systems will have the functions built-in and you can just activate those.
Macros aren’t just a solo or small firm gap filler. Large law firms typically buy packages of macros to enable their staff to do more, quicker. Packages like Esquire Innovations iCreate or The Sackett Group’s MacPac for Legal and Forte for Legal are examples of template and macro apps that do the heavy lifting for you.
Lawyer reliance on word processors has meant that there are some niche macros that only a law practice would use. Take Bates stamping for instance. This applies sequential numbering to a document set, spanning multiple documents that may have their own repetitive page numbers, to enable easy reference to any particular page.
You can download a free WordPerfect macro that will apply Bates numbering to your pages. The Bates stamp refers to an ink stamp. This won’t stamp your print pages but Barry MacDonnell’s WordPerfect Toolbox has this bates numbering macro that will number your digital pages, among many other WordPerfect macros.
Or you can convert your documents to a PDF and apply Bates numbering from within the Adobe Acrobat program. Ernie the Attorney provides a good description of how to do this. Or you may have put your documents into a specialist app like LexisNexis’ CaseMap (litigation analysis tool) and applied Bates numbering from within that tool. Litigation-focused software will often include things like Bates numbering because it is a common requirement in preparing evidence and other documents for cases going to trial. In fact, Microsoft Word is the only program that seems to require a paid numbering add-on.
Macros do not need to be as complicated as that. They can act as simple prompts to ensure that your document uses the right gender terms (his/hers, he/she) or to flag definitions that aren’t used in a contract. They can be a quick way to check all of your uses of the word “statue” instead of what you meant, “statute”. Like templates, they reduce the need for you or your staff to repeat the same activity. Record it once and replay it the next time you need to do the same thing.
Document automation is a key function in law firms, with document assembly one of the perpetual goals – taking templated, approved text and melding it not just with data about the client and matter but prompting for answers to questions – to make documents smarter. The more repetitive your practice documents are, the more you should consider specific legal-specific document assembly software.
There are on-the-fly assembly tools like Pathagoras that plug into Microsoft Word and provide an option similar to Word’s native Quick Parts. But it pulls relevant text and clauses from across the documents in your own library, rather than just the text you’ve added to Quick Parts. In document intense practice areas like family law, estates & trusts, or contract-driven law, you can find dedicated sites or software. Business Integrity’s ContractExpress or Westlaw’s Doc & Form Builder are examples that will have more focused content.
Related Readings and Resources
- ABA Legal Technology Resource Center FYI on metadata and chart of metadata ethics opinions and document assembly
- What Every Lawyer Should Know About Document Automation