How do you automate a law practice? Here are some practical tips
John Mayer, executive director of the Center for Computer Assisted Legal Instruction. Photo by Wayne Slezak.
Lawyers have plenty of demands on their time—but repetitive everyday tasks don’t have to be one of them.
That was the message of “The Automatic Law Firm,” a panel at ABA Techshow on Thursday morning. Panelists Andrew Legrand and John Mayer evangelized the benefits of templating many of the most mundane documents of law practice—client engagement letters, routine filings—in order to save both time and staffing costs.
Both bring strong automation credentials to the table. As executive director of the Center for Computer Assisted Legal Instruction, Mayer wrote A2J Author, a software tool that helps streamline basic tasks for legal aid attorneys. Legrand puts automation into practice daily at his law firm serving small businesses in New Orleans, Spera Law.
While they agreed the documents that are best to automate are the ones you produce frequently, each had a different take on what that means. Legrand recommended lawyers automate high-frequency documents that are also high-effort, because you’ll save more money; Mayer suggested starting with low-effort but high-frequency documents because they’re likely to lead to satisfying early successes.
Once the template is created, they said, it will be 95 percent “self-managed,” with only occasional tweaks required for things like changes in the law.
To create such a template, analyze the document’s structure: Consider which elements are always the same and which will vary, such as the client’s name, date of marriage or income. They also suggested some basics of good writing, like eliminating legalese. To make documents easy for clients and any future attorneys to read, they suggested aiming for an eighth-grade reading level, as determined by a tool such as readability-score.com.
As for the best tools for the job, the panelists had a plethora of suggestions—many of them from vendors at Techshow. One that’s not at the conference is a tool that lawyers are likely to already have: Microsoft Word’s Styles tool, which permits automatic formatting. Printing such a document to PDF permits “bookmarks” within the PDF, Legrand said, allowing readers to go straight to the sections they want.
Legrand also touted the benefits of TextExpander (for MacOS) and Breevy (for Windows), a sort of MS Word keyboard macro that works on any software application as well as iPhones. Legrand, a Mac user, displayed keywords like “xlaca” that TextExpander will automatically change to the appropriate citation to Louisiana state law. He also got a giggle when he demonstrated a TextExpander keyword that expands into a form letter to send friends who want help with red-light camera tickets.
Lawyers who’d like to dictate their documents should take a second look at Dragon NaturallySpeaking, Mayer added. It’s now “incredibly powerful” and can be used to control the entire computer. An audience member recommended DragonLegal for its built-in recognition of legal terms.
Lawyers should embrace automation, Legrand said, because “consumers are.”