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Legal Document Automation and Digitalisation: How and Where to Start

The safest way to start with legal document automation and digitising your legal department or legal services is to learn from the industries’ players –  their success stories and mistakes.

That’s why we joined forces with Daan Vansimpsen, an independent Innovation Consultant, to analyse his experience of setting up innovation strategies for Belgium legal teams and Avokaado’s success and failure customer experiences.

We’ve ended up in outlining a step by step and customers-proof instruction on digitising legal services, an impact-effort matrix to start off document automation and common mistakes to avoid. This is an outline. 

Digitisation, digitalisation or digital first?

When people start explaining how technology can be used to modernise legal service delivery, their language instantly becomes fraught with acronyms, buzzwords, and idioms that often make little sense to those practicing law.

Two terms that are widely used, and often confused, are digitisation and digitalisation. So let’s set out to make the differences between both clear.

Digitisation is the process of converting analogue products and services to digital equivalents. For example, converting a paper client intake form to a version that can be completed online. The questions the form asks remain the same, as does the way the information it contains is processed. However, what is analogue being made digital will never maximise the returns and the progression we have seen in the digital space.

Digitalisation moves beyond digitisation. It involves rethinking legal products and services from inception to delivery, based on an understanding of what modern technology can enable alongside what customers actually need and want. Rather than delivering existing products and services via new channels and automating decades-old processes, digitalisation means rebuilding services from the ground up to create streamlined, frictionless experiences.

Digital first is a mindset, it’s an acknowledgement that the current shift from commodity legal services to intelligent digital services will create a new playing field that is completely different from before.

Although business leaders often use digitalisation/digitisation as an umbrella term for digital transformation, both are very different. Digital transformation requires a much broader adoption of digital technology and a cultural change, which evolves more about people than about digital technology. It requires organizational changes that are customer-centric, backed by the partners and management, and driven by radical challenges to corporate culture, leveraging technologies that both empower and enable employees.

Enemies at the gates

The digital economy, enabled by astonishing advances in technology, is reimagining the service provider-customer dynamic and transforming how goods and services are bought and sold. Customer-centric, tech-enabled, well-capitalized, Alternative Legal Service Providers and other challengers are disrupting incumbent players across the entire value chain.

Restrictive budgets and blunt assumptions, not at all supported by customer feedback, a lack of competitor intelligence and opposition to evolve towards a consultant-like service delivery model are only some of the reasons for law firms and legal counsels not to buy into digital transformation. Needless to say, I oppose and advocate an open-minded approach.

Upskilling is key in respect to this firm-wide change trajectory. It is fueled by a tectonic shift in the workplace caused by technology, which has created new possibilities that can only be fully realized by a modernized workforce. This means the workforce must learn new skills and competencies that are required for new and/or changing jobs. Upskilling cuts across industries—law included. It is critical to individuals and employers alike.

From document automation to legal workflow automation

Legal practitioners all have to deal with contracts, be it template creation, negotiation, word-processing and versioning, approval, signing, registration, drafting non-standard clauses, conservation or litigation. No wonder one of the most frequented use cases to start digital transformation tracks within law firms is document automation.

Document automation, sometimes also referred to as contract automation or document assembly, is the design of systems and workflows that assist in the creation of documents. As most of you are overloaded with client demand and are dependent on error-prone processes, document automation will allow you to free up time to focus on substantive legal work.

Its basic features are to replace the cumbersome manual completion of repetitive documents with template-based systems, where the user answers software-driven interview questions. Hence most contract automation software providers promise to shorten drafting time up to 90% (although realistically it will probably save 20% to 50% of your time spent, depending heavily on the length and complexity of the document).

Information security is hard to maintain while it is critical to legal service success. One of the main benefits of legal document automation for the legal industry is cutting human errors. Connecting contract automation tools to your practice or case management system can avoid this to a large extent.

And of course, building a master template which serves as a single version of the truth enables everyone to work with the most recent clauses. Needless to point out this will increase the quality and consistency of your firm’s output.

How to pick a document to automate

When planning the pilot and discussing the KPIs of the project, it is a very common and justified question – where do we have to start and how to pick the right documents? Firms have thousands of different case files in the servers, contracts and documents that have been used over the long time period. It’s always been a question how to structure the knowledge from the case files and what methodology to use when there is no unified template approved yet (trust us here – this is the case of up to 95% of the firms). Who should do that and what are the stages between case files to approved automated templates?

Using tech for the sake of using tech doesn’t make sense. Just like automating a document for the sole purpose of automating it doesn’t make sense.

That’s why we propose a more structured approach, using an impact-effort matrix.

Find it hard to pinpoint the exact position on the matrix? Pro tip: define the position on each axis individually, starting with one or the other (it doesn’t matter whether you assess effort or impact first).

The great thing about this approach is that the created subsets are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. Once you agree on the position on the axis, discussions are over.

You’ll end up in one these categories: 

Do now

  • High impact – low effort
  • Should be a no-brainer to start with for obvious reasons.

Make a task

  • Low impact – low effort
  • Also called fill-in-jobs because of the low effort required.

Make a project

  • High impact – high effort
  • Very good use cases, which will require a strategy and detailed planning

Forget for now

  • Low impact – high effort
  • Also called thankless tasks, because the effort required will be bigger than the benefit to be gained.

Mapped out a plethora of options on your matrix? Make a more detailed assessment by zooming in on one box and spreading the options across a new 2×2 matrix.

Why projects fail before they even start

  • Not setting clear objectives and KPIs to track the progress 

What do you want to achieve? What’s your goal? Reducing human errors, cutting time? It is important to have crystal clear objectives before you start. You should understand whether the expected results of the legal contract automation correspond to the strategy and mission of your organization. Once the legal contract automation is complete, you can compare the goals and the results and measure their success or failure.

  • Poor project management and leadership 

It doesn’t matter how simple the product is or how easy it is to use, it is still difficult to implement any new tool if you don’t have a clear process to an internal champion in your team who will lead this tech project in the company. This champion follows everyone’s and project’s progress and timely adapts to changes, e.g. changes in the project team members, new business objectives etc. Changes are always difficult, so in order to change, the mindset of the team has to be supportive to the idea. Well managed projects deliver predictable outcomes close to 90% of the time. 

  • Not following the rule “internal processes first”

It is important that you start with your internal processes standardisation and automation first. Why? First of all, the success of using the new tech by the firm team members – e.g. getting the engagement letter signed without hassle, gives a great feeling of success to the broader range of lawyers and boosts wider engagement. Until you haven’t got that feeling, it is hard to change the mindset by just providing the new tech to the firm’s app store. Higher engagement inside the firm provides a good platform to succeed at the next stages of the project. If your firm lawyers do not get the feeling of success early it will be hard for them to be the ambassadors of innovative customer-centric services at the later stages.

  • Not focusing on how to serve clients better

We have seen many projects fail because the client interests are neglected or not counted at all. We are true believers that in any new innovation project clients’ interests should already be in its DNA and the question “how would this solution help us to serve clients better” should be a trigger for constant change. For example, innovation should enable customers to cut their cost for services, shorten the customer journey and service delivery times, enable to embed the solution into customer’s processes, give access to firm’s tech solution (like digital signing and workflows). Changing the cover of the old things is not an innovation but re-packaging. To succeed you should define your customers’ jobs-to-be-done, around which you align value creation efforts.

  • Stopping when something does not work as fast as expected 

Legal professionals are trained to be risk-averse and limit potential issues to the bare minimum. That’s not how digital projects work. Originating from Silicon Valley, the real aim of “fail fast, fail often” is not to fail, but to be iterative. To succeed, you must be open to failure, while the intention should be to ensure you are learning from your mistakes as you tweak, reset, and even throw away the entire thing if necessary. 

  • Lack of time, focus, consistency and “good enough” mindset

Lawyers always look for the perfect fit. Though, legal teams are so different: sizes, expert areas, jurisdictions, teams, internal processes – it’s impossible to build a universal tool to satisfy everyone. There are tools that are more suitable for legal research such as ROSS Intelligence or LexisNexis, and there are other tools that are more tailored for workflow and template automation such as Avokaado. Legal contract automation tools differ a lot – some of them are good for contract management, others are good for document assembly, depending highly who’s jobs-to-be-done it is helping to resolve. The only thing that matters is what job you want to get done now and what tool is good enough for this specific request.

Ready to start your innovation journey and automate your contract creation?

Start with your first document workflow in Avokaado


👉  Connect with Daan to define your digital needs and innovation strategy!

👉  Connect with Pilleriine to set up a pilot plan for digitising your legal services!


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