Client file little extra Client file The intelligent choice

The Demands on law firms and in-house legal departments are such that it is imperative that intelligent document systems are embraced and applied in a business-focused way.

Intelligent document software essentially comprises a document assembly system which enables questions to be raised by particular fee-earners or paralegals. This enables all documentation to be generated intelligently. The software provides a framework into which documents and relevant questions can be configured according to what the system's users want to achieve.

When a series of documents are set up in such a system and are selected (either when using the system on a one-off basis or when revisiting it as a transaction progresses), all data that has been entered does not need to be reentered, as would be the case with traditional unintelligent precedents.

A document assembly system is not an expert system – it does not teach anyone how to do a particular transaction or matter. But this can be achieved by help notes which are added to the system and by the questions themselves, as long as they give sufficient explanation of what is required. The more these systems are made available to clients who are not already experts in a particular area, the more the incorporation of educational questions add value. It is, of course, possible to develop specific client systems as well as in-house systems. The fact that many intelligent document systems are web-enabled can only add to their potential uses. Online templates enabling instructions to be taken from clients and populating document systems at a relevant firm are an obvious application.

There are some real advantages of utilising such a system, not least that it is cost-saving (once the investment has been recouped). It also enables a firm to move into new markets where it would not otherwise be economical to do so. The firm also has the benefit of gaining a database of relevant information which could have a number of uses and applications. And careful construction enables developers to build consistency and quality and law firms to move more swiftly towards the greater use of case and matter management systems such as PMTI and Solicitec.

In the US, document assembly systems have existed for some time and many national and international firms are buying such systems, as are in-house legal departments. Such firms gain a business advantage and eventually all firms will have to utilise such systems to stay competitive. This supports IT specialist and academic Richard Susskind's statement that there is no long-term competitive advantage to be gained from any technology products other than those geared to sell legal advice directly over the web. In the future, intelligent documents will be an essential part of every firm's armoury and part and parcel of the way in which every firm does business.

There are a number of key stages involved in developing a document assembly system and it is an area that needs true integration in working methods between IT staff and fee-earners. There are key questions that need to be asked.

Do the chosen documents have longevity? There is an investment of effort and resource involved in developing products and if documents are soon likely to change substantially, it may not be worthwhile backing a particular project.

Which fee-earners should develop the product? Coding up the relevant documentation from a legal perspective requires a methodical and logical approach from someone who is truly immersed in their market. There is arguably a contradiction here for law firms – someone senior is required to ensure that all documentation is market-focused and truly represents the firm's approach, yet coding up documents can be fairly uninteresting and repetitive, so there is a danger of it not stimulating key people.

It is sensible to categorize large projects so they can be developed in bite-sized chunks. Splitting the documents into sections will enable fee-earners to see the progress of the project. For complex projects, this will enable testing on a stage-by-stage basis. Modules of documents can then be put into use, delivering immediate benefits.

In terms of developing a series of related documents to deliver real efficiencies, you need to think widely and not just concentrate on core legal documents. Include letters, faxes and internal documentation such as cheque requests and file information sheets to get maximum benefit from the inputted. When structuring intelligent documents, it is important to use a consistent coding convention by utilising core information throughout. If consistency can be achieved in this way, when subsequently developing individual projects, databases can be combined for related projects.

Developing a particular system should be approached in the same way as any other software development – clear specification is needed. A fee-earner will be faced with a range of choices and have to accept that often they will not be able to code up an intelligent document which deals with every situation in every way. When coding, there will be sensible choices that have to be made and the decisions should be clearly documented. For example, it might relate to the number of parties in a share-purchase agreement – do you include one vendor, five vendors or 40 vendors? At some point you need to draw the line and be clear about the decisions you have taken.

Working in this way will not stop you utilising such systems effectively. However, it will mean that the system gets you 90 or 95 per cent of the way towards producing a finished document which still delivers real benefits.

When working with such systems, it is important that people also reconsider their whole approach to drafting. The manner in which intelligent systems work demands a modular approach to drafting which enables clauses to act independently, but also simultaneously, to form integrated components of complete documents. Hot Docs enables a draftsman to utilise clause libraries, allowing specific clauses to be selected which support this approach. In many cases it is sensible to include core information in schedules to enable documents to be populated without altering their format.

It is also important to think carefully about the testing stage. To truly test a project, not only is it important to give it the "mousse" test but you really need to know that it can perform perfectly – whatever the data being inputted is and whatever the choices being made by the user are. It also helps for sets of test data to be shared between the fee-earners and IT developers on the project team.

Fee-earners' coding also needs to incorporate a new "house style" approach in relation to the coding itself. Clearly you need consistency, but for each variable within the project there are a number of things that need to be considered, such as the type of variable: Is it text? Is it a number? Is it a date? Should it include a true/false or a multiple choice option? When considering formats, should it specify particular character lengths or insist on a precise length? Should it include default entries to unanswered questions or include certain questions that must be answered? By thinking this through carefully documents will have integrated quality. To get the best out of a project anyone coding it must truly understand the system.

Technology like this is here to stay. It is only a matter of time before law firms have to make a real investment. Initially, such systems are about innovation, but ultimately they are about competitiveness and delivering more "law per hour". Such systems do not eliminate the need for documents to be reviewed carefully, but they do allow good drafts to be produced in a fraction of the time, which benefits everyone.

Derek Southall is a partner and head of strategic development at Wragge & Co. n