Legally IT: how automated is your digital document system? If it can't do “smart” documents, it's probably time for an upgrade

With the emergence of electronic data systems, the volume and quality of data stored by law firms has grown significantly over the last few years. While some still consider their digital documents to be “hi-tech” if they can simply auto-populate data fields on a document template, I suggest this is a shortsighted approach and one which might not be enough as technology develops and evolves.

Modern automated document systems allow companies to minimise data entry, reduce the time spent proofreading, and reduce the risks associated with human error. In addition, cost savings to the client include time and financial savings due to decreased paper handling, document loading, storage, distribution, postage/shipping, and so on.

As Professor Richard Susskind said in the Legal Technology Journal: “Document assembly is and will remain forever a fundamental technology. If one looks at the heart of legal work, it’s about the production of documents and document assembly is an enabling tool that automates and streamlines that process.”

Many firms may feel that this really isn’t that revolutionary. Banks of stock/shell templates sit on their system for the typist to drop the data into. For some who have taken the documents a step further, auto-populated fields may drop in data such as the client name, court date and the job description. It is a practice that has been running for a while without difficulty.

They might ask, why change? Is there any need to do more? If it isn’t broken, then why try to fix it?

Not that smart

My point here is that these types of documents will not be “smart” enough. Yes, they can drop in data, but are they formatted to allow integration with other systems? Can the data held in your clients’ records auto-populate and generate forms that can be submitted electronically online? Can they be produced digitally and emailed as a PDF?

It is, in my humble opinion, very shortsighted of firms just to accept that the current documents that they have on their systems will still be fit for purpose as technology develops.

It’s not enough to have documents that you need to print out and store in a paper file. How do you then forward these documents electronically? How do you submit data to HMRC or Companies House? As part of the legal engineering remit, we ought to consider how smart our documents are. Can they interface with other systems? What do we want to do with them in the future?

The labour intensive component for digital document management lies in the strategic redesign of existing documents, considering how they fit into the legal processes within a firm. Updating, redesigning and creating additional smart documents takes time, but by systematically reconstructing the firm’s documents around their processes, a law firm takes control of how the firm evolves.

It may seem like an expensive and time-consuming exercise to redesign and recreate documents that on the face of it may work perfectly well for the moment, but by adopting a forward thinking approach, we can ensure that the new breed of smart documents is robust enough to be able to sustain technological developments.

The Author
Michelle Hynes is legal process engineer at Inksters Solicitors, a firm that embraces technology and innovation email: michelle@inksters.com; Twitter: @legaleaglemhm
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