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Generating Documents

Written by Jeff Stouse on 30 June 2012.

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doc with pen
Law firms require documents. If your firm cannot generate the most basic of documents without having to open an existing document, re-save it as a new document and then manually enter basic contact or matter information—you’re wasting precious time!

Everything needs to be documented: the written record is all. If there isn't a contract; then the situation at hand is sure to be contested. If there wasn’t a letter or email sent to the party needing the information, then someone failed to do their job. If that is true, then why do some many firms fail to spend the necessary time and money to ensure that creating those standard documents are easily, quickly and correctly documented?

The problem commonly comes from a lack of data. Or sometimes even from the data being not where it needs to be (as in a spreadsheet or word processing document) which is harder to use as a basis for merging. When firms choose a practice management program, they should first check to see if the program can merge data from contacts and matters into documents. If it can't (and I can't think of one worth using that doesn't), then move on in the selection process.

And one other point to remember - what's the second (perhaps even MOST) commonly generated document? Yes, that's right - the email. So make sure that your practice management program of choice can merge data into a document AND an email. Emails created through the merging of data are now often sent as reminders for upcoming events (like depositions and trials), as well as client updates, as more and more clients are requesting (who wants to wait for the US mail?) them.

When trying to select tools with which to generate documents, remember that you have choices – word processors merging data stored in other programs is a very common approach. Another very popular (and powerful) choice is a focused document generation tool (HotDocs is a well-known example) which gathers data through an “interview” process and then merges the data from the “interview” into the desired documents.

From a standard's perspective, most law firms now have succumbed to the choice of Microsoft Word as their word processor of choice. (The debate on which word processor is better has not been the point for quite some time - instead, the choice of word processor has become which word processor does your really, really big client want you to use?) Or on what word processor is it easier to get support, or hire paralegals, attorneys and staff who have been trained. Given that commonality, most practice management programs that support merging contact and/or matter data into a word processor support MS Word.

Remember that merging data from a practice management program into a word processor is not the most efficient and most powerful tools for generating documents. Programs such as HotDocs are the most powerful (and the most expensive to set up and use) when it comes to merging data. These programs’ main function is to make the process of creating documents, from simple, one-page letters to massive estate planning, wills and business contracts, as easy as possible. Just remember that with the power comes a (relatively) larger price in terms of complexity and cost.

For some firms, especially those who focus on areas of practice that routinely require complicated and lengthy documents, like wills, estate planning and contracts, programs like HotDocs can be a requirement. However, most firms can create their documents using the merge function between their word processor and their practice management programs without having to spend the extra time and money on a more complicated system.

What makes one practice management’s merge capabilities more useful than others? The ability to merge all of the data stored in the program is one reason (this obviously includes custom fields – without custom fields, merge templates become far less powerful.) The ability to easily merge information that is related (fields like the docket number – found in the matter record, with the client’s name and address – found in the contact record) easily and quickly is another important feature. The ability to merge multiple records with one merge template at the same time is also important.

Finally, the ability to prompt the user for information or use conditional logic (the date in the Event field is less than the trial’s start date…) is another important feature that makes using a merge template (as opposed to a dedicated document generation program like HotDocs) a more cost-effective and efficient choice.

One of the more powerful merge tools currently provided by a practice management program is that offered by STI, makers of Practice Master. Practice Master can merge its data into MS Word documents (no WordPerfect unless you use HotDocs) and includes the prompt and conditional logic examples cited above. Also, the user can insert the merge fields into the Word template by choosing them from a menu, eliminating the possibility of typos and speeding up the process. Merging multiple records with one template is also supported.

By contrast, Clio offers a set number of fields that must manually be included in the MS Word template. The list of fields does not include any custom fields (since Clio currently does not offer any.) There are no prompt features nor conditional logic features other than those provided by MS Word, which means that to create a template, the user must manually insert the static, non-custom merge field reference text, and then build any prompts using MS Word functionality. Merging templates with multiple records is supported by first exporting a list of merge records to an Excel spreadsheet.

Another practice management program, HoudiniESQ, offers merge templates which merges all data, including custom fields and firm data (address and phone number, for example), as well as providing the ability to insert the custom field fields into merge templates without having to type them. An additional feature of the HoudiniESQ program is the ability to define Email merge templates; this allows customized emails to be sent as part of the workflow processes.

For more information regarding Practice Master, please visit http://www.practicemaster.com. Software Technology, Inc. is the company that created Practice Master, and Brad Berlin is the CEO of that company.

For more information about HoudiniESQ, please visit http://www.houdiniesq.com- they offer a free, fully functional program as a trial; or if you are a solo attorney, you can use their product for free (no catch!) for as long as you want. HoudiniESQ is a product of LogicBit, and Frank Rivera is the CEO of that company.

For more information on Clio, please visit http://www.goclio.com – there is a 30-day free trial. Jack Newton is the CEO and co-founder.