Though the debate of whether or not law firms should embrace legal technology continues, the pandemic has brought to light the advantages of document automation. 

Since mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered the way law firms operate. While some firms were forced to adapt on the fly as they spent weeks setting up a viable virtual office, other firms were well-suited to handle the situation as they already had the necessary digital infrastructure in place.

As law firms continue to adapt to the current climate, legal professionals are increasingly seeing the benefit of utilizing legal technology — and, in particular, document automation software.

Now, law firms of all sizes are looking for ways to increase efficiency and reduce costs and document automation software looks to not only have a role in helping firms weather the current crisis, but the software could also play an integral part in guiding future planning.

A Long-Standing Question

The question of whether or not law firms should embrace legal technology — and particularly document automation software — has been debated for years.

In late 2015, University of North Carolina School of Law professor Dana Remus and MIT professor Frank Levy stirred interest in the legal world with their paper entitled, “Can Robots Be Lawyers? Computers, Lawyers, and the Practice of Law.”

In fact, the paper begins by discussing a 2011 New York Times article about computers replacing attorneys with regard to discovery, illustrating just how long this topic has been discussed.

In their paper, the professors illustrated how long attorneys spend on each task and found that from 2012 to 2015, attorneys at tier-one firms spent an average of five percent of their total billable hours on document drafting. For firms in tiers two to five, that figure was four percent.

The professors categorized document drafting as a task that has “Moderate Employment Effects,” noting that this is “when a largely unstructured legal task has a significant structured component that can be computerized.”

By using legal technology for tasks in that category, the professors stated, that time spent can be reduced by 19 percent.

For legal professionals — whether they are a solo practitioner or a partner at Big Law juggernaut — document automation software can potentially have a staggering impact.

According to Thomson Reuters, attorneys have reported seeing an average of 82 percent time savings by utilizing automation software. Citing aspects such as eliminating the need to draft documents from scratch to having the ability to search for templates, they note that document automation software has the potential to save hours upon hours

In the wake of the pandemic, the legal world has seen the impact of what document automation software can accomplish.

For instance, at Suffolk University Law School’s Legal Innovation & Technology Lab, The Document Assembly Line Project was launched.

The initiative, which is partnered with the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission’s COVID-19 task force, creates “mobile-friendly accessible versions of online court forms and pro se materials in multiple-languages for key areas of urgent legal need amid the COVID-19 crisis.”

Legal scholars, developers, designers, and testers alike are encouraged to contribute.

All work is open-source and available for view on Github, and while the project is focused solely on Massachusetts, the hope is that by allowing the code to be made available to the public, it can be adjusted for application to other jurisdictions.

Additionally, there have been other ways that document automation software has played a key role for legal professionals during the pandemic.

For instance, an unfortunate result of the pandemic is many firms have been forced to cut back or eliminate their summer associate programs. However, a number of law firms have elected to hold their summer programs virtually, opting for a structure centered around Zoom calls and innovative ways of making the best of the current situation.

And, in the case of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, the firm has gone a step further when it comes to integrating legal technology into its summer program.

Rather than require summer associates to complete a brief-writing assignment, the firm got innovative and used automated document drafting processes.

This marks the second year the firm has involved automation into its summer program. In fact, last year, the firm introduced its Build a Bot initiative, which allowed summer associates to work on creating chatbots that answer legal questions. This illustrates yet another way firms are embracing legal technology.

Planning for the Future

The power of document automation isn’t a new concept as it’s been on display for years.

Programs like MarginMatrix™, which was created by international law firm Allen & Overy in 2016 and supported by Deloitte, was designed to help banks with new regulatory requirements.

According to Allen & Overy, by using MarginMatrix “the time taken to manually handle the 10,000 contracts on average that any major bank holds can be reduced from over 15 years in lawyer hours to just 12 weeks” (assuming a 40/hour work week for 48 weeks).

As law firms navigate budget crises and handle layoffs and furloughs, many will be looking for creative yet practical ways to increase productivity and reduce costs.

And, given the incredibly prominent role it’s played in the past few years and throughout the pandemic, document automation software may be an ideal solution for many firms going forward.

Dorna Moini is the cofounder and CEO of Documate, a document automation platform helping legal aid organizations turn template documents and forms into intelligent workflows. A graduate of USC Gould School of Law, she was formerly an associate at Sidley Austin in San Francisco.