Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Disrupting Business Models with Document Assembly
A recent paper by
Document assembly software has been around for a pretty long time because the idea is simple -- if a document type has a defined structure into which variable content is poured, "standard" or "conforming" document instances can be created by eliciting that variable content from the "author."
We're all used to this for transactional document types like order forms, where the "variable content" is highly prescribed yet simple, like the name, address, quantities, and credit card numbers we enter in web shopping forms. So "document assembly" as a product category is usually reserved for narrative document types, where the variable content is more likely to be unstructured text that defines terms and conditions for document types like business contracts, wills, and divorces. Document assembly software contains a rules editor, and the logic in the rules then drive an interactive or wizard-like questionnaire that collects the needed content. Companies like HotDocs and Rapidocs are typical examples.
Mountain points out that the cost of creating a legal document depends on the amount of legal expertise embodied in it, so the additional effort to abstract and formalize the authoring process to enable interactive/automated document assembly wouldn't be justified if the document type weren't used often. But the web changes this tradeoff, because now the document type can be made available to vastly more people. We're in a Google-driven web culture where "good enough" free or low-priced services can quickly drive out services of higher cost and quality (anyone used Lexis-Nexis for tracking news lately? -- it is better than Google news but...).
So there's the disruption -- lawyers who bill by the hour have no incentive to become more efficient. And law firms that invest in document assembly and price legal documents according to their value to clients can radically undercut those that don’t adopt document assembly software.
Mountain points out that the only thing saving the "by the hour" document creators is the lack of client awareness of document assembly technology. We are willing to pay renovation contractors by the hour, but we insist that they use power tools and would never hire one who wanted to do things the old, slow, manual way. Eventually people will figure out that their lawyers ought to use computers to assemble documents and make them discard their yellow pads.
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