Legaldealmaker reproduces this interesting analysis by William Peacock & Kurt Dunphy due to its valuable information for our target audience: lawyers and law firms. Hope you enjoy the reading!
“In the beginning, there was HotDocs. That software has come, been sold, and is seemingly soon to go. They tried to release a cloud version, but it never caught on. The new owners do not seem to be actively developing it and the cost of developing templates on the platform is astonishingly high.
In the past few years, there has been an explosion in the number of cloud-based platforms that allow you to automatically generate legal documents, as lawyers are increasingly looking to streamline their law firm operations. The beauty of these platforms is that they either require light coding, or no coding at all — any lawyer with a few hours to spare can build an “app” that will save countless hours of drafting documents manually over the course of that lawyer’s career.
With such an influx of options, how do you know which one to pick? We’re going to review some of the popular no-code options, like Lawyaw, Documate, and Afterpattern, as well as industry-leading light-code tools like Rally and Knackly, and finally, we’ll touch on practice management tools that also offer document automation, like Clio and Smokeball.
Without further ado, let’s get started!
No-Code Document Automation Platforms
Who this is for: Lawyers who like it simple.
The first impression I had which stuck with me while reviewing this tool was that this doc automation platform has one of the smoothest user interfaces I have seen in a legaltech product. It’s pretty. It’s smooth. It’s easy to use. Like all of these tools, the setup is as follows: Build out templates in Word. Answer a series of questions to provide the software the data it needs to generate docs based on those templates.
Unfortunately, Lawyaw is lighter on the feature side compared to other platforms. A lot of functionality you would find in other tools doesn’t yet exist here such as client-facing questionnaires, which are “coming soon.” (As of now, you or your staff will do all the data entry.) Lawyaw is a very smooth, one-trick pony that does a good job at generating documents.
Who this is for: People who want a short learning curve.
Documate was one of the first document automation platforms to emerge from the latest legal tech wave (you may have seen them advertising at virtually every online legal conference). It actually serves as the backbone of one of the hottest legaltech startups out there: HelloDivorce. Documate has a short learning curve and is slowly adding some power-features.
But, after testing a recent version of the product, I struggle to think of any unique selling proposition or feature. It integrates with Clio, if you are a fan of the most popular law practice management platform. But so do Knackly, Afterpattern, and others. Documate has the ability to populate data in questions or documents from a Google Sheet (think pre-populating addresses, judges, lawyers in your firm), which is different from most other platforms. But so does Afterpattern and Knackly. To be fair, their UI is more attractive and much more simple. The learning curve will be shorter but I struggle to think of any single whoa feature they have that nobody else does.
Who this is for: Microsoft Word lovers that don’t want to work in a browser.
Don’t be fooled, Woodpecker is a document automation platform just like most of the other names on this list. I originally thought Woodpecker was not cloud-based or was limited to living inside Word. That’s because the user interface starts with a Microsoft Word add-in. It lives in the sidebar of your document pane and allows you to insert the dynamic fields and conditionals that power your document automation with zero code. Generating new documents is also done inside of Word. Underneath all of that, all of your custom fields, templates, and settings are actually stored in the cloud.
Other platforms, even if they have a Word add-in to build templates, leverage the web browser to automate document production.
In addition, they have a very intriguing questionnaire feature that you do launch from the browser: you can select any document templates you have built out in Word and it will generate a questionnaire, on the fly, that you can send to a client or other party. All of the questions you need to generate the whole batch of documents will be included. On the other platforms, the questionnaires are less dynamic – the questionnaire is based on one template and you may be able to recycle that data to generate other documents.
Who this is for: Experienced legaltech power users.
Born in Brooklyn, this platform is for the no-coders. External data tables? Not only can you connect a Google Sheet full of data to populate questions and documents, but you can build entire databases inside this app with thousands of rows of data. You can use a database or portal inside the platform to trigger as many documents as you want. They’ve added features like “auto-build my app” where you can take a document or database and it will ask the questions needed to fill the document, much like Woodpecker’s dynamic questionnaires. And, of course, “auto-build my database” so you have somewhere to store those answers.
Afterpattern has a Word add-in as well so you don’t have to type in anything resembling code into a document. They have portals in case you want to resell your documents to lawyers or provide clients with their own self-service area.
But, with so many features and such rapid development, the learning curve on this one is steep. They seemingly build any tool that anyone asks for which means there are a lot of tools you have to learn. Unfortunately, despite being a ‘power tool’, there is no Zapier integration or open API. It does not integrate natively with your website either — your document automation app is more of a pop-up than a truly seamless integration.
Light-Code Document Automation Platforms
Who’s it for: Power-users who value substance over style.
Knackly is a new contender in the document automation space. You don’t see them at trade shows but they are starting to show up in search results and social feeds, so we took a peek.
I’m sort of shocked. My first impression was that the user interface is a bit intimidating. The logos and UI elements are spartan, to put it nicely. I would imagine that your office staff, should you ask them to edit a template or build a new “app” on the platform, would probably give you a blank or terrified look.
While I was disappointed with the user interface, it turns out that this company’s knack lies in the engineering itself. Remember that idea of data tables so that you can pull in things like courthouse addresses? That’s a core function of the product. They didn’t even blink when I asked if I could create a database of a million entities. For the end-user, that would allow them to start typing in a search box and while the tool searches on the fly through those entities.
Setting up a document is about as easy as most of these other platforms: you will use a Word add-in to drop variables and conditionals into the document. Fortunately, even though it shows a lot of code-like syntax in the document after you have added the variables, you do not have to know any of that syntax yourself. It will automatically include all the squiggly brackets you could ever need.
Let’s take a moment to shout out platforms that understand the need for integrations and APIs (an Application Programming Interface). This platform already has an API: which is a nerdy way of saying that you can hook other tools into it should you desire to hire someone to do some coding. There is also reportedly a Zapier integration and they have a Dropbox integration planned for sometime this year.
Who’s it for: Business firms that want to provide a best-in-class client experience.
Something that separates Rally from the pack is that it focuses on the entire client experience. It has a full-fledged client portal. It has a menu of services that you can drop on your website to sell your legal services online, enabling clients to kick-start work without calling or emailing.on. It has intake forms and questionnaires. It basically makes it possible for you to turn your law firm into your own online document automating machine. Every client-facing feature is thoughtfully designed and intuitive to work with.
And, if there is something that the platform cannot do, it integrates with Zapier, a shocking rarity on this list. The integration lets you pull data from Rally to where you need it most, like practice management tools, CRM platforms (think Hubspot or Pipedrive), or mailing lists (like Mailchimp)
Rally works for many practice areas, but it is especially well-tuned for business lawyers. It has built-in contract management and entity management functionality that helps you and your client manage minute book data and documents. You can even set up templates that clients can use completely on their own. Making Rally very sticky for business clients.
Really, the only challenging part about Rally is the template building. You will have to type brackets and pseudocode in your Word templates, though Rally does build one template for you when you begin your subscription and will build others with their document concierge service at a low cost. If you consider that the act of building a template is a one-time event per document (aside from minor updates), the fact that every other aspect of this platform is so easy makes it a very compelling choice.
Full-Code Document Automation Platforms
Who’s it for: Open-source aficionados, legal aids, coders.
Give respect to the OG. Before Documate and Afterpattern, and before this recent wave of “no-code” document automation platforms that promise to turn any lawyer into a legal tech software entrepreneur, came a brilliant, strong, open-source platform built by a legal aid attorney, Jonathan Pyle.
DocAssemble is free and open-source, meaning anyone can use it or branch off to create their own software (as some of these platforms actually did – they built on DocAssemble’s code). It has electronic signatures. It has payment processing. It has an API that can connect to other applications so that you can recycle data. It has OCR, meaning optical character recognition, the act of turning printed or written text into machine-encoded text, so they can recognise data extracted from old documents. You can even send emails, faxes, or live chat with your users while they go through the questionnaire/interview.
So, why is the free and open-source incumbent tool not the reigning champ? It requires coding. You have to know simplified Python expressions (YAML) and be able to set up things like a “Docker instance” and another nerd wizardry to host your own DocAssemble server. While the other platforms are turn-key and mostly code-free, this one is truly a foundation for building your own platform if you are feeling adventurous and want to learn code. Not many lawyers feel that way, keeping this elegant tool on the ground while new competitors join the space race.
Practice Management Platforms That Also Automate Document Production
Who’s it for: Clio users who are comfortable with a complex template-building system.
Clio is known as a practice management platform: a one-stop solution for billing, calendaring, secure client communication portals, and more. One of its features is native document automation.
If you are code-phobic like me, this platform can feel like you need a computer science degree to build templates. While it is great that you can take your existing custom fields and data from Clio and use those to generate documents, you do so by building Word templates using pseudocode: variables and conditions that look like <<Matter.First.Name>> and [IF the trust balance is 0, THEN display a message asking for another prepayment, ELSE display a thank you message]. When you launch a document with conditionals, you have to remember to hit a key combination to update the fields–try training your staff to remember that.
This is a very usable system if you have the time to train your team on how to build out the templates and use them. But it is not user-friendly. There is no client-facing questionnaire to gather the data unless you pay for the additional Clio Grow platform, build a form there, and route that data through two other platforms before you get an “automated” document.
For a traditional law firm that just wants to draft the same simple letters over and over again, this will get the job done with a short learning curve. But, you may very quickly find that you have maxed out the software’s abilities (or your own patience with pseudo-code) and the feature you need to pull off your vision is not yet available.
Who’s it for: Document-heavy law practices that need a practice management platform.
Like Clio, Smokeball is a practice management platform: billing, matter management, and document generation are all included. It wants to be the home for your entire law practice. But, unlike Clio, it was actually born as a document automation platform before it took on practice management, so it isn’t terrible at it. It’s actually pretty good at document automation. Originally, it’s strength lay in filling out PDF forms, but now it does everything from PDF to Word docs.
Like most of these other platforms, you can build your own templates. But that actually glosses over one of the biggest strengths of Smokeball: their forms library. For most lawyers, it is great that you can build a template in Microsoft Word or in one of these document automation platforms, but who has the time to do so? Sure, you can get around that by paying the software company a little bit extra to build the template for you, but how great is it when the forms you need are already there? According to their website, they have 17,000 public forms (the kind published by courts or bar associations), plus a library of practice area-specific forms.”
Rally´s article authors conclude it by giving their personal pieces of advice that you can consult here.