I'm coming up on 30 years as a lawyer, although most of my career has been spent helping other lawyers "work smarter" through advanced information technology. Document assembly, expert systems, intelligent checklists and the like have been my preferred tools. Here are some thoughts on how these technologies can be put to collaborative ends.
An Old Case in Point
Over a decade ago I had some involvement with a practice system for international distribution agreements and related documents. It was built on the legendary CAPS platform, which is long gone from the marketplace but still the source of great satisfaction whenever I get an excuse to work with it. The system was designed so clients could navigate through a series of questions, decision-tree-like, access contextualized guidance and pretty much fully describe their circumstances and legal wishes.
Once a full set of answers was ready for a given matter, the client could save them as a "data file" and ship them off to the law firm. The firm, using a more capable version of the same system, could then review and supplement the answers and quickly generate an extensive set of perfectly formatted documentation, including a memo of country-specific guidance on local considerations. A lawyer would review the results, rarely needing to make edits, and deliver the finished paperwork to the client. All for a fraction of what that work would have cost "the old way."
What is remarkable is not only that this form of automated lawyering was achieved in the early 1990s, but that the parties were so motivated by its benefits they endured logistics hardly thinkable today, i.e., the required installation of special software on the client side and the physical transfer of data. (Yes, even floppy disks put in the mail!)
Collaborating with Clients
The intervening years have seen modest but steady growth in innovative legal service delivery methods based on distributed document automation systems. A good number of law firms have commissioned systems that embody their expertise but get used by personnel at their clients' sites. Often these produce routine documents without further law firm involvement.
Most contemporary document assembly applications - online and off - still involve solitary users. One person at a time interacts with the application to enter information or generate documents. Sometimes people take turns working on the same matter or transaction, e.g., a lawyer has her secretary input basic data. Or a law firm lets its clients interact with intelligent questionnaires via an extranet as a way to reduce the cost of data gathering and to dispense background advice.
Even though there's little evidence yet of these technologies being put to use in modes where several people work on the same task at the same time - perhaps the clearest form of "collaboration" - the sequential, asynchronous lawyer/ client example just given above is pretty cool. Some theorists describe it as the "co-production" of legal work. And it's a straightforward approach with several of the current Web-enabled document assembly platforms.
In addition to private law firm extranets, co-production is happening now in corporate law departments that provide do-it-yourself contract assemblers for field personnel. And it's happening in non-profit, pro bono, and "low bono" contexts where folks unable to afford commercial rate lawyers take advantage of "unbundled" legal services like ghostwriting.
Some legal assistance websites provide "live help" to clients/customers using online chat tools. I expect we will see a lot more real time lawyer/client collaboration over the Web soon.
In addition to the lawyer/client collaborations outlined above, document automation systems can be engineered to facilitate cooperative work among lawyers, both within and across offices. For example, they can be modularized to allow specialists to focus on specific aspects of a large transaction: tax experts here, environmental law gurus there, intellectual property folks over here. Lead counsel then reviews the consolidated input and makes final adjustments.
Practice systems can usefully support the partner/associate relationship. Associates may do much of the answer configuration and drafting, while supervising partners can access features for quick review and commentary.
These systems can even be powerful tools for cooperative work among opposing parties to a deal or dispute. By sharing access to an interactive drafting environment, attention can be paid to high level decisions rather than specific wordsmithing, and revised documentation can be quickly generated. Positions and issues can be articulated with greater clarity.
Last but not least, tech-enabled collaboration between legal professionals and information system professionals deserves attention. One obvious context is the development and maintenance of practice systems. Developers can weave interactive feedback mechanisms into their systems in progress, allowing users to point out errors, omissions, and opportunities for improvement right within specific application sessions. Systems can be engineered such that users can add annotations that are immediately available to fellow users. More ambitiously, lawyers can be enlisted to pseudo-code document models (variables, logic) using standardized mark-up conventions that are semi-automatically interpretable by the document assembly engine.
Sharing the Work
We'll all do well to think creatively about "Who Does What When" in the lawyer/client and techie/lawyer relationships. Co-production offers a fertile middle ground between do-it-yourself and trust-me-I'm-the-professional-here. Tilling that soil means figuring out how tasks are best allocated for mutually effective results.
Collaborative computing in law offices is an old idea with relatively little current realization. But it has a bright future. Especially if we work on it together.
About our author . . .
Marc Lauritsen, a Massachusetts lawyer and educator, is president of Capstone Practice Systems, a firm that specializes in document assembly and other knowledge tools for professionals. He can be reached at email@example.com.