But were too afraid to ask. Precedent automation. Document assembly. Online legal services. Disruptive innovation. Precedent economics. It was all under the microscope in Sydney last week at the Precedent Automation Conference. A rare gathering (physical and virtual) of document automation experts came together to reflect on the past, present and future, and made some interesting predictions about the coming revolution in the way documents (especially legal documents) are produced, delivered and consumed.
So, are we facing a revolution in the delivery of legal documents?
Starting at the consumer end of the market, Richard Granat (dialing in from Florida) argued that web based document assembly services are already eating away at work traditionally done by small law firms, like "digital termites". Not only are some online legal solutions faster, cheaper and "good enough" compared to traditional lawyering, but in some cases they may be available for free, with online advertising funding the service. Freewilldocs.com is already experimenting with an ad-funded business model.
At a more practical level, Seth Rowland (skyped-in by video from New York) said "document assembly is like crack cocaine..." it's addictive. If you pick the right project, in the right niche, and plan and execute properly, you can get great results, and things will spread from there. On the other hand, if you don't get the planning, business model and people issues right, then you will probably be disappointed.
Canadian commentator Darryl Mountain gave a neat summary of his recent paper, Disrupting conventional law firm business models using document assembly, in which he argues that most law firms are "ripe for disruption" of the kind described in The Innovator's Dilemma. They are high performance machines, built for customized work, and, in some cases at least, resistance to document assembly will be their undoing. Darryl reckons that regulatory changes - such as relaxation of rules regarding the unauthorized practise of law and reforms giving law firms greater access to capital - could be what tips things over the edge.
Speaking of tipping, Jamie Wodetzki (that's me), asked the question: is document assembly reaching a tipping point? In other words, is it about to spread like an epidemic, where, all of a sudden, everyone's using it? Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell reckons that small changes to three things can cause something to tip: the idea or product itself (it must be "sticky"); the environment (which must be conducive to its rapid spread); and the people (you need mavens, connectors and sales types to get involved). My conclusions are that some sectors are starting to tip (insurance and banking), particularly where the economic and regulatory pressures are right. The rise of web-based document assembly also makes a difference. It's much more likely to spread when anyone can click on a link and it "just works".
Casting an eye to the future, Marc Lauritsen (dialing in from an undisclosed US location) longed for what he calls the "holy grail" of document assembly, where you can reassemble a document (and change answers, etc), even after it has been through a round of negotiations and random edits in Word (the good news for Mark is that this is coming in Exari v5). He also lamented the lack of rich graphical interfaces in the current crop of products, and the fact that "true" artificial intelligence still seems a long way off.
Who and where will the revolution hit first? There seemed to be a consensus that small, generalist law firms have the most to fear in the short term. And, according to Darryl Mountain, Canada is usually the last to innovate.