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Document Automation 101: Techniques You Use Today Without Spending a Dollar

by Erik Mazzone |

I’m not a doctor, but I play one on the internet.

A few years ago, an Italian orthopedist spoke at a medical conference about some special technique she invented. The conference materials apparently listed my email address for the doctor’s contact information (her actual email is different from mine by one letter). Since then, I have continued to receive frequent email requests to consult on orthopedic surgery cases from around the world that are meant for Dr. Elena Mazzone. Eventually, I wrote a nice reply that explains the mistake and provides Dr. Mazzone’s actual email address. I created a shortcut so each time I receive one, I just type the unique shortcut and the reply is complete in about a second. The emailer gets a polite and informative reply; I waste a minimal amount of time on it, and some poor kid somewhere gets a doctor who understands how to use the Mazzone Revised Upper Limb Module. Win-win. 

As we balance on the edge of what is starting to feel like an inevitable recession, figuring out how to prepare for and manage through an economic downturn is starting to make its way onto a lot of lawyers’ to-do lists. There is lots to say about this topic, but for now, I am going to constrain my remarks to one little corner of the firm management ecosystem: enhancing employee productivity by reducing the amount of data that is re-typed multiple times.

Let's begin by agreeing that preparation for an economic downturn will involve, eventually, a look at how to keep a tight lid on expenses. When you look for places to reduce expenses, it makes sense to start with the biggest line item in most law firm budgets: personnel costs. It is extraordinarily expensive to recruit, train and manage a team. Because personnel is so expensive, and because it has been unusually challenging to find and retain great employees, I would not suggest moving too quickly to reduce headcount. The recession (if it happens) is predicted to be short, so you will not want to make any irreversible decisions rashly.

So how do you control expenses on personnel without cutting headcount? You can start with places where you and your staff members are retyping the same information multiple times. This unfortunately frequent practice is caused by a lack of centralized data, a lack of systems and tools for reusing that data, and a lack of prioritizing it as a problem to solve.

In a perfect world, your firm would have a centralized database (practice management software) where data is keyed in once. That database would integrate with other solutions like document automation software and time and billing software. Data would sync between the systems and the amount of time and errors from re-typing data would plummet.

But that is a big kahuna of a project, so, let’s just focus on some quick, cheap, and easily implementable solutions to save you and your team some time from re-typing data.

Here’s how:

First, talk with your staff and identify the places where they are doing the most rekeying of data. Dig in and make a list.

Second, audit your workflow and think about the places where you are retyping some version of the same thing over and over. This could be as complex as building legal documents from various templates or as simple as having to resend the same email providing directions to your office. Add it to the list.

Third, look at your list and figure out whether you are mostly doing this rekeying on your computer, your phone, or some other technology.

Once you have these answers, you are in a good position to look at some simple and cost-effective solutions to help you move forward.

In both Android and iOS mobile platforms, there is built-in functionality in the keyboard setting to reduce re-typing using “text replacement”. You just write out the text you want to auto-populate and then you create a shortcut to signal to your phone that you want to replace the text. You create a unique shortcut for each block of text you want to replace. And it needs to be something you are not going to type too often accidentally or intentionally in other capacities.

If you find yourself needing this functionality less on mobile and more on your computer, Microsoft Word and Outlook have a similar feature called “Quick Parts”. Unfortunately, that is not available for Word and Outlook for Mac. If you are a Mac user, you will need to grab a third-party application to do the same thing.

My favorite of these third-party applications is TextExpander. The bad news is that it isn't free. It’s a subscription that is $40 per year for an individual and $100 per year per person for business. The good news is that TextExpander is incredibly powerful and once you learn your way around, you will find yourself looking for more places where you are typing the same stuff over and over. TextExpander is available for Mac, Windows, and iPhone/iPad.

Will picking up some efficiencies like this single-handedly steer you through a recession? No, probably not. But I am a big believer in a bias for action when you are trying to make a change. Do some small thing. And then do one more.

Trust me, I invented the Revised Upper Limb Module.


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