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The proliferation of legal forms on computer media--floppy disks, hard disks, CD-ROM disks--is of great benefit to lawyers, but most of us would much prefer our own forms on computers so those old, familiar documents could be used over and over again.

If you've been looking for such an ideal document assembly software package for your law office in a DOS or Windows environment, your search is over. "HotDocs," developed by Capsoft Development Corp. (732 East Utah Valley Dr., Ste. 400, American Fork, UT 84003; tel. (801) 763-3900; fax (801) 763-3999), is a powerful computer program that lets you turn your word-processing documents into what HotDocs calls reusable "templates."

It's relatively easy to create a template using HotDocs. You prepare one by inserting HotDocs variables and instructions into your documents in place of client-specific text and wherever optional text occurs. Thus, in the Paul Jones v. ABC Corp. complaint for age discrimination, you substitute Plaintiff' for "Paul Jones" and Defendant" for ABC Corp." The specific date of employment termination in the Jones case becomes a "TermDate" HotDocs variable.

For each item specifically related to a client's case, you substitute a "generic" reference or label. HotDocs will keep track of the labels you use for those variables, search the entire document, and substitute a new HotDocs "merge-code" for each client-specific word or phrase.

The program makes it easy to convert your word-processing documents into templates. Simply open the document you want to convert and click the HotDocs button that was added to your Paul Bernstein is a CPA, practicing attorney, and law office automation consultant in Chicago. He can be reached on the Internet at paulbern@atlanetorg. The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not reflect an endorsement of any product by TRIAL or ATLA. word processor's button set during installation of HotDocs. The HotDocs Library dialog box will appear. Click on the "Create" option, give the new document template a title and a file name, and click "OK" HotDocs creates a new template and copies the text from your document into it. You are now ready to automate the template.

As noted, the first step in automating a template is to replace variable text with HotDocs variables. A HotDocs variable creates a "merge field" where variable information is merged into the document. A variable also causes HotDocs to ask for that information when the template is used to assemble a document.

You insert HotDocs variables by selecting the text you want replaced and clicking the HotDocs Variable button. Variable types that can be chosen are: text, dates, numbers, multiple choice, true/false, computations, and personal information.

Your document can also include sections of text (such as optional paragraphs) that are not included every time the document is assembled. You designate this text as optional by selecting it and clicking the HotDocs "If' button. A section of optional text will be included in an assembled document only if the user wants to include it.

Building the Document

When you use an automated template to assemble a document, HotDocs will automatically ask all the required questions--with each question in its own dialog. Once you have entered the information the template requires, HotDocs merges your answers and carries out your instructions to produce an editable document. If a piece of information appears many times, you can type the answer once and that information will automatically be merged into each place where it is to appear. The document can then be printed, saved, or edited.

As you enter specific information about a case to create a document, that information is saved in a database called an "answer file."

This powerful system provides an organized library of your standard forms that you can merge-code without the usual complexities of the merge-coding techniques that word-processing programs require. In addition, the system enables you to use the answer file to create other documents.

The answer file stores the answers entered when the first document for the client was assembled and also stores the names of the corresponding HotDocs variables. The answer file can be used later to assemble the same document without answering the questions again. Even better, if you have been careful to give similar variables in all your templates the same variable names, you can also use the prior answer file to assemble new documents based on other templates.

What that means is that in the template of your standard settlement demand letter to opposing counsel (or my "Here are my standard interrogatories that I have filed in court and for which I expect answers in 28 days" letter), if you provide HotDocs variables such as PlaintiffName," "DateOfAcc," "DefendantName," and "TreatPhy," you can use the answers you previously typed into the computer when you created the initial complaint filed in court. However, if your HotDocs variables in the original pleading were different from the HotDocs variables in the letter (for instance, "PIName" in the complaint and "PlaintiffName" in the letter), this wonderful result would not take place.

Document-Assembly System

It is imperative that you plan very, very carefully when creating HotDocs documents. Here's how you can do so with any area of law practice:

* Use Windows. HotDocs has a DOS version; however, you will find that using Windows to create a HotDocs document assembly system is the better way to go--graphical user interface-based software is more powerful and easier to use.

* Learn how HotDocs works. Using HotDocs is not as complex as inserting merge codes into a document using a word-processing program. However, you will have to read the manual (which is short bill excellent) and do some experimenting to get the idea of how to use the product. Expect to take about two to three hours to really understand what to do and how to do it.

* Analyze and organize your documents. You must select the documents you want to use with HotDocs. Try to select documents that have a similar format or approach.

Depending on the area of law you practice, you may have to consider recording parts of your documents to make the process easier. Remember, you can add complexity at a later date. Analyze your documents, select the best ones for the initial group of documents to be processed, and then organize the documents into a logical order.

* Create your first HotDocs template with care. Spend some time with it. You may want to reorganize the layout. I've found that for day-to-day correspondence in a personal injury practice, it is best to put a great deal of information into the "re" section.

So, my "re" will include text (and the corresponding HotDocs template "markers" for each of the following: client's name, defendant's name, date of accident, file number, court case number and defendant's file number. The "re" can get a bit large however, this planning will enable you to block, copy, and paste the "re" from one master (form) letter onto a different master letter.

Thus, one form letter may be the standard "settlement demand" letter, another to opposing counsel can be the "Here are the interrogatories" letter, another can be the "Where are the answers to those interrogatories" letter, and so on. The "re" in each letter will be the same and will include the same template merge codes. By carefully planning the first document this way, all standard pleadings, documents, correspondence, and other forms can be put into HotDocs format quickly and easily via the "copy and paste" procedure.

* Set a reasonable timetable for the project. If you think this is so simple that you can put scores of documents into the HotDocs format in just a few hours, you're mistaken. It takes time to put each document into the proper format and to check your work by creating a client-specific document from the HotDocs template.

Like any project of this kind, the debugging" process can be a pain in the neck and does take time. Don't set unrealistic goals or timetables. Be patient.

* Create hard-copy printouts of all form documents. Having the documents in HotDocs format is the goal, but to make the system work well, you should also print the documents and keep them in binders for coworkers who will use the computer to create documents. Be certain that on the bottom of each printed form document you have the complete path, file name, and other information needed to immediately find the document's computer file.

* Use the system. You will be building and adding to your document assembly system for years. The more standard documents you can load into the system, the better off you will be. Everyone in your office must use the system. Everyone. No exceptions.

* Work toward the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to create such an all-inclusive, vast library of HotDocs templates that 90 percent or more of your document generation can be done in seconds rather than minutes or hours.

If you have consistently used identical HotDocs variables in all your documents, you may eventually want to create a very comprehensive client-information questionnaire document. The answers from this initial questionnaire will, under ideal circumstances, provide the answers to all variables in all documents in your document generation system. Thus, by matching new documents with the answer file based on this first template, documents will be generated in a flash.

Technical Details

Version 3.x of HotDocs for Windows is available in a 16-bit version as this article is being written and probably in a 32-bit version around the time this article is published. The product runs inside all major Windows word-processing programs. These include WordPerfect 5.2, 6.0a, and 6.1; Microsoft Word 2.0, 6.0, and 7.0; Microsoft Write; and Lotus Ami Pro 3.x. The DOS version is designed to work with WordPerfect 5.1, 6.0, and 6.1.

Version 3.0 for Windows was introduced in December 1995 and provides several additional exciting features including:

* faster assembly of documents from WordPerfect templates due to using a built-in "engine" rather than depending on the word processor,

* document management due to compatibility with DOCS Open and SoftSolutions document-management software, and

* "prompts" of up to 1,024 characters that you can insert into the question-and-answer format of HotDocs to instruct those operating the computer as to what client-specific information is required at that point in the particular document.

HotDocs is working on creating strategic alliances to provide documents in HotDocs format. STI, the vendor of the case-management program "CaseMaster III for Windows," integrates a version of HotDocs right into its program so that you can take information directly from your case-management program and create documents with that information. Total practice management systems like this one are the wave of the future.

The end result of this automation effort is that you can singlehandedly prepare documents at any time in practically no time at all. And remember--any lawyer can do it.

HotDocs is not the only document-assembly software product on the market. But in my years of experimenting with these programs and trying to make them work the way I want them to, it is the only one that I have been able to use successfully. Nevertheless, I recommend you work with an outside third-party HotDocs expert to "HotDocs" your documents--the experts know what they are doing and can save you time and money.
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Association for Justice
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Bernstein, Paul
Publication:Trial
Article Type:Product/Service Evaluation
Date:Jun 1, 1996
Words:1890
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