How forms help make work faster and easier
By Carol L. Schlein
If you’ve been practicing law a long time, you probably have forms of most routine documents. Usually, these forms are documents previously used for another client’s case. While some firms have created standard forms to use with their word processor merge tools, most offices use the old “dupe and copy” method. If this sounds familiar, it may be time to look at forms software.
HotDocs, now owned by LexisNexis, has been around since the late 1970s. As its website states, “back then, a pioneering research project at Brigham Young University Law School used computers to create legal documents, which led to the development of a PC-based tool for creating automated practice systems.” In 1987, that effort resulted in the introduction of HotDocs from Capsoft Development. A decade later, it was bought by Matthew Bender & Company; the following year it became part of LexisNexis and has transitioned from a document assembly tool that law firms can purchase to automate t heir own forms to a major supplier of standard legal forms in all 50 states. In New Jersey, it has teamed with All-State Legal to offer a wide range of forms specific to the Garden State.
Firms still can purchase HotDocs to set up complex documents. There are several versions and the differences (besides price) are in such features as the ability to create a form directly into .pdf (Adobe Acrobat) format or whether it can be networked. When purchasing a forms program, you’re buying the HotDocs Player software, which is designed specifically so users can assemble templates purchased from authorized HotDocs publishers, including LexisNexis.
OK, you’re thinking, why would I need something like HotDocs or one of its competing products like GhostFill when I can create fill-in-the-blank forms with Word or WordPerfect? The simple answer is, you can create much more sophisticated documents using tools like HotDocs.
For example, when assembling a corporate contract, you can be asked how many principals are involved. Depending on the answer, you’ll be asked to provide information about the appropriate number of parties. Coding conditions into Word or WordPerfect is possible, but not as accessible to the average person. Document assembly programs also enable users to create paragraphs that can be accessed depending on the situation. They allow answers to be saved and used to assemble a series of related documents, either in one sitting or over time as the need arises.
HotDocs has had strong links to Time Matters for many years. Now that both are owned by the same company, the link is being strengthened and enhanced. Amicus Attorney links to both HotDocs and GhostFill, a South African-based product that recently came to the states. Abacus Law also links to HotDocs. Prolaw from West has its own West Legal Solutions Plus. Linking document assembly tools to a practice management program enables you to leverage data already collected and managed to use in complex documents.
All-State Legal, the widely used supplier of legal stationery and pre-printed forms, has joined with LexisNexis to provide nearly 300 templates using HotDocs technology. These focus primarily on real estate, family, business, litigation, general practice, workers compensation and estate law. The forms are priced per user, based on a one- or two-year subscription, allowing All-State Legal to offer updates to reflect changes in court rules or legislation.
Pricing depends on the number of users and the subscription term, with discounts for two-year subscriptions and multiple licenses. With multiple licenses, the forms can be installed on the firm’s network to be shared by licensed users.
Version 7.0.1 of All-State Legal’s forms software for New Jersey includes a wide range of forms — from Family Part case information statements to various powers of attorney for real estate cases.
HotDocs’ basic components are templates and answer files. All-State supplies templates and forms; lawyers provide the answers. Certain information common to most forms such as each attorney’s name, initials, etc., along with firm name and address, can be stored initially as a default answer file. The software includes a wizard to assist with completing this routine information. With new enhancements to HotDocs, answer files can be stored in either HotDocs format or in XML, which can be accessed by other applications. Answer files also can be used to quickly review the fill-in information for forms or documents. When using a saved-answer file, you can browse the existing answers before making changes for the specific document being prepared.
The HotDocs filler application comes with forms and enables answers to be typed directly onto the forms in addition to or instead of using an answer file. The result — a completed form or document — can be used in Word or WordPerfect. There are some differences in the integration between HotDocs and the two leading legal word processors. Word has the option to edit answers while previewing the document.
To complete a form, select it from the HotDocs library. You’ll be asked whether to create a new answer file or start from an existing one. That’s followed by an online interview to assist in completing the remaining parts of the form. From this point, you’re operating in your preferred word processor and can make additional changes and save the resulting document as well as the answer file.
The dialog boxes incorporated into the forms make it easy to complete the forms properly. Unlike merge forms, these templates ask only once about frequently used information. For example, when preparing a deed, the program will ask for the owner’s name once rather than each time it’s needed within the form.
With government forms, the process often is even more streamlined, if connected to your practice management system. While Time Matters has the insider’s advantage of being owned by the same company, all the leading case management programs have links and can support HotDocs. Time Matters has more enhanced links to answer files than its competitors. When working with a practice management program, you must edit the forms to use the fields from the practice management program as the source for the answer file. This process differs among products.
The completed forms either can be saved or printed as HotDocs documents (with an .hpd extension) or as Adobe Acrobat format (.pdf). In the HotDocs format, you can open the forms with the filler program and make additional edits, such as adding other boxes. The latter makes it easy to e-mail the completed form to the client, adversary or the court. In the HotDocs format, you can use the included filler program for further editing or making a nearly completed version of forms for future use.
The software also includes the ability to print blank forms as well as a fill-in-the-blank-type list of the data needed for a particular form. For lawyers still resisting the computer or wanting to ensure they get all the needed information from their client during a meeting, these list forms can be used as a checklist.
Sometimes, it’s tricky trying to fit text into the boxes on government forms. The program includes an “overflow” tool to check whether the space has been exceeded. You then can decide whether to edit the text, resize the field to fit the text, override by adding text beyond the space or shrink text to fit. Depending on the nature of the form, you may want the other option of making an addendum to include the extra text as an attachment to the form. Can’t do that on a typewriter or in a word processor nearly as elegantly!
Another nice touch is that many of the forms include the ability to make calculations based on the numbers entered in the forms, such as a RESPA HUD-1 form. While they won’t do tax calculations, the forms can assist with many of the other computations on real estate forms. One of the limitations is the forms cannot be changed because they’re copyrighted.
The advantage of up-to-date forms for areas of practice you do occasionally may outweigh the cost in time and effort to create your own. For the price of the subscription, any changes to New Jersey forms are at your fingertips.
Carol L. Schlein is president of Law Office Systems in Montclair, a
training and consulting firm specializing in law firm
automation. Copies of previous columns are on her company
For information about her quarterly meetings for Time Matters
users, check the website or e-mail
formerly chaired the Computer and Technology Division of the
ABA Law Practice Management Section.
Questions for Carol L. Schlein on law office technology may be
faxed to New Jersey Lawyer at (732) 650-7010, e-mailed to
mailed to “Law Technology Questions,” New Jersey Lawyer,
Edison Square, 2035 Lincoln Highway, Suite 3005, Edison, N.J.