Document automation has been around for decades. It is often a “no brainer” for many legal use cases and organisations. Yet it is often unfairly overlooked. We caught up with Avvoka to discuss the challenges and opportunities of document automation, who are the sponsors and the laggards, how to build beachheads for automation and ultimately deliver significant legal process efficiencies.
For those living under a rock (or a stack of contracts), Avvoka, is a leading document automation, negotiation and analytics platform designed to help law firms, in-house legal teams and businesses draft documents, negotiate them, and leverage data insights from that process to create better documents, and get to “yes” faster. We’ve also previously featured Avvoka in our series on open source contracting.
With offices in London and Singapore, and clients including Allen & Overy, Baker McKenzie, WarnerMedia, Carlsberg and McDonald’s and a high profile strategic partnership with Allen & Overy and the Loan Market Association (“LMA”), Avvoka continues to expand its platform.
Let’s dive in!
What is document automation?
Document automation is the use of software to automate the creation of a draft document (including a contract) from a template.
Once templated, software users generally answer a wizard-driven questionnaire – complete with guidance notes to highlight playbook rules or other drafting concerns. Once all responses are captured the software generates the contract, bespoking the underlying template per the user’s questionnaire responses.
Document automation has been around for decades and is a busy problem space. How does Avvoka differentiate itself?
At Avvoka we do three things differently.
First, with Avvoka you can rapidly automate documents via our intuitive no code automation builder. For instance, see the below illustrative comparison between legacy systems (left) and our platform (right):
This means no more complex coding inside of Word documents, which typically involves learning and then inserting highlighting or special syntax (e.g. specific combinations of brackets and similar characters around key text). Importantly, although Avvoka uses a no-code approach, it can still handle long, complex documents – a fact it credits to its strong working relationship with Allen & Overy. In this way Avvoka sidesteps the issue of whether or not lawyers should learn to code (and the learning investment that requires), making it easy for lawyers to focus on creating and maintaining excellent legal content.
Second, whereas many legacy tools only automate first drafts, Avvoka goes beyond, providing a collaborative drafting engine. Our customers reach agreement faster by collaborating on documents with colleagues and counterparts in real-time.
Finally, we provide sophisticated reporting tools allowing businesses to monitor push-back against their standard contract clauses, track key commercial terms and compare individual negotiator performance.
Automation of anything done by humans always invites fear. Fear of job losses or change, which can block adoption. Document automation is often no different. With legal document automation, we’ve often seen the below objections. Have you encountered them and how do you suggest they are overcome?
Objection 1 | If we automate, our lawyers – particularly juniors – won’t learn.
Fortunately, we see this less than we once did. It’s largely perception, and somewhat personality-driven. It really depends on the teams and individuals in question and how they view their practice alongside their education and training.
We’d also argue that the process of automating documentation can enhance understanding. You can’t automate what you don’t fully understand.
Automation in any industry is about identifying, refining and organising the common from the custom components in a product or service. You cannot do that without knowing your subject matter inside out.
Adding drafting notes or playbook rules alongside the questionnaires and workflows that automate documents ensures knowledge is passed on from those automating the documents to those consuming the outputs.
Codifying decades of experience in this way democratizes experience. It allows junior resources, including non-legal resources, to stand on the shoulders of those more experienced or specialist in the underlying domain.
Collaborative document automation with clients can also be a great value add. For firms, it is a great way to demonstrate a proactive focus on efficiency. For clients it can ensure repeat commodity work is done efficiently and consistently by their outside counsel, freeing up bandwidth and budget for spend on higher-value legal work.
Objection 2 | We already use X legacy tool and have invested time and resource in that tool
This can be a challenge. It’s not unique to document automation, but generally to any situation where the market offers a variety of competing solutions which improve or stagnate over time. It’s the classic sunk costs fallacy at work.
One solution is to work with a new person or team within the firm. Alternatively, or in addition, it can be good to get the existing document automation experts on side early on.
Whilst our no-code platform lowers barriers to entry, it remains worthwhile to cultivate internal platform experts especially if that drives adoption and continuity of experience. Those individuals also bring a wealth of experience in terms of understanding how to design automations, in particular, what types will secure the most bang for your buck.
People generally don’t like to admit failure or encourage change. Having a solid change management message can help. It’s worth making clear upfront that automation efforts in extant platforms aren’t wasted. The experience – particularly the automation mindset – carries over to any platform.
Finally, document automation isn’t a zero-sum game – we find a lot of clients adopt different solutions for different use cases. We find in the majority of cases where our clients have an existing tool, they’ve used it to automate core precedents, which is great – they will see value there. However, our proposition is that our tool is flexible enough that it can be used on more ad-hoc, transaction-specific documents, so it can complement an existing solution and tackle documents that haven’t been traditionally automated.
Objection 3 | We don’t have the time to learn a coding language or build an expert team, which we understand is needed for most document automation products.
Yes, document automation traditionally has had a reputation for being inefficient, expensive and slow, not to mention costly to update. Unfortunately, this has tarred new projects and products.
We deliberately designed Avvoka to avoid quasi-coding. The result is a very shallow learning curve. This makes Avvoka easy to adopt. It also significantly lowers the cost of experimentation, easing adoption and encouraging innovation and process improvement at our clients.
Objection 4 | All of our work is too bespoke
This is a stickler. It is slowly becoming less common. Partly this is the fruition of antecedent change management aimed at gearing up lawyers to think in terms of service design, systems and continuous improvement. In some markets, it is also being eroded by price competition and a more acute need to look for productivity gains and lower costs.
Can you offer any further tips about how you rebut these objections?
Adopt an 80:20 mindset. 80% of your gains will derive from 20% of your documents. This can help users identify good use cases from the bad. Find the documents and processes with a high degree of repetition and outsized time and cost to produce. That is usually a good starting point.
Automation is not supposed to do everything, it is supposed to do the bit that is formulaic, and then you are freed up to focus on the bespoke bits (although this space is shrinking).
Thinking about adoption, can you explain Avvoka Academy and how this helps?
It’s all very well for vendors to build great tech, but if you can’t make it adoptable, or help your buyers resell it internally then you’ve failed. We try very hard to help our buyers resell Avvoka, and drive adoption.
For this reason, we launched Avvoka Academy, our learning and development arm, designed to demystify document automation by helping everyone from first-year law students to GCs to try it out for themselves by getting hands-on with the tech.
We run regular sessions that are free for anyone to attend. We are constantly evolving our programmes as we partner with organisations to deliver more relevant and tailored content.
If you’d like to know more about the academy or about partnering with us, contact us here!
Since launch, we’ve trained 1000s of lawyers (in addition to those we train as a matter of course implementing Avvoka for our customers). It’s been a fantastic knowledge-sharing exercise.
We’ve found emphasising the analogies between what lawyers already do and how these map to automation convincing.
For instance, legal drafting is inherently couched in terms of if this then that conditional logic and repeated variables throughout contracts ($/£ amounts, %, party names etc), all of which lend themselves nicely to automation.
Drawing out these parallels always generates a few “lightbulb moments” where the penny drops.
Pairing that to demonstrable ROI studies often seals the deal in terms of adoption. Nothing drives adoption better than building client case studies and helping internal sponsors measure and showcase their success.
Who are the personas driving adoption at your clients? Is it lawyers, their clients or other business professionals interacting with or consuming contracts?
You need people at all levels to drive adoption. It’s no good just getting the innovation team to drive adoption. Likewise, letting in-house lawyers drive the process and not engage the business isn’t great.
At law firms, as a partner, you need the associates to buy in, and vice versa. It’s a team buy-in or its no buy-in. Working with the tech team and any internal trainers can help assuage unfounded anxieties about breaking the automations or product (spoiler alert: you can’t!).
If you are an in-house team you will need the buy-in of senior legal counsel but also your internal clients – your business users who need the outputs of a contract to close sales, receive confidential information and so on.
Everyone who touches the contract workflow must be engaged and brought inside the tent. Doing so answers core questions such as: “what are we automating?” and “why are we automating?”. Getting this multi-stakeholder engagement early and throughout is a major predictor for a successful automation project.
Is there a tipping point in an organisation whereby automation becomes a no brainer? If so, what is it?
The tipping point comes when the first question lawyers ask of new legal work is: “can this be automated?”. Even if the answer is “no”, the fact it is being asked is a turning point. Often it isn’t asked!
The best adopters tend to be teams that are open-minded and incentivised to spot the opportunities for automation. Those teams will be trained up and responsive to opportunity. The incentives can be a mix of push and pull factors. In terms of push, this will be fee pressures. On the pull side, this will be a communicated strategy to lower costs, improve margins, unlock outsized client value vs. BAU process and generally reward process optimization over stagnation.
What are the benefits of document automation beyond the first draft?
The classic scenario is where a client makes a last-minute change to deal structure. With traditional document automation paradigms, this would usually mean starting again, or at least a time-consuming grind to manually update the documents against the clock.
With Avvoka, there is no need to start up again or to grind. Instead, you are always able to leverage the dynamism inherent in automated templating. You can always update your questionnaire (i.e. key deal commercials) at any point and cascade consequential changes through the document as desired and where appropriate.
That’s a really interesting point. There seems to be a slowly accelerating conversation – and widening mainstream awareness – regarding the need to structure contract data better. For instance, encoding key contract variables, conditional logic, events, and other contract objects in a format more easily interoperable with AI, search, automation and software in general. Are you seeing this?
Definitely. At the moment, most lawyers and their clients aren’t creating and maintaining contracts as structured data. The effort to create the original contract is often multiplied when looking to perform some post-hoc analysis or derivative use of that information.
For instance, mining contract data and capturing it in a contract lifecycle tool or due diligence platform is labour intensive in most cases. Typically that information is transferred by human API, i.e. a human manually extracting data from the contract and keying it into one or more other systems via the not so cutting edge (and error-prone) use of copy and paste! This is often the case even with AI contract review tools, which are forced to work with scanned pdfs of contracts.
If you are automating contracts with a templating system like our own, we capture the key variables, conditional logic and events in a structured format for free. It’s part of our workflows. This structured data can be integrated with other systems, including our own contract analytics features.
Thinking about ROI, what makes a good document automation use case and why? (And what doesn’t?)
The typical advice is “start small”. Whilst that is true, it’s easy to “start too small”. For instance, whilst it’s quick to automate an NDA, and often an entry-level training exercise, the savings might be minimal even at scale.
Instead, we always recommend starting a few rungs above an NDA in terms of document and process complexity.
Although there is a little more work upfront, and the gains not as immediately obtained, the result is often orders of magnitude more convincing in terms of process gains (i.e. saving hours, not 5 – 10 mins).
Expanding on that, what factors indicate these larger but more manageable first use cases?
Choose use cases where:
- There is a document type drafted and negotiated in high volume, i.e. 100s not 10s per year.
- You have available subject matter experts to help design and test the automation and attendant workflows. Make sure they are enabled and incentivised to help. If your ask of them stops them being rewarded, e.g. eroding billable time, don’t expect engagement. Get the incentives right or don’t bother!
- You have good precedents and templates that are accessible.
Why do bad document automation use cases fail?
Automation use cases fail where:
- Stakeholders do not have the time to design, iterate and test their automations.
- Stakeholders have not appraised the amount of critical thinking required, even if it doesn’t necessitate coding. Automation isn’t automated!
- Buy-in is missing from those who will need to interact with the product, e.g. where the process is designed by lawyers without engagement from business users who will need to use the system (or vice versa). Everyone who meaningfully touches the contract should have a voice in the design and testing to ensure it improves upon BAU processes.
How do clients perceive Avvokas value? Is it time saved, quality, ability to tackle volume, consistency, ability to create new products or services etc?
It’s all of the above. In particular, clients time and again stress that Avvoka:
- enables them to do more with less;
- ensures consistency and oversight by keeping document changes within agreed parameters;
- where Avvoka is integrated with other tools, it prevents re-keying of terms; and
- creates and captures structured data about the contracts, useful for other exercises and analysis.
And more generally, we understand our users find it easier and faster to automate documents in our platform vs. competitors.
How does reducing time spent per unit of work via automation align with the billable hour?
This is an eternal struggle for law firms. However, firms are increasingly realising automation can lower costs and improve the efficacy of alternative fee arrangements for firm and client. Naturally, this is less of an issue for in-house. For law firms, lowering the cost of creation and negotiation on high volume contracts is allowing them to open up new markets or widen share where their traditional processes and pricing were previous blockers.
What’s next for Avvoka?
We are building out our partnerships and integrations with third-parties. Our long term objective is to be on every lawyer’s device and their first choice for document automation.
To do this we have significantly grown our team in recent months, building out our business development and marketing functions. Naturally, we continue to improve the product.
We will also be completing an exciting three-way partnership with the LMA and A&O to automate loan market documentation. Stay tuned!
Finally, 2021 will be about US expansion. Clients are taking us across the pond and we are making great inroads which we hope to rapidly expand into next year.
What is Avvoka?
Avvoka is a document automation, negotiation and analytics tool designed to help law firms, in-house legal teams and businesses draft documents, negotiate them, and leverage data insights from that process to draft better documents, and get to “yes” faster.
Unlike legacy tools, with Avvoka you can rapidly build automated versions of your documents using our intuitive automation builder. This means no more complex coding in Word documents. Our customers reach agreement fast by collaborating on documents with colleagues in real-time and negotiating with counterparties via the Avvoka platform.
Avvoka has a range of sophisticated reporting tools that allow businesses to monitor push-back against their standard contract clauses, track key commercial terms and compare individual negotiator performance.
For more insights into Avvoka, please check here regarding their mention in our open source contracting series, or better still, check out their fantastic ultimate guide to document automation.