Document automation

Document automation is the process of designing systems and workflows that assist in the creation of business-critical documents. These include systems that use conditional logic, variable text and data to assemble sets of documents. This process is used in professional services, as well as general commerce and industry, to assemble legal documents, contracts, letters, other business documents, and client communications.

The principle idea behind document automation is to present the user with a questionnaire that gathers the data needed for a document. This data is subsequently combined with a template to create that document. In this way a document can be created in a fraction of the time it takes to manually draft the document.

Originally introduced in the 1980’s, document automation began with simple text substitution in documents. Since then these systems have become more functional, especially with the introduction of conditional logic and database connectors. In this way you could say that document automation is one of the earliest forms of robotic process automation.

However, over the decades the key concepts underlying the technology have stagnated, and so you find that the major vendors’ products have similar capabilities in terms of their core features. The way that this technology has usually been implemented by organizations has also stagnated.

Traditional document automation has stagnated

In the meantime though, web technologies have surged ahead. It is amazing to see what can be achieved on the web with current tools. This means that legacy technologies like document automation might be disregarded in favor of producing document-centric solutions in some other way.

Traditional document automation will be disrupted.

Despite its promise to improve efficiencies at professional service firms, document automation has not lived up to its expectations. There are a few reasons for this.

A major reason that document automation has stagnated is the billable hour, which has created a powerful disincentive to introduce process efficiencies through automation. Those firms that tried found that automating their documents was a painstaking and thankless task that took a long time. And often the resulting document systems were not well accepted within some departments whose staff were used to doing things the way they’ve always been done before.

And document automation vendors have played their part in this stagnation too. They offer tools built decades ago, which are cumbersome and difficult to use. And because of the vast amount of time, effort and money they have put into their products, there is little incentive for them to take a totally fresh, modern approach to document automation.

Another failure, albeit an inadvertent one, has been to not have included IT’s skills and experience in the document automation effort. This decision by both firms and vendors has increased the cost of ownership of document solutions over the long run.

Issues with traditional document automation

Some of the reasons that document solutions have not kept pace with technology advances include:

  • Failing to respect the data model
  • Not treating the business model seriously
  • Failing to put mobile first
  • Not modernizing their interfaces
  • Not embracing the cloud
  • Not pushing paperless processes
  • Not creating reusable code and components
  • Not creating maintainable templates
  • Being expensive for what they do
  • Being unresponsive to clients’ needs

Let’s deal with some of the these issues in more detail.

Not respecting the data model

Until now professional service teams have not appreciated the value of the data they have and its insights. To be fair, it’s not been available to them even if they wanted it.

However, the advance of technology has made data much more readily available, and through algorithms and artificial intelligence, much more useful in terms of the insights it gives.

In document automation solutions where the data model underlying the documents has not been properly modeled, the data can be difficult if not impossible to extract and analyze.

In these environments the benefits of data-driven document automation may be difficult to realize.

And of course, document automation would not be the only beneficiary of properly structured and clean data coming out of this service delivery process. Professionals are using data and data analytics in an array of applications, from business development to service level ranking to legislative tracking to practice management to contract management to public records and beyond.

Not putting mobile first

It’s the age of mobility. Smartphones have been with us since 2007, and tablets since 2009. Clients are no longer tied to their desks. This means that clients need to be serviced any where and any time.

Because document automation vendors are behind the technology curve, their products are not mobile-friendly. This causes a massive disconnect between how the clients want to interact and how professionals are able to interact.

Not embracing the cloud

Support for the cloud, among document automation vendors, has been an afterthought despite it being a mainstream channel to market for more than a decade.

Even now, user experiences that are being delivered by document automation vendors’ products are janky and leave much to be desired. This is especially true of web-based questionnaires.

Complying with web design best practices in layout, responsiveness, and real time data synchronization is still not possible with vendors’ products.

The rise of the client

In his recently released book, The Client-Centered Law Firm: How to Succeed in an Experience-Driven World, Jack Newton, co-founder and CEO of Clio, a practice management system for law firms, posits that law firms that that embrace a client-centered mindset and create client-centered experiences will have the greatest success in future.

His view is that clients have come to expect an effortless experience that delivers good value. This is how companies such as Amazon and Uber have disrupted their industries. The problem for stick-in-the-mud law firms is that many, if not most, of their clients have had their user experience expectations raised through dealing with these companies.

Bad or indifferent user experiences offered by service teams who don’t care will stick out like a sore thumb.

Professional service delivery has become a buyer’s market. Buyers of professional services are demanding better access to services, better service from professionals, greater accountability, and more transparent prices.

Technology, including document automation, needs to help professional service teams to deliver the kind of service levels clients are demanding.

Opinionated approach to document automation

It’s probably clear by now that Doccly has an opinionated approach to document automation. What this means is that we do not buy into the ‘always been done this way’ approach to document solutions.

There are certain use cases for which document automation is a great fit. Generating repetitive documents, for example, is an opportunity for this technology to deliver value.

Document automation is something that can help professional service teams win new clients, keep existing ones, and offer better service at a lower cost.

Used correctly in the context of the big picture, it can also improve knowledge management within a business. Traditional implementations of document solutions have resulted in little to no transfer of expertise from individuals to businesses. And as these individuals move to other businesses all this expertise goes with them.

Our approach of baking in the data and business model, and using document automation for what it was originally intended, eliminates knowledge drain when people move on.


Professional service teams looking to make the move to document automation should take several factors into consideration. The primary factor is, of course, choosing a technology partner with a vision. Remember that professionals will not embrace cumbersome or complex solutions, and neither will clients.

Implementing document automation can be a daunting prospect for many businesses. In some ways the very idea of document automation contradicts many long-held views about hourly billing and professional service businesses. However, businesses that embrace the right mix of systems, tools and technologies now will have a competitive advantage over businesses that refuse to embrace the future.

Get in touch…

If you’re planning to implement (or re-implement) document automation, please get in touch with us.