Important Software for the Law Practice

An edited version of this article was originally published in Computer Counselor column of the November 1992 issue of the Los Angeles Lawyer Magazine.

Comments are generalizations and may not apply to every situation. It is advisable to consult with a competent professional before relying on any written commentary. Paul D. Supnik is a member of the State Bar of California and not of any other state or country. The material set forth herein is not for the purpose of soliciting any engagements where to do so would be to offend or violate the professional standards of any other state, country or bar. This web page Copyright 1992, 1996 by Paul D. Supnik

By: Paul D. Supnik

The article considers the present state of document assembly programs for lawyers, how they work and they are useful, and the degree of difficulty in their use. Three particular programs are reviewed, CAPS, Scrivener and ShortWork.


Important Software for the Law Practice

Document assembly software is a rapidly developing type of computer software which is ideally suited for use in the law office. Document assembly is a sophisticated document creation approach which uses techniques which go beyond the features normally available with word processing programs. Word processing programs have what are commonly known as mail merge features and permit the simple use of fill-in elements to create repetitive documents. Beyond "mailmerge", simple document assembly programs have included Overdrive 2.0 (See Los Angeles Lawyer, October 1988 for review of the original version of this program) Strictly Legal and Blankety Blank. These are all relatively inexpensive database programs which integrate with WordPerfect and other word processing programs to provide a an efficient method for using word perfect and macro features of word processing program to fill in common variable information in documents. However, the type of document assembly programs discussed here go far beyond these programs, having more sophisticated and powerful features.

The reason that document assembly programs are important in the law practice is that beyond simple repetitive activity in the creation of documents, real world documents must be individually tailored for particular clients, for particular cases and for particular matters. On a very basic level, documents need to be customized to account for different parties, whether they be a single plaintiff or a plaintiff and a counterdefendant. Gender must be considered in the writing of documents. Specific paragraphs may be required for some documents but not for others. Finally, there is a mix of knowledge and a set of rules which must be used in making a determination as to whether or not certain classes or paragraphs are to be included in a document. Inclusion of some paragraphs may in turn, determine if another section or paragraph is to be included in the document, whether it be a contract or a pleading. Document assembly programs generally combine the use of a word processor and a data base program with a form of artificial intelligence. This permits a document to be created based on the implementation of certain rules based on information which has been entered from a series of questions.

To use a document assembly program, a template or series of clauses which may be included in the final documents are prepared. A series of questions are prepared, for receiving answers which feed into the final document. A set of rules or conditions are also prepared which may be part of the question preparation process and determine under what conditions particular clauses are to appear in a final document based on the responses to questions. In using the finished template, the questions are then answered and the document generated in accordance with the template and the information given in response to the questions.

As a result of the relative complexity of the functions of these programs, it is often thought that the approach to use of Document assembly programs might have more limited practical utility than the ordinary software program found in the law office. For a number of years, this column has been suggesting that the average, ordinary lawyer can make use of a computer on his or her desk with a wide variety of software that exists. That is not necessarily true for document assembly programs, but document assembly programs here today and certainly in the future will play a greater role in occupying the lawyer's desk and time.

Some of the examples of how document assembly programs may be used are the following. Consider receiving a set of interrogatories. The procedure normally used for responding to the interrogatories is that the secretary will prepare a newly typed written set of the actual interrogatories, or they may be scanned with a scanner, after which responses to those interrogatories must be made. In responding to those interrogatories there may be a series of different types of objections that may be raised as to each interrogatory, there may be information which may be answered or responded to and there may be common information which should be included in the interrogatory responses. A document assembly program may be used to display the interrogatory and give the lawyer the opportunity to make decisions as to whether or not one or more of the objections are appropriate for inclusion, whether none of the objections are appropriate, and how to input any additional specific response. On a more sophisticated level, a pleading might have various text elements that are appropriate to most pleadings, but on some pleadings the information would vary. For example, a Doe allegation might be appropriate in connection with a state court pleading, while a federal court pleading based on diversity of citizenship might not be appropriate for a Doe allegation. In contract drafting, four different types of attorneys fees clauses might be available for selection. Though many documents lawyers generate have similarities, most require specific tailoring. Moreover, there might be some rules concerning whether or not a particular form of pleading is appropriate in particular circumstances and it would be convenient to be able to access the rule or statute from the computer without having to immediately run to a court rule book.

These are all appropriate areas of activity that can be accomplished by document assembly programs. The problem with document assembly programs is that as the number of features for assembling particular documents increases, the programming complexity and the ability to use the document assembly programs increases. Unlike most computer programs that are now used in the law office, the document assembly programs must be programmed and that programming perhaps comes closer to "computer programming" than any other type of program that is commonly in use in the law office. It is a directly law related computer programming which may be most suitably accomplished by a lawyer rather than an outside consultant without a legal background. Document assembly programs are developing to the point of being close to but not quite "user friendly".

One aspect of document assembly programs that has a futuristic sound but in fact has a practical application here is the use of artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence simulates thinking by the use of a set of rules which supplies logical inferences based on those rules. The rules in document assembly programs are a series of "If-Then" type of rules to determine, for example, at a basic level the gender which should be used throughout a document, whether certain clauses should be used and, for example, what phrases to use if the party is a corporation rather than an individual.

In determining whether or not the document assembly programs would be useful to a lawyer, the initial issue might appear to be the cost of the program. If the program is to be used in a meaningful way, that may be only one factor. The document assembly program is a program which is just as likely to be used by a lawyer as a secretary or paralegal once the model for a document has been completed. So the time value is as significant a factor as expensive attorney and paralegal time may be used in connection with the program.

There are two time value aspects of the program to be considered. The first aspect is the creation of a model document and second aspect is using the model that has been created to generate new similar documents for use with your practice. It is generally the attorney that knows specific problems within a particular document and if the program is relatively simple to use, then it is the attorney that can use the program to make the modifications so that the model document or template comes out just right. Being able to create or change models means that attorney must understand and be able to use the programming a language of the particular document assembly program. Suggested questions to ask in selecting a document assembly program or even considering whether to use a document assembly program are: (1) Is it easy to create a practice document template? (2) Is it easy to modify a practice document template? (3) How easy is it to assemble a document, once a practice document template has been created? (4) How difficult is the program to learn? (5) Will it be easy to remember how to use the program after being away from it for a period of time?

CAPS/Author, available from Capsoft Development Corp.,

801-375-6562 ($2,000)

CAPS is a highly complex document assembly program that takes a considerable amount of effort to learn, but its ultimate abilities are far reaching. It is not necessarily a program that I would recommend for use in a very small law firm, unless the law firm is equipped with a suitable computer guru who has no hesitation in learning a rather complex new programming language and would be available in a significant manner for developing forms for its use. CAPS is a program that is recommended as the firm begins to increase to a significant level and size. There are two forms that the CAPS program takes. There is a program called CAPS/Author which is a program for use in developing forms. There is also a CAPS/User program which is designed for use with forms and systems that have already been initially created on CAPS/Author. Thus where a system of documents have been created using CAPS/Author in a law firm, the practice system can then be distributed to others in the law firm which can be accessed through CAPS/User.

CAPS approaches document assembly programs by breaking up all portions of a document into what are referred to as elements. Elements may consist of a document element, a fill-in element, a frame element or a system element and a variety of other types of elements which are used to build documents and practice systems. A text element, for example, might be a paragraph or a clause of a contract. A computational element might be used to determine whether the defendant in a piece of litigation is a corporation or a partnership or an individual and, if so, who the parties are. A frame element is used to collect groups of information from the user on a single computer screen. A dialogue element is used to establish the manner in which the questions on the frames are sequentially asked of the user filling in the frames of the screens.

CAPS permits the creation of multiple choice selection box elements. A collection of mutually exclusive boxes may be checked off through selecting one of a group of choices, such as federal court, superior court and municipal court. It is also possible to have a collection of boxes which may be checked and which are not dependent on whether any other box is checked. Examples might be a series of various types of clauses that might appear in a contract, such as a captions clause and integration clause, choice of law and choice of forum. It is also possible to program a model so that if one selection is made, a whole new group of clauses then appear on the screen for selection.

Given an understanding of how the programming language for programming CAPS works, it then becomes fairly simple to take a raw document which has been used, for example for a particular case or a particular client or a particular transaction and then break that document down into component parts or elements. CAPS/Author permits you to import WordPerfect documents and other word processing documents directly into the CAPS program. A cursor can be moved to the point of where a fill-in element is to be created. For example, the phrase XYZ Corporation, a California corporation can be replaced by the fill-in element "FI-Name of Corporation." Pressing a single key turns this into a fill-in "variable" which can be filled in at the keyboard. You can create the specific type of input information that you want to receive or collect in a screen in a "frame".

CAPS permits the visual cascading of screens which were previously on the computer screen before later keystrokes, permitting you to drop back the prior screens of information and determine just how you reached the current screen. This is particularly beneficial in a document assembly program where it is relatively easy to forget what was on the screen before the specific earlier commands just given a few minutes earlier.

CAPS has includes hypertext help screens which helps avoid frequent checking with the reference manual on how to use the program. Hypertext is a method which enables you to focus in on information associated with particular key words or phrases leading you through different threads of thought. Hypertext can also be created for use with particular documents.

Document assembly programs allow the capture of resources or text information for display to help you decide how you wish to answer a particular question during the document creation process. For example, it is possible to incorporate as a "resource" particular statutes or rules or simple suggestions as to how a particular piece of information or frame might be filled out. CAPS permits creating several specific blocks of text information that are available in a window at the touch of a button. It also permits creation of subresources which are linked to specific phrases or portions of the original resource. For example, the original resource could be a general discussion of the various applicable laws and the subresources could be a selection of one or more specific statutes that could be accessible instantaneously to the user of the program when it is time to assemble a document. At least in theory, it would be possible to import such materials as rules and statutes through OCR scanners.

CAPS/Author can be used to create separate systems in different areas of practice which can be separated from one another and can be passed along to others in a law firm who practice in a specific area of law.

Forms can be built from existing word processing text. Word processing documents, such as those created with WordPerfect can be imported into CAPS/Author and can then be cut and pasted to form separate clauses and portions of documents. Nesting of instructions are permitted so that one element may reference other elements which in turn may also reference still other elements for fill-in or selection. CAPS can be used at various levels of expertise. Probably many people who use the program will only touch the surface of its capabilities.

Documents created using the program are automatically saved to file names which are automatically mneumonically numbered and dated (e.g. 05JAN002.DOC for document 002 generated on January 5) so that it is usually quite simple to pick out the documents that were created on a particular day for further manipulation and use with a word processing program.

CAPS/Author has a sophisticated manipulation of dates, ordinal numbers and the use of formulas. For example when a portion of a date is entered, the program generally can convert the portion of the date, such as "Sep 91" in to "September 1, 1991." The numeral "23" may be converted to the words "twenty-three" and complex formulas from tables can be used and computed to compute interest, costs and sums of various figures.

On the negative side, it is too easy to delete work files despite the fact that there is a confirmation requested before you are able to delete a file. However, the learning time and initial cost of CAPS Author is significant and perhaps a future version of the program should have an automatic backup feature as an option available. CAPS is a highly sophisticated and highly flexible program, permitting endless modifications and variations on everything from screens to output. That complexity, however, makes it time consuming to initially learn and create applications.

Scrivener ($1,200), available from Dianoetic Development Company, 215-233-3892.

Scrivener is a document assembly program that is not too complex or difficult to learn, yet has a number of sophisticated features. It does have its own unique characteristics. The philosophy of Scrivener is that it is truly an artificial intelligence program which prompts the user in the creation of questions for a document model.

Creating document assembly models is time consuming task and requires a considerable amount of thinking. To ease the burden on thinking and also reduce the time, while putting everything in perspective, Scrivener permits the display of various paragraphs being used and their conditions and rules in a structured outline format. The outline format can be manipulated in a way similar to outlining programs such as Grandview, though without quite the sophistication. The outline format conveniently depicts the hierarchy of various clauses and subclauses, and the conditions under which the section or paragraphs are to be included. The outline of paragraphs and sections is included on the left side of the screen, while any accompanying "conditions" for use of the clause are shown on the right side of the screen. Text representing particular clauses can be accessed and viewed directly from the outline. Pointing to a particular line of the outline and pressing enter brings up a text clause represented by the outline.

One problem with Scrivener at the present time is that it uses a considerable amount of memory. Thus, it may not be possible to use Scrivener in connection with a network, a memory switching programs, a mouse (with which the program works quite well) and various other device drivers all at the same time in certain systems.

Variable names appearing in a document text clause such as DEFENDANT or PAYOR are identified by double angle brackets in document models, thus, <<DEFENDANT>>. These variable names are picked out by the program as the document is scanned. A variable name list screen permits you to readily build questions after the variable are already placed on the screen. A cut and paste buffer is used to cut up existing text imported from a word processing file into separate identifiable clauses for inclusion within a document.

In a question box, explanation can be added on how to respond to the questions. The question boxes can also be made to incorporate text from variables. For example, the specific name of the defendant can appear in the question box when questions are asked about the defendant, to make the question clearer and easier to give a response.

A minor annoyance is the constant display of word processing codes including spaces which clutter up the screen, and the inability of the program to wordwrap documents during the initial document model creation process. This, however, does not affect the output of the program which is wordwrapped. Although the program permits the user to automatically load a wordprocessing program with the particular document displayed, given enough memory, it is usually more convenient to task switch to a preloaded wordprocessing program and simply load the Scrivener saved document.

The ability to create documents with Scrivener is perhaps relatively simple, as document assembly programs go, though permits the creation of highly sophisticated documents, and more importantly, permits them to be easily created and revised and improved on over time.

The program includes control keys which can be used to bring up lists of special operators to modify the output of portions of text, dates and numbers, a list of variables (such as <<DEFENDANTS>> or <<PAYOR>>) and a list of text clauses for quick insertion into a document model.

This program is recommend for the lawyer who intends to make significant input into the manner in which documents are ultimately created, and desires control over developmental revisions of documents. The learning curve is moderate, and the creation of documents, once the program is learned, becomes quite natural.

ShortWork, from Analytic Legal Systems, Inc., 415-321-3330 (Suggested Retail $695)

ShortWork is merchandised to attorneys through its packaging in which it is referred to as "A Lawyer's Competitive Edge". ShortWork is an abbreviated version of a more complex document assembly program, Workform available at a higher cost. ShortWork is particularly advantageous in smaller offices or for more individualized use by lawyers in larger offices.

A practical problems in document assembly programs is that in the real world, documents are frequently revised. If it is not possible for the attorney to simply revise documents and their structure, the program will not be used to its fullest, or alternatively the program will be used more for simple repetitious documents rather than the complex document drafting chores of which document assembly programs are capable. ShortWork begins by the creation of a document template, typically either from scratch, or generally using an existing document. For example, an existing pleading document or letter created in WordPerfect may be loaded into ShortWork. ShortWork permits rapid testing of documents created and permits quick changes, while visualizing on the screen changes in the template created.

ShortWork uses some but not all of the WordPerfect movement and editing commands. The differences are not so substantial and a screen showing the commands is available by pressing F1. However, some editing keys are not particularly intuitive, assuming one is already used to the editing keys of WordPerfect.

As with the other document assembly programs, various question types may be included for use with a template. Available question types are listed by pressing "Alt F1". For example, a question can ask for text, it can be only numeric, it can be multiple choice or it can be a date. Maximum and minimum acceptable answers can be specified. A question can be of 13 different varieties. It is possible to force the answer of the question to appear in a document either as it was typed, with all capitals or with an initial capital, irrespective of how it is typed in the answer.

Rather than use "variable" names, questions for text to be filled in are represented simply by question numbers, e.g. [Q3]. The advantage to this is that there is less need to be concerned about accurately typing the question name. The disadvantage appears to be that there is no mnemonic reference to identify the question without looking through an entire question list. However a question screen showing all questions for a document template can be brought up instantly by pressing a single key.

In drafting documents using Shortwork, questions are usually asked individually, one per screen. Conditions can be associated with questions, usually for branching, for example, to other clauses if certain conditions are true. For example, one question might only be asked if the answer to another question is true.

Once conditions and questions have been entered, it is also possible to build complex rules so that certain portions of text appear if combinations of questions are correct. Those combinations may be interpreted, for example, by whether certain plural conditions are true, whether certain amounts are greater or less than given amounts, or whether a date is before or after a given date. The program permits numeric and date calculations for documents. Thus, while ShortWork is a simplified and relatively inexpensive form of a document assembly program, the functions that it can perform can be logically complex.

In answering the questions in drafting a document, the questions can be answered on the screen showing the document text, as well as on separate question screens. It is possible to view the document as drafted directly on the screen so that various revisions can be made before it is placed in final. The answers can be reviewed as a group, but must be changed on individual question screens or in the document itself. After the document is in fairly good condition, it then can be exported as an ASCII file, or as a Wordperfect file, which then can be retrieved by Wordperfect.

The program is not particularly responsive in cursor movement through a document on slower machines; the document will not scroll instantaneously, as one might be used to in a word processor. Also, for larger applications, it often takes a considerable amount of time to save applications to disk. Part of this is a function of the speed of the computer memory. Therefore, it is recommended that the program be most effectively used with at least a "386" machine. However, this delay is not likely to be a significant barrier to using the program.

Answer files for one application can be used for other applications, if a single large template is made for all documents associated, for example, together assuming that one answer file is kept for all questions. An additive multiple choice question can be used to select a portion of the document text to actually include, thereby separating a grouping of documents in a single document file. Also, it is possible to answer files for different templates and only the answers needed will be drawn up into the new template for use. Thus, common names, addresses and case names, and other information may be saved from one pleading and used in a completely unrelated document, providing the variable names are the same.

ShortWork does not permit the printing of a document directly from the program. ShortWork prepares a wordprocessing file in Wordperfect format. You must then switch to your wordprocessor and then print the document from the wordprocessor, a minor inconvenience. That minor inconvenience can be major absent some form of task switching program on a computer using expanded memory. If the computer is using DOS 5.0, DesqView, Windows, Software Carousel or other task switcher, the switching to print from the wordprocessor is not a significant problem, and in fact may be far simpler and quicker than the procedures used in some programs which provides the facility of actually loading, albeit automatically, a word processing program.

Shortwork, while a simpler form of a program does permit rather sophisticated output, such as converting numerical formats to words. Thus, "150" typed in an answer can automatically be caused to appear in a document as "One hundred and fifty dollars ($150.00)".

The program is at an early stage, however, and with a low enough price and a significant distribution, the program is likely to be improved and refined over time. This program is recommended as an inexpensive simple entry to document assembly software for the smaller firm.


Document assembly programs are here to stay. It is to the lawyers advantage to become familiar with the benefits and limitations of document assembly programs and how they can work in one's practice. Look at the types of documents which you create during the course of a month and determine if they have any similarities, or if all or portions of those documents might be used again. I venture to predict that these programs will be flourishing in most law offices in some form during the next five years.