Duct tape solves for everything. Or, a fresh coat of paint.
A lot of software “updates” are like that. Cosmetic changes meant to paper over underlying issues. This is often the case for products that advertise a “cloud version” that doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of the underlying premise-based tool. Resetting the introductory access point does not a cloud software make. To build a cloud-based product, you actually have to build a cloud-based product, like from the ground up.
That’s exactly what HotDocs has done in building the next generation of its product: HotDocs Advance.
Now, don’t get it twisted: You’re an attorney, so you’re probably thinking “the old product is always better.” It is not. HotDocs Advance, while being a teardown and rebuild of the original premise-based HotDocs, nevertheless ends up being a massive improvement over what had already been one of the best (if not the best) document assembly tools on the planet.
What’s Up, HotDocs? How We Got Here
Two years ago, HotDocs was acquired by AbacusNext, a leading technology provider for legal, accounting and compliance-focused professionals. HotDocs, to most attorneys, is viewed as a legal-specific product. However, HotDocs also has deep hooks into the worlds of insurance and commercial banking. And, the fact that HotDocs’ reach extends to the sophisticated contracts that undergird transactions in those industries means those applications can be applied to the legal world, too, ultimately making for a more impressive product for law firms. AbacusNext and its new CEO, Scott Johnson, view HotDocs as a growth property. The major update that is HotDocs Advance is likely the first shot across the bow in a new round of Abacus improvements, including a forthcoming full integration into the Abacus line of case management products.
Sequel: What’s HotDocs Advance?
The evolution of HotDocs to HotDocs Advance now means that there are essentially two HotDocs products.
- HotDocs Advance is a totally new HotDocs platform, built from the ground up, in the cloud. It functions as a Microsoft Word plugin. (The Office 365 API was not yet available when the HotDocs team was building Advance.) The new HotDocs Author in Advance (where users build templates) replaces the desktop authoring tool.
- The premise-based version of HotDocs, now in Version 11, still exists separately and remains supported.
Welcome to the Future: HotDocs Advance Features
HotDocs, whichever version, creates and manages templates (called “precedents” in the U.K., Canada and Australia) for law firms. Like any document assembly product, the idea is that utilizing templates to build documents for specific clients speeds up the process and reduces errors, ultimately leading to time savings that can be applied to generating more. Because HotDocs Author is a Word plugin, that means that users can work directly in .docx, and leverage much more of the power of the Word platform. To start building out a template in HotDocs Advance, the user adds the base document to the Author platform and makes it “live” to start working on it.
HotDocs Advance allows law firms to create “interviews” to guide attorneys through document production, as do all of the best document automation programs. While building out a template document in the system, users will add the appropriate features within the document itself. But when lawyers are actually generating documents for client from those templates, those lawyers will proceed through what is essentially a Q&A (the “interview”), the answers from which will populate a document that they can review to finalize. Frankly, this is a much easier process than trying to apply changes in-document. It’s also a tremendous learning experience about how and why clauses and terms get applied to legal documents, for new attorneys especially. HotDocs Advance is also powerful enough to be able to generate multiple documents from a single interview.
Users build interviews by stringing together dialogs, which are essentially sections of a broad document outline. The Component Studio within Author is where users edit specific document fields, allowing for the creation of dynamic documents for which interview responses functionally change the context of the work product. Within the Component Studio, document fields can be edited in a variety of substantial ways. Users can add multiple conditions or variables (including for entire clauses and paragraphs), set calculations and manage repeated data. The ability to manipulate images is coming next quarter. The system is sophisticated enough to make certain that a contract does not end on a weekend or holiday, and to alert users to other potential issues or errors, without prompting. Through a slick interface, HotDocs Author users can use drag-and-drop functionality to reorder sections of documents, change the layout and add multiple signature blocks for complicated contracts. The Component Studio also means that making a change that affects one or multiple templates can be done in one location, quickly and easily. HotDocs Advance is also way faster to use than HotDocs 11, in part because more features are accessible via a single window.
All those features, however, may end up sounding like a complicating factor. But, if you’re worried about your ability to actually utilize this system, keep in mind that since HotDocs Author is essentially a Word plugin, the base skillset you need is how to operate Word. So, if you are comfortable with Word, you’ll feel pretty comfortable in the new HotDocs right away. Also, given the many ways HotDocs Author allows users to manipulate document formatting within Word, it’s easier than ever to access powerful document assembly software without giving up your house style.
HotDocs also separates itself from the pack of document assembly providers via Author’s revised testing environment. It’s probably impossible to create a perfect template from start to finish without making any errors — some of these documents and document sets become extremely complex. So, it’s essential for a viable document automation system to allow users to frequently test their specific actions to see whether all of the constituent parts of the document template are working correctly. HotDocs Advance users can test the resulting document interview as often as they wish within Author and at any point in the construction process. Anytime users wish to preview the interview, they need only click on an obvious “test” button to do so.
This is a flexible and convenient tool, where multiple interviews, documents and dialogs can be tested in real time.
In addition to providing exceptionably capable template creation and testing tools, HotDocs also stores finalized documents, as well as templates, thereby adding document management features into a highly functional mix. That means HotDocs Advance customers can access version control features, like check in-check out tools and comments, to boot.
And, because HotDocs is a flagship document assembly provider with a long history in legal, it may have the most extensive consultant network of any such company, meaning that: If you run into any issues operating HotDocs 11 or HotDocs Advance, additional help is at the ready.
Next: HotDocs Advance Integrates with AbacusNext Case Management
As the law practice management software wars heat up, players are striving to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Some providers focus on marketing to specific practice areas (AbacusNext has been doing that for years), and some providers are adding feature sets uncommon to or not fully built out in traditional versions of law practice management software (ditto). Amicus Attorney (another AbacusNext property) already has an integration with HotDocs 11, but the next advance (ahem) out of the Abacus compound will be a full integration of HotDocs Advance into the AbacusLaw practice management suite. And, that integration will include document templates for specific practice areas, which is a game-changer.
HotDocs Advance is an impressive document assembly suite in its own right and is the biggest development coming out of that product line, maybe ever. The effect that HotDocs Advance will eventually have across AbacusLaw practice management software products will be profound. So, now that HotDocs has introduced itself to the cloud, maybe it’s time you (re)introduce yourself to HotDocs Advance.
Thanks to Nigel Richards, longtime HotDocs developer and Senior Product Manager at AbacusNext, for walking me through two separate demos of HotDocs Advance — all to the strains of bagpipe music. Really.
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