Practical tips for document automation with Verity White

Verity White knows her way around a contract.

As the founder and ‘Chief Contract Enthusiast’ at Checklist Legal, Verity’s on a mission to help in-house teams redesign contracts to be more readable and usable. Her main goal? To de-stress the contract process for everyone. 

In a chat with our CEO Tom Dreyfus, Verity explains why legal professionals should care about document automation, and offers some great practical tips on how to automate. 

Tell us a bit about you and your background.

I started out as an in-house junior lawyer, and was really baffled by contracts. I felt stupid because I didn’t understand them. Then I realised it wasn’t me, it was just that these documents aren’t made to be read. 

They’re intended to be used by lawyers to fight each other. That’s really strange when you’re trying to do business easily, smoothly, and quickly, and build a relationship with suppliers. 

I started redesigning and automating contracts. Then I discovered visual contracting. I fell in love with it and have been on this design train ever since.

You’ve built quite a few tools in your time, for things like contract automation and triaging. Can you tell us about their impact on the teams you work with?

I’m a no-code kind of tool maker. I use tools that much cleverer technological people have built, and just staple them together!

My first few dabbles with automation were pretty basic. I took an e-signature platform and its basic workflow processes, and added a little bit of conditional logic. I fiddled around with automated letter writing using Google Forms and experimented with some basic integrations there.

After that, I started sticking the bits and pieces together. For example, I created a full workflow for franchise agreements, where everything is built in – you have the confidentiality agreement up front, the franchise agreement, then the mandatory waiting period, and so on. 

It’s this easy way of living where things just happen. You don’t have to remember to make them happen. You get automatic reminders. 

I also wanted to get [clients] to put the information into the contract. It’s administrative information that [users] already have, and can put in quite easily. They don’t need to talk to a lawyer.

I suppose I just got more and more into being a lazy lawyer!

Why should we automate?

There are so many reasons.

When you automate, you can remove risk because there’s a set process that it needs to go through. You actually understand the client’s needs more.

You can reduce your user’s pain points. If there’s friction within this contracting process, or you see that it’s getting a lot of workaround, you can remove it when you digitise it. It’s a more streamlined process than it previously would have been. 

Obviously, when tasks are automated, they generally take less time. And it means that you can spend that time doing something else, either [doing something] more relaxing, or more useful for the business.

There are lots of McKinsey and BCG studies that say getting self-help tools to your clients, internal clients, or legal team is critical for digitisation. It’s a huge way to uplift the knowledge, capability, speed, and ease of doing business. 

Not every contract should be automated. But all contracts benefit from the thinking behind getting it automated because it helps you think about who’s going to read this contract. If you map out the process, you start to think about the clauses you get pushback on, or the ones you want to negotiate. You can start to build out more reasonable or secure contracts. 

Josef focuses on making the process of building the automation tool to be as easy, quick and simple as possible. But the prep work is just as, if not more, important. What are the things you do with clients to get them ready for that process? 

I put a lot of thought into this. I’ve seen people just dive into automation before doing the work of refining the contract. They say, “This is so hard. This is so annoying.” But it’s because they don’t necessarily understand the contract to start with. 

The key questions that I always ask are: What is the value or purpose of this contract? What are you literally trying to do with this? And it can’t just be “because we need a contract”. Are you trying to reduce your risk? Are you trying to earn revenue, or secure intellectual property? 

Once you understand what the contract’s purpose in life is, why it gets out of bed in the morning, how it would introduce itself at a party, then you can understand what to do in terms of designing and automating it. 

Then, when you’re looking to automate, ask: What’s the purpose of the automation? Are customers complaining about our contracts? Does the sales team need more flexibility to add a new product? 

Those are the kinds of philosophical questions that I try to ask and understand about a contract.

Many legal professionals are still on the fence about these new ways of thinking about how we practice and serve our clients. What do you say to them to spark their interest?

In the past, I’ve been guilty of just getting so excited about finally having a solution after doing five years’ of work thinking about a problem, that I just told people the solution and didn’t take them on the journey. 

But if you’re leading change within an organisation, you have to bring people along for the journey.

Think about it like this. Your innovation idea is a movie and you want people to come and see it with you. You need to convince them to see it by giving them the trailer. You’ve got to back your idea up. How much is it going to cost? How useful is it to that particular person? What’s the return on investment? How long is it going to take? 

So often innovative people get so excited that their idea is the right one, and they forget that they need to back it up with a business case.

Tell us about how you inspire lawyers to be creative.

Lawyers might not think they have permission to do things a different way. 

“This is just how it has to be done, and I’m not changing it because I don’t want to get in trouble.” 

Also, redesigning takes time. For lawyers who are time-poor and just trying to ship things out the door, they may not have the space to think more innovatively. 

So, encouraging creativity may be about blocking off time in the day. It can be going to amazing events like the ALTACON conference, to connect and chat with people.

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