Legal aid agencies have been building apps for decades. More law firms are getting in on it, with apps like UpSolve for bankruptcy and Wilson Sonsini’s app to help firms comply with California privacy laws gaining news and attention. Should you build your own guided interview or interactive legal app? Maybe. If you do, should you build it yourself, or outsource the project? And should you use a traditional text-based framework, or a drag and drop app builder? This article will help you evaluate your needs.

This is the second in a small series of blog posts about building custom document assembly apps for legal problems. The first entry was about the elements of an interactive legal app.

The kinds of interactive legal apps

What kinds of interactive legal apps are out there?

  • Lawyer writing and client organization aids, such as word processors, citation tools, case management systems, and the like. Not discussed in this blog.
  • Basic template libraries which take information and place it onto a form with no frills. May rely on user entry or an external database. Focus is the forms, not the interview.
  • Wizard-like apps–usually aimed directly at pro se users, but may be aimed at internal staff or advocates. Focus on user-friendly, step-by-step guidance. Usually includes time-saving automation.

The savings curve

How long can you work on making a routine task more efficient before you're spending more time than you save? (chart)
Image credit xkcd.com by Randall Munroe CC-BY-NC

When you are considering building an interactive legal app, the very first question is how you will use it. Time-savings is one small component. Some common benefits of an interactive app aimed at in-house staff include:

  • Saving a lawyer or paralegal time with repetitive forms, allowing you to represent more clients or hire fewer staff
  • Improving accuracy and eliminating embarrassing errors
  • Integrating data from external data sources: such as government agencies or your clients. User data entry could include both documents and simple data entry

When building a standalone app for end-users, potential benefits include:

  • Solving the access to justice problem by empowering users to solve their own legal problems without lawyer assistance
  • Serving a need that is too small for a full-time lawyer to offer affordably
  • Creating a product that you can sell at scale, greatly increasing your potential market with minimal marginal cost
  • Creating a funnel for new business (typically with simple forms, then upselling to full legal services)
  • Creating a novel marketing advantage for your firm

Apps may also deliver services you never even considered possible, such as automated reminders, follow-up emails, and more, saving your organization from very time-consuming and low-difficulty work.

The right project can bring in significant new revenue from efficiency or new sales, or save you from the cost of benefits and salary for a new employee.

Even an outsourced project will take significant project management time and input from your organization. See my earlier blog post about expectations that a developer will have of the project’s owner.

Legal apps can be expensive. Very large projects might reasonably exceed six figures, although there are certainly many projects possible for much less (see Lemma Legal’s Pricing page for some example project pricing). You should start with a realistic idea about project cost, potential time and salary savings, and potential benefits, including savings on marketing and expected revenue from a new source. Compare the expected benefits to the costs.

Calculating true value

It’s important to remember when building an interactive legal app that your new app will be entering a small but growing marketplace. Think about customer acquisition cost as well as the competing options your users might choose.

How do you expect your app to be found by your users? Is this purely for internal staff? Are you trying to reach existing clients or clients who have already found your website? Social service agencies you have an existing relationship with? Or are you trying to acquire new customers who have never heard of you or your product before? Keep in mind that advertising costs should be factored in to the last scenario. This will be easier if you think your clients will be repeat users or if there is a longer time that they are aware of their need. For example, it’s easier to market to someone who needs a will (who may update it two or three times or more in their life, and is thinking about it for months or years and can do it almost any time) than to someone facing eviction (who has two or three weeks to respond to what is hopefully a singular event).

Also consider what will make your app unique. Are you serving a niche community that you are uniquely qualified to gain the trust of? Is it a completely new app that doesn’t exist anywhere else? If you’re competing with an app that solves the same need, be realistic about how you’ll gain their users or users who aren’t part of the market yet.

Use this information when deciding the value the app will bring you. If the app is purely for internal use and you don’t expect to make user-facing revenue from it, do some research to make sure the app doesn’t already exist in the world. If it does, it will likely be cheaper to pay the annual licensing fees and live with the small features you’re missing than to build your own perfect replacement.

Graphical or Text-based?

Should you use a drag and drop application builder, or a programmer’s integrated development environment? It depends on how big your project will be, how often you plan to build new apps or update your existing app, and how experienced the interview authors will be. You’ll trade off ease of use for simple projects built with graphical editors against ability to scale and flexible integrations with text-based platforms.

Four popular drag-and-drop platforms are HotDocs, A2J Author, Neota Logic, and Contract Express. On the text-based side, there are QnA Markup, Docassemble, and custom solutions (often built on Node.js). Community.Lawyer and Documate offer drag-and-drop platforms built on Docassemble, with a subset of the features (Documate offering the ability to add custom code to access some of the hidden power of Docassemble). Text-based apps come without licensing fees; graphical ones typically require monthly or annual licenses and less flexible hosting.


…text-based platforms offer unlimited power…

Graphical editors let you discover features and forget about syntax, reducing beginner mistakes. They can be set down for a few months and picked back up quickly. The best ones expose the most often-used features so they are easy to access. Once you become familiar with them, you’ll realize that the difficult part isn’t the syntax or finding features: it’s all of the challenges programmers face, from design to maintenance and effective program structure. Soon enough, whether or not you realize it, you’ve become a programmer.

Word Thesaurus

Once you realize that you’re a programmer, the tool that lets you build most quickly will change. At least in complexity, building a legal app is a bit like writing a long legal brief. Imagine writing a brief by dragging and dropping words (or even paragraphs) into the document one at a time!

Early in the history of the Web, many websites were built with graphical word processor-like editors, such as Microsoft FrontPage. FrontPage saved you from learning HTML, but you still had to understand the web to use it. Now, people typically either use a content management system like Square Space that serves a specific task, or build a custom website from scratch using modern programming techniques. The in-between approach of FrontPage gets in the way more than it helps most projects.

In addition to the ease of use for larger and more complex projects, text-based platforms offer unlimited customization and access to the underlying code. This means that you can use a text-based editor to offer a vastly more powerful experience for your user. Imagine pulling information from a credit bureau or the Social Security Administration, adding live interactivity with JavaScript, sending information to or pulling from a database or case management system, or many more advanced features. You can build it all.

Text-based platforms offer more rapid development for experienced users. Modern text editors offer helpful features that speed up and reduce errors in your typing. You can also use the same engineering techniques that are used to build modern software at scale, such as object-oriented programming, functions and modules, debugging and automated tests, and much more that are critical to building large applications.

I have used many drag and drop platforms, starting as far back as HyperCard in the early 90s and Macromedia Flash in the late 90s and early 2000s. I’ve also used HotDocs on large and successful projects. Each can build very powerful applications within their limits. If you are building a smaller app with a simple structure, don’t have time to learn a text-based app framework, or expect to build an app infrequently, a graphical editor can be a good option. If you have more complex needs, want more customization options, will be doing the work frequently, or want the flexibility of self-hosting, a text-based platform is a better choice.

Once you build a larger app, you will realize that programming is a small part of the skills needed to build an effective project. Consider that your successful project will require familiarity with plain language, skill at translating legal processes into step-by-step questions, design, user testing, and more.

In-house vs outsourcing

Whether to keep your project in-house or to hire a third-party comes down to resources and long-term planning for your organization. Contractors are often more expensive than full-time hires on an hourly basis, so long as your full-time hire is actually busy full-time. If you can afford a full-time employee, the benefit will be that they can work on multiple projects over time and maintain the projects they create cost-effectively.

Many organizations aren’t large enough to justify a permanent developer. An outside contractor can also bring specialized skills and experience with many projects.

You can develop your own expertise. Just how difficult is it to learn a text-based platform? I have taught lawyers and law students without any programming experience how to build applications in Docassemble with a few lessons. My experience is that you can learn the 4 most critical features in 30 minutes to an hour. You can become a powerhouse in 3-5 months, while you may still need a third-party to build advanced integrations. I’ve gathered some resources for new learners at LemmaLegal.com. In addition to programming skills, you will need to work on writing effective and understandable questions, human-computer interaction, design, and project management. These skills are also needed for drag-and-drop platforms. For the right hire (a tech-friendly lawyer, or a developer with other skills that help in your office) this might be a part-time position.

If you are not a larger firm with room for a new hire, and you are not interested in becoming a programmer or an expert in the other “soft” skills to build an effective app, hiring a contractor might be your best option. The cost of a contractor can often pay off with a high quality result produced with less time and effort than an in-house project.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for a developer for your next project, Lemma Legal can help you. We’ll also help you evaluate your project if you’re not sure you need our help!


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