My Open Legals post a few days ago prompted a few comments - thanks everyone who responded.
I want to clarify the problem. There are two parts.
Problem Part 1
Generating legal documents is expensive.
Most of the related services we found address this part, including simply-docs, Firelex, and those in William Carleton’s blog entry.
Problem Part 2
Reading, negotiating and redrafting is expensive and time consuming.
Standardisation would solve this problem, but perhaps because of the difficulty of establishing trusted and widely used standards, this problem is very poorly addressed in general.
Why Standardisation Matters
Lawyers sometimes object to the suggestion that documents could be standardised, so I want to spell this out with an analogy:
You have an electricity supply in your house and need a plug for a lamp. You hire an engineer, who sits you down and asks: Do you need an earth wire? How many prongs do you need? Do you want the wall side to be male or female? How big do you need your prongs to be? Would you like them in a row or in some kind of arrangement? Is square ok, or would you like round ones, or some combination?
Your answer to most questions is: “No idea, what do other people do?”.
But eventually you answer. Everybody answers differently so the engineer thinks everyone has different needs and plugs can’t be standardised.
Clearly, he’s wrong. People just want plugs that work.
We standardise and everything becomes easy. When you want a plug for a lamp you go and buy one for £1.50 from the nearest hardware shop. It might not be perfect but for £1.50 that’s ok.
Legal documents are just the same.
The response from lawyers is sometimes: “But every client has different needs”. The answer is: No they don’t. If you ask, you get different answers. Different answers doesn’t mean different needs. Nobody values their answers more than they resent being made to design their own documents.
A real example: Illustration agents sign deals with book publishers all the time. Some publishers use almost identical contracts. Not only that, the contract specifies that they will explicitly notify the agent if they ever use a different contract.
This is fantastic for agents because it means that when they want a contract with one of those publishers they can sign and return within a few minutes, without reading the document, instead of days. That’s good for publishers too.
There are other examples. You don’t have to negotiate terms when you go shopping because your terms are covered by consumer regulations - a standardised contract of sale which means you only have to look at the price and the rest is understood.
There is huge value in standardisation, regardless of the contents.
If we agree that standardisation is a good thing, the question that remains is how. Should governments enforce it? Maybe. They will take a long time about it though, and I don’t have the patience to wait.
If we want it fast, we’ll need to do it ourselves. Docracy is making a worthy effort and I hope they succeed. It’s going to take something special to establish firm standards and maybe being open-sourcing is the key.
I, for one, am hoping it happens soon.