Working with Contracts: Questionnaires and Wizards

August 17, 2016 —

We’re often asked whether Turner and Contract Tools are similar to LegalZoom and RocketLawyer. These are online tools for creating basic legal documents like wills and corporate charters. When you use either tool, you typically fill out a questionnaire, pay a nominal fee, and then get a finished document. For basic legal documents, these are good products for a good price – especially if you don’t need customized legal advice.

Turner and Contract Tools are very different from these kinds of tools. Here’s how.

Wizards: Questionnaires by Another Name

Turner and Contract Tools don’t use wizards.

More generally: software can present information in a variety of ways. Email applications present an overview of emails in a table, and details about a selected email in a larger view. Photo management applications present photos in an image gallery. Applications for creating music and film present media in a timeline.

Most applications for drafting contracts – not only online tools like LegalZoom and RocketLawyer, but also document assembly software like ContractExpress and HotDocs – present information with a wizard. In a wizard, a task is divided into a series of steps, and each step is presented one at a time – just like a questionnaire.

Wizards are useful for many kinds of tasks: buying plane tickets online, installing new software, filling out tax forms, and much more. But they’re not useful for everything.

Guidelines for Wizards

From experience using wizards in appropriate contexts (for example, an airline ticketing kiosk) and inappropriate contexts (just imagine getting started on an email by going step by tedious step through a wizard), we can sketch some guidelines for the kinds of tasks for which wizards are suitable.

Wizards are suitable for tasks that:

  • you don’t do often
  • you don’t fully understand
  • deal with information that you don’t care to explore
  • are inherently sequential

There are plenty of tasks with these traits. We all have limited time and attention, we can’t master everything, and we can’t fully understand and explore all the information we encounter every day. Wizards are a good solution for the kinds of tasks that we need to get done, but that we don’t need or want to fully understand.

Filling out tax forms is a good example of this kind of task:

  • Most people fill out tax forms once a year.
  • Tax forms (and tax law) are complex and arcane – few people fully understand them (or need to).
  • Unless you get audited, you generally don’t need to explore the information in your tax forms.
  • Filling out tax forms is inherently sequential (calculate income, apply deductions, and so on).

Wizards aren’t suitable for tasks that:

  • you do often
  • you already understand
  • deal with information that you may need to explore
  • can be done in a variety of ways

There are also plenty of tasks with these traits. For example, sending an email has each of these traits, so no one uses wizards to send an email.

Wizards and Contracts

For some people, drafting a contract is more like filling out tax forms than sending an email. If you don’t work with contracts often, you probably won’t mind (and would likely prefer) being led through a drafting process step by step.

For others – transactional lawyers in particular – drafting a contract is more like sending an email than filling out tax forms. Transactional lawyers work with contracts all the time. They understand contracts and contract law. They routinely need to explore the information in contracts and answer questions about what they mean. And they know that contracts can be put together in a variety of ways (lawyers have their own working styles, and working styles can change from transaction to transaction). For transactional lawyers (and anyone else who works with contracts often), wizards and questionnaires aren’t good ways to work with contracts.

Back to Turner and Contract Tools

There are many alternatives to wizards. Software can present information with an overview/detail framework, image galleries, timelines, and more.

How an application presents information is typically driven by the kind of information the application deals with. Photo management applications use image galleries because they’re a good way to present collections of photos. Music creation applications use timelines because they’re a good way to present time.

Contracts are complex, interconnected blocks of information, and both Turner and Contract Tools use a variety of approaches to help people deal with this complexity:

  • Extract information about connections from text and then present an overview.
  • Integrate information about connections into text (for example, by letting you explore connections by clicking words and phrases).
  • Check for broken and ambiguous connections, and then present this information in a brief menu or a more detailed list.

Interconnections in contracts are important, but contracts are also text, and text can get messy. Important information – payment amounts, deadlines, and so on – can be presented anywhere and in a variety of ways. Turner and Contract Tools offer tools to make it easy to find these less-structured kinds of information.

Also, contracts change: they’re negotiated, amended, and so on. Contract Tools and Turner (especially) offer a variety of tools for making changes to contracts: autocompleting text, tracking unfinished items, and more.

For transactional lawyers and others who work with contracts, the tools that Turner and Contract Tools offer are far better than a linear questionnaire.