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The death of proofreading

A group of ex-City lawyers have tackled the age old problem of proof-reading documents by creating a programme to proofread.

The age old skill of proofreading documents is nearing the end Lamner

The age-old burden weighing down lawyers has come one step closer to being lifted. Proofreading of legal drafting has been a job that has been carried out for centuries. Most hate it, some have learned to live with it, and just one or two seem to like it, but everyone acknowledges it is necessary. Some partners even maintain that it is an essential ‘right-of-passage’ training tool which helps to develop that keen eye for detail – the quintessential string to any lawyer’s bow.

Whatever your view, it is universally acknowledged that proofreading is a very time-consuming task, which carries with it a substantial risk of errors creeping into legal documents. After all, lawyers are still (mostly) human. But times are changing and, in particular, two major developments in the legal market have highlighted the potential issues with manual proofreading, and brought them to the forefront of many lawyers’ minds.

Firstly, gone are the days that a lawyer can charge a client for every hour spent thinking about a deal. Clients are heavily scrutinising invoices and lawyers are under serious pressure to justify their time. Proofreading, which effectively constitutes a lawyer checking their own work, is something that clients are no longer willing to pay for. And with the increasing prominence of the fixed-fee arrangement, time spent proofreading is, in effect, wasted time:  lawyers are put in the unenviable positions of jeopardising their billable hours target or their realisation target.

Secondly, lawyers are being held accountable for their mistakes more than ever before. During the financial crisis, a great deal of poor legal drafting was exposed. Many clients – faced with the prospect of significant losses – sought to rely on their contracts in the hope that their legal positions were adequately protected. Unfortunately, it all too often transpired that, in the cold light of day, simple drafting errors had undermined their legal position.

Consequently, in the three years immediately following the onset of the crisis, law suits against solicitors reaching the High Court in England and Wales increased by 450 per cent (this figure doesn’t account for the larger number of cases that would have been settled out of court). And this trend has continued, resulting in a perpetual increase in the cost of professional indemnity insurance.

With one eye on the economic and risk management benefits for law firms, and another on just plain alleviating the hassle which proofreading creates, this process is now being automated at many firms. The majority of Magic Circle firms in the UK tried to create in-house solutions years ago. Now  we, a group of ex-City lawyers, have set up  XRef  to tackle this problem. We have created a legal drafting tool that automates a number of processes including checking for defined term, clause cross reference and other drafting errors in a document. Happy as lawyers have been to get this helping hand, a few eyebrows were raised at one rather worrying statistic: no law firm, corporate or financial institution has yet been able to provide a document which doesn’t have at least one material proofing error.  With findings like that, could we be seeing an end to manual proofreading…?

Travis Leon is an ex-Linklaters lawyer and a co-founder of XRef alongside Stephen Scanlan. 

Travis Leon

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09 May 2014

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