If you are a solo attorney or working at a small firm, chances are you may not have access to sophisticated document automation software that larger firms may use. This is an ongoing problem that entrepreneur Alex Melehy noticed and set out to solve. More specifically, Melehy found that nearly all of the one-person, small, and medium-sized firms in the U.S., tend to utilize Microsoft Word on a daily basis and are often left without any mechanism to standardize and automatically prepare their documents.
Melehy, along with a small, legal-experienced team of software developers and marketers, has developed a Microsoft Word application called Woodpecker. The startup’s product is designed to eliminate the wasted time and energy spent going back and forth with a client or document recipient and allows smaller firms to create and manage templates from the comfort of Microsoft Word.
We had a chance to speak with Melehy about the company and its product. During our interview, Melehy spoke about how Woodpecker works and why he chose to name the company after a bird. He also went into detail about a use case involving juvenile courts and how Woodpecker has helped and continues to help this particular client.
Colin Barry [CB]: How did you get involved in the Boston tech scene? Were you involved in the legal world prior to starting your company?
Alex Melehy [AM]: A lot of folks ask that, but no I was not involved with legal work prior to Woodpecker. My background is primarily in product management and software engineering and in general building software solutions that solve people’s problems.
I’m originally from San Diego and I attended Northeastern University, where I was involved with a number of projects that took me in-and-out of the scene. I previously worked with a Boston-based ad tech startup called Fisku where I helped build out the company's real-time-bidding platform and infrastructure. In short, I’ve been involved in the Boston tech scene since college and have been able to contribute to it in a lot of meaningful ways over the last few years.
CB: Now about Woodpecker. What is the origin story behind your startup?
AM: I came into the “legal tech” space after doing a lot of research on a specific document automation problem that seemed to show up across several industries and uses cases and found that legal, consulting, real estate, and insurance were the primary industries that seemed to share this issue.
In general, every time that folks in these industries are preparing documents for clients or partners, the minority of the information in the document is changing. Things like names, dates, and addresses, are frequently changed but the majority of the document tends to stay the same. What we found was that there really wasn’t any viable solution that allowed people to generate consistent, error-free, documents on the fly, while also allowing them to remain working within Microsoft Word and preserved their existing workflows.
So, I built the first prototype of Woodpecker myself and initially wasn’t sure about what kind of traction it would get. As we rolled out the product, we found that the legal market was essentially raising its hand saying “we’re the ones who have the most acute need and who are getting the most value from this product.” From that point on, we decided to be laser-focused on the legal use case and since then have experienced tremendous traction in the market.
As my team and I delved deeper into the legal world, we found that small firms were being really underserved by the existing market offerings. For example, larger firms are able to justify the implementation, training, and maintenance costs of big document automation platforms, whereas the smaller folks obviously are not. There really wasn’t any viable option for solo and small firms that allowed them to utilize seamless document automation functionality without spending a crazy amount of time and money.
What we’re really doing is providing a product that brings the standardization and automation of large platforms to an underserved portion of the market in a really intuitive, low-barrier to entry, and affordable way.
CB: What are some of the challenges that you are looking to solve?
AM: It all comes down to the pain that is generally dealing with documents like contracts, agreements, and reports on a daily basis. People hate managing error-prone documents across all sorts of use cases and verticals, yet documents are essentially a necessary evil that isn’t going away any time soon. We’re trying to make that process suck less. Our long-term goal is to streamline the entire document creation and management process such that people don’t even know it’s there and can get back to focusing on what they do best.
CB: Looking over and signing all kinds of legal documents sounds like a headache, and Woodpecker is the antidote to that headache. If I’m an attorney just starting out and I sign up to use Woodpecker, how does it work?
AM: It’s all about setting up a standardized framework for a given document and being able to send it off with the confidence that it’s not going to get sent back to you because of mistakes. Woodpecker is an application for Microsoft Word and when a user signs up for a free account and launches the app, it actually runs within Word itself. As soon as someone downloads the app, they get a free two-week trial of our Pro tier (which includes access to every feature Woodpecker has to offer). After those two weeks are up, they have the option to upgrade to the Pro tier via a monthly or yearly subscription or continue using the free version of Woodpecker for as long as they want.
What the tool is doing is allowing a user to take an arbitrary Word document and turn it into a reusable template that’s shareable and fluid. For example, an NDA might require minor changes to the document like a person’s name, the date, or someone’s address. What Woodpecker allows users to do is to create custom fields for any piece of information that is likely to change and ultimately dictate specific actions for those fields, like “all names should be in Times New Roman 12 point font.”
Woodpecker also enables users to specify conditional clauses that dictate the content of the document and can depend on the value of any other field. Again, for example, if I wanted to specify a specific clause that is only applicable to a recipient in the state of California, I can create a conditional field that is only included in the document if the recipient is a California resident.
After a document is turned into a Woodpecker template, users can share this template with anyone else in their organization. Frequently teams will create a suite of Woodpecker templates, store them in their document management system or shared drive and make the templates available to an entire team. Each time a template is pulled down, a user only has to fill out the set of Woodpecker fields instead of manually editing the document itself. This drastically reduces mistakes and confusion when preparing a document for a client.
CB: Are there plans to expand into other platforms, like Google Docs?
AM: We’ve been focused solely on Microsoft Word because Word is the ubiquitous word processing platform of the legal industry. Once we begin to expand to additional verticals and use cases, we’ll also start to expand the platforms that Woodpecker is built upon as well.
CB: What are some use cases of Woodpecker that have stood out to you personally?
AM: We actually recently put together a case study focused on a group of juvenile court magistrates in Tennessee, who is responsible for removing children from dangerous home situations. They utilize Woodpecker to ultimately prepare court documents as quickly as possible since time is a huge factor for them. When an incident arises the magistrates have to put together a ton of paperwork and get it filed and approved within an hour or two. After implementing Woodpecker the magistrates were able to develop a suite of templates that allowed them to confidently prepare these documents at a moments notice without the need for error-prone and time consuming manual preparation.
It was a use case that initially we hadn't even thought about, and it’s really great to see that we are indirectly helping children get out of dangerous situations via our product.
CB: I won’t lie, I like the name. How and why did you come up with the name Woodpecker?
AM: I’m of the opinion that software products that have abstract names tend to stick in people’s minds the best. Something like “Document Creation Tool, Inc” wasn’t an option.
I wanted to create something that stood out but that also related to the natural world. I was brainstorming natural processes and animals that tended to “make holes in things and fill them in” and landed on a woodpecker. Given that our software figuratively creates holes in a document and allows the user to fill them in, “Woodpecker” was a great option that ultimately stuck.