Tech Audit

D-I-Y Docs

Many Lawyers Don’t Need Complex Word Processing Programs

Posted Oct 17, 2004 3:04 AM CDT
By David Beckman and David Hirsch

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Any lawyer who aspires to inde­pendence should be able to create a document without assistance from another human. Being able to do that does not require under­standing a complex word processor; in fact, it’s easier with­out one.

It does, however, require under­standing the form of a document and the form of a letter, and finding the right tool to handle those forms.

The form of most letters is one we learned in grammar school. And more than 90 percent of the documents a law­yer uses are simpler in form than a routine letter. Documents have a caption, precatory language (“Defendant John Smith states ...”), numbered paragraphs, a request for relief (“It is requested this action be dis­missed ...”), a closing (firm name and signature), and a certificate of service.

We have nothing against mega word processors like Microsoft Word. Its most current iteration is a thing of beauty. But we have always said that mega word processors like Word, WordPerfect and even Open­Office (which is free) are like sumo wrestlers trying to do ballet--tremendously strong but not very coordinated. Multi­functional programs that are all things to all people tend to get in the way of what needs to be done. When you use 90-plus percent of a program’s features, that program is truly usable. When you use 10 percent of a program’s features, chances are it is only 10 percent usable. Most lawyers blame themselves when they only use 10 percent of a program’s features. It’s time for lawyers to be more electronically self-confident: Blame the program.

Atlantis Nova is available free at www.rssol.com. At 450k, its size is minimal. And using it forces you to focus on the basics of the electronic composition of a document. Our main complaint is that it has no auto-numbering.

Atlantis Ocean Mind is also a “skinny” word processor, but not as skinny as Atlantis Nova. Ocean Mind is a low-cost program that has, or will have, auto-numbering.

Slimming Effect

Document assembly software cuts the fat in document production. HotDocs, at www.hotdocs.com, is a well-known example. You buy the program and either develop your own templates or purchase them.

A newer option is at www.ixio.com. The site markets Qshift for $55 a month or a quarterly fee of $150. It describes itself as a subscription-based application for lawyers, providing smart document drafting on demand.

Both HotDocs and QShift work with Microsoft Word. But document assembly, even if tied to a mega word processor, operates like a skinny word processor because the formatting issues have been handled. David Hirsch has suggested to a QShift executive that a rich text option be added so the program would not be restricted to Word. The executive seemed receptive to the suggestion.

QShift is truly innovative and merits a serious look. It claims to be its own knowledge base because of its ability to annotate. Actually, any document assembly system, as it develops, represents your accumulated knowledge up to that point--even a template.

If you do not want to use a document assembly tool like HotDocs or QShift, you should build your own. You should have templates that pre-set your formatting (margins, font, etc.) and, perhaps, basic text. If you are using a database to create documents, this would be built into each specific form. If you are using your file system as your knowledge base, each matter will have its own directory and a file named “caption” can be added. In a database-oriented system, the caption should pop in by itself. Same with “closing.”

Once you automate production, text editing should be simple. You then need to consider information storage: a database or something that functions like one (even if it’s just your file system). This leads to knowledge leverage, as well as freedom from paper.

Lawyers need to be free to think, yet have the ability to create documents themselves. Ironically, the one program you thought you could never function without--your mega word processor--may actually be holding you back from the future of automated document production and information storage.

David Beckman and David Hirsch practice in the law firm of Beckman & Hirsch in Burlington, Iowa. Contact Beckman by e-mail at ddb@iowalaw.com or Hirsch at david@iowalaw.com.

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