Computer Counselor - April 1999
Tools for Proofing, Outlining, and Setting Text in Electronic Stone
Applications that do one thing well are a welcome development for the law office
Daryl Teshima is the editor-in-chief of Law Office Computing, a bimonthly magazine devoted to legal technology. He can be reached on the Internet at email@example.com.
The phrase "less is more" is rarely used to describe computer programs, but sometimes it should be. In the highly competitive battle for market share, software vendors often take a kitchen-sink approach to product development, packing each new version with more and more features in an attempt to make the software all things to all users. To many legal professionals, feature bloat is frustrating rather than satisfying. A new program's bells and whistles take processing power and hard drive space. What starts out as a software upgrade often results in an unplanned and unwanted computer overhaul in order to run the new program at a reasonable speed.
Although a sharp drop in hardware and storage prices have to some extent mitigated the various costs associated with upgrades, the complexity of added features has made the learning curves of many new or updated programs quite steep. Additionally, the proper implementation of such applications as time and billing suites and case management systems requires a firmwide conversion. Getting the firm on the same technology page, unfortunately, means spending countless nonbillable hours in the ironic task of convincing everyone that the application will be a timesaver.
Software that concentrates on performing a single critical legal function is therefore a breath of fresh air. Instead of taking over your desktop or requiring you to change the way you practice, a simple, does-one-thing-well program can offer instant gratification. Even better, such a specialized application does not require a systemwide installation or a wholesale hardware upgrade. All that is required is a need for the particular function that a limited-use application performs.
The following three innovative software applications are of broad appeal; all firms are likely to have a need for them. Best of all, these programs do not require an MIS director and dedicated staff to implement, and they cost $500 or less for an individual user. One program, Deal Proof, can also be credited with addressing the needs of a practice area that has received only limited attention from software developers.
Transactional attorneys have discovered to their dismay that most legal-specific software focuses on the needs of litigators. Since the advent of spell checkers and document comparison programs, not much new has appeared under the sun-until Deal Proof.
Deal Proof works by scanning a document (or group of documents for a single transaction) for consistency, as a human proofreader would. It checks for such mistakes as undefined terms, blanks in the agreement, incorrect section (or document) cross-references, and inconsistent paragraph numbering. These are the types of embarrassing errors that are often overlooked in the rush to consummate a transaction.
The latest version of Deal Proof from Expert Ease Software (www.expertease.com, $500) works with Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect. The program can handle long, complex documents, such as contracts, real estate agreements, wills and trusts, and corporate bylaws.
As the program finds errors, it creates a hypertext flag in the document that is linked to an error report, which is displayed in Deal Proof and can be exported to a word processing program for printing and saving. The report also compiles other helpful information, such as a list of all defined terms and statutory references.
Deal Proof's reports need to be carefully examined because items that are not mistakes get flagged. Deal Proof does not completely eliminate the need for a human proofreader or final attorney review but does work wonderfully well at identifying consistency errors and open issues in transactional documents. As refinements are made to the program, Deal Proof is poised to become a critical tool in every transactional attorney's kit.
Some attorneys have been practicing long enough to remember when computers were first introduced to law firms. In those days, many attorneys used stand-alone outline programs to organize information and matters. DOS programs like Lotus Agenda and Windows programs like Ecco Pro turned computers into loyal assistants that never forgot anything. Outliners helped turn computers from glorified typewriters into tools for improving the quality of legal services.
Sadly, outliners today are a victim of feature bloat. The Windows versions of WordPerfect and Word have outlining functions in their feature set. Even though outlining in these word processors can be difficult and confusing, the inclusion of these features made outliners obsolete, in the opinion of many legal users.
Similar to the older, easier-to-use outliners are litigation support programs. These applications, however, focus on helping a litigation team organize and search the mountains of evidence generated in a particular case. To handle the volume of data, considerable staff and computing resources are often needed to implement such a system. Litigation support programs can help a lawyer find facts and evidence but do not necessarily provide a highly coherent view of the subject litigation.
CaseMap from CaseSoft (www.casesoft.com, single license starting at $495) attempts to fill this void by combining the best features of the old outliners with the data cataloging capability of modern litigation support programs. This hybrid combination makes CaseMap a cutting-edge analytical tool, helping the practitioner quickly see the strengths and weaknesses of a case.
Cases are analyzed by entering information into one of four categories: facts (dates, times, sources, etc.), objects (persons, organizations, physical evidence, etc.), issues (elements that need to be proved or disproved) and questions (tasks and questions that need answering). As information is entered, CaseMap makes it easy to evaluate each fact. For example, when entering facts, it asks whether the fact is disputed by any party as well as links the fact to particular issues, questions, and objects. In addition, the ability to catalog each issue and question enables CaseMap to act as a case manager, allowing the attorney (and others involved in the case) to see the status of the matter simply by generating a particular report.
Organizing information in this fashion gives a perspective that helps litigators assess case risk as well as keep abreast of the latest developments. CaseMap includes a "data refinery" that lets users generate any report imaginable. For instance, the data refinery will help users list all the undisputed facts in the case for a summary judgment motion. It can also document all the disputed elements of a witness's testimony. In addition, CaseMap can provide corporate counsel with an up-to-date summary of all information and work performed on a particular case.
Harnessing all this information requires some computing horsepower. CaseMap is a 32-bit application that only runs on Windows 95/8 and NT. A Pentium processor with 32 MB RAM is recommended. To best utilize the program, users also need to devote time for training. Users who have not yet upgraded may find that CaseMap adds the one more reason they need to do so.
A third product addresses a problem that technology has caused rather than solved. One of the perils of law office computing today is sharing documents with clients and other third parties. More and more, clients demand that they be allowed to collaborate with lawyers on their legal documents, and accordingly ask for the electronic word processing file as well as hard copies. From a technology standpoint, it is a simple request: just attach a file to an e-mail message or send the other party a diskette. From a malpractice perspective, however, the use of multiple copies can create complex problems.
Sharing WordPerfect for Windows documents can be particularly dangerous. For instance, the Undo feature allows users to reverse the last editing action performed on the document. WordPerfect can save up to 300 levels of a document's editing history in the document itself (the default setting is 10). This means that recipients of the WordPerfect document can select Undo and see the recent changes made to that document. Since most attorneys draft documents by modifying a similar one from another matter, an attorney can be further undone when the particulars of the original document are exposed by the Undo command.
To change this Word Perfect default, select the Edit menu and choose Undo/Redo History. Click the Options button and uncheck the box next to the Save Undo/Redo Items With Document. A document's history can also be saved in Microsoft Word if the Track Changes feature is used.
Besides the problem with the Undo command, sharing documents often means converting them back and forth from one word processor to another, which increases the likelihood that the document will eventually corrupt. Document sharing also makes it difficult to determine who made what change, since an electronic word processing file makes it very easy for a client to make last-minute changes to a document that ostensibly is the work of an attorney.
One program that solves this problem is Adobe Acrobat, which actually is a series of programs that creates a portable electronic document. Acrobat preserves a document's appearance and allows recipients to view and search the document even if they do not have the word processor that created it. Best of all, clients can search, print, and annotate the electronic file but cannot make changes to the original word processing file.
Adobe Acrobat 4.0 (www.adobe.com, $295) consists of several programs that create, index, edit, and display universal portable document files (PDFs). To create a file, all a user has to do is print to a PDF Writer driver. Instead of sending the output to a printer, it creates a file with a PDF extension. The creator of the file can send it to clients and other third parties, who in turn can view it with Adobe Acrobat Reader, which can be distributed or downloaded for free from the Internet. (Most Web browsers also include a plug-in that can view the document.) Using the Acrobat Reader, recipients will see a letter-perfect reproduction of the document, which they can view, search, and print to their heart's content. Your malpractice carrier should thank you.
The development of programs like Adobe Acrobat, CaseSoft's CaseMap, and Easy Soft's Deal Proof signal an encouraging trend in legal software. Instead of trying to do everything, these programs concentrate on performing important tasks well. By attempting to accomplish less, these programs may actually provide a greater service to the practitioner than other, more comprehensive ones.