GPSolo Magazine - December 2004
Software that Plays Well Together
Most software programs do not play well with each other. They do what they do alone. But some are outstanding team players, connecting easily and sharing information with other software. Consider how the programs you already have—and some that may be worth buying—might work harder for you by playing well together.
Adobe Acrobat ( www.adobe.com) creates electronic paper. It is simple to use, showing up as if it were just another printer attached to your computer. You can “print” word processing documents, spreadsheets, and web pages to PDF (Portable Document Format). These files can be saved, viewed on-screen, or printed. Lawyers can use Adobe Acrobat to create courtroom presentations, electronic briefs, and paperless collections of exhibits. In many jurisdictions, PDF is the required format for e-filing.
Adobe Acrobat works extremely well with a host of other programs. It can create PDFs from just about every application on the planet that can print something. It also lets you tap into special features you might not otherwise exploit in other programs. For example, Acrobat works with Microsoft Word to create hot-linked tables of contents and website addresses. Word can automatically generate a table of contents based on headings; then an Acrobat button on the Word toolbar creates a PDF file with special links. This feature makes it easy for your readers to jump to any section of your document by clicking the corresponding line in the table of contents. They can also visit any website by clicking the web address shown in your document. Acrobat also works with scanners, creating either electronic images of pages, editable text via OCR (optical character recognition), or files that contain both. PDF files are interchangeable, too, working on computers running Microsoft Windows, Apple Macintosh, or LINUX.
You cannot take everything with you. How often do you want to access information or use programs that are on your office computer or network when you are away from the office? With GoToMyPC ( www.gotomypc.com), you can spend less time at the office—and less time commuting there and back. At home, in hotels, and wherever you have an Internet connection and a computer, you can use GoToMyPC to work on the computer back at the office. Just log on, and it appears as if you are actually looking at the computer screen on the desk in your office, rather than your laptop at the Ramada Inn in Boise. You can access the files on your server, check your e-mail, and do everything you could do at an office PC. You do not need to install special software to use GoToMyPC. It works well with Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla, Firefox, and other web browsers. It will even work on a Pocket PC.
Speech recognition software converts spoken words into text in a word processing program or other program on a computer. ScanSoft’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking ( www.scansoft.com), the leading product, not only inserts text into word processing software using a microphone, it also works with e-mail messages, notes in practice management software, and with almost any program that would normally use a keyboard. It quickly learns to recognize dictated words and to handle commands you use to navigate programs in Microsoft Windows.
Timekeeping, Billing, and Accounting Programs
Unfortunately, you may need to devote a fair amount of time, effort, and frustration to the process of getting financial software to work with other law office programs. The idea is to enter client information once into one program and have it accessible and automatically updateable in another program. In addition, efficiencies can be realized by creating time records within a practice management application and transferring them to the timekeeping, billing, and accounting software. Problems can arise in a variety of ways. The information entered in one program can show up in the wrong places or not at all in a linked program created by a different company. Currently, the players in the area of practice management and financial software are each seeking to add the features commonly found in their competitors’ products. The resulting all-in-one applications have several advantages; among them complete control of the environment for processing data, opportunities for analyzing information, and a single company to contact for assistance. But before replacing a product you are currently using, check to see that its replacement has all the features you have come to rely on.
Everyone knows that Microsoft Word creates printed documents. Because it dominates its product niche, other programs that relate in some way to word processing make an effort to work well with Word. Some go well out of their way to ensure compatibility.
For example, when Adobe Acrobat is installed, it adds two menus and puts a special button in Word. Click the button to create a PDF file from the current Word document. The menus give you options for creating links within the PDF file based on the headings and web page links from the Word document. Acrobat supports collaborative editing of Word documents. You send out PDF files with a request that other users add their comments using the Acrobat comments tool. When you receive the commented PDF files, you can merge the comments into the original Word document.
Word has a Send To function that can convert a Word document into a set of Power-Point slides. If the Word document uses heading styles, each major heading in the Word document becomes a slide title, and the subheadings become bullet points. If you prepare continuing legal education or seminar presentations requiring both written materials and slideshows, use Word first to create an outline of your talk. Use Heading 1 for each major point and Heading 2 for supporting points. Send this outline to PowerPoint to create a set of slides, then fill the Word document with text paragraphs to create your written materials.
If you occasionally need to post an article on a website, Word can save a copy of your document as a web page. In many cases, however, the document is not suitable for posting. Either the website has a method of defining pages that is not compatible with Word’s formatting, or the formatting is just too elaborate to fit well into the site. Nevertheless, you do not need to rewrite the article. Word will save your document as a plain text file, then you can use a web page editing program to format it properly for the website.
Practice Management Software
Programs such as Amicus Attorney ( www.amicus.com), ProLaw ( www.elite.com/solutions/product-fam/prolaw) and Time Matters ( www.timematters.com) pack broad collections of tools that put even thick Swiss Army knives to shame. And they are not limited to what comes in the box. They link in powerful ways to other software packages.
Time Matters software places three buttons in Microsoft Word. The TM Insider button lets you paste client and matter information into any Word document or merge information to assemble documents from templates you have created. Clicking the TM Save button in Word creates a document form that you use to name, save, and link the document to the appropriate matter in the Time Matters document management system. Amicus Attorney and ProLaw also merge information into Word documents.
Amicus Attorney works with e-mail programs such as Microsoft Outlook, allowing you to link e-mail messages to contacts and matters. It also synchronizes information with Palm devices and, with a Blackberry or cell phone, allows you to retrieve information over the air. ProLaw and Time Matters synchronize with Palms, Pocket PCs, Blackberries, and Outlook. Time Matters’ new version (6.0) now offers real-time synchronization of contacts, tasks, and calendars through Microsoft Exchange Server.
By combining a practice management program such as Time Matters ( www. timematters.com) with a document scanner and an e-file program such as Adobe Acrobat or ScanSoft’s PaperPort, you can reduce the amount of paper you need to grapple with. You start within the practice management software by creating a document record. From the record, you select Scan and choose a profile for the type of document, the scanning software, and the scanner you are using. A button from within the program fires up the scanner, which converts the paper document into an image file or a PDF document. Back at the document record, you click the save button to connect the electronic version of the document to the proper legal matter or contact in your practice management system.
XMLmind XML Editor
For you true geeks, here is a program designed to create documents and web pages in a format that will never become obsolete: XML. The Extensible Markup Language is a very flexible text format designed for electronic publishing that plays an important role in the exchange data on the web. XMLmind XML Editor (XXE) harnesses the power and flexibility of XML in an interface that mere mortals can use ( www.xmlmind.com). The editor saves documents in a universal format and can produce PDF files, web pages, and RTF files that are compatible with Microsoft Word and other word processors. Because the XML format separates content and meaning from formatting, it can be translated into virtually any other format. Doing so may be easy or hard, depending on the desired format and appearance, but at least it is possible. If you like experimenting with leading-edge, visionary tools designed to work well with other players in the computing universe, you may want to give the free version of XXE a spin.
Opportunities for making better use of your computers may be right under your nose. A program you currently use for one purpose may easily save you more time and effort through a connection to another program. If you are stumped in your initial efforts to get two programs working together, help is available. You can join an e-mail discussion list and get a fast answer to any question. Solosez ( www.abanet.org/soloseznet/solosez.html) or LAWTECH ( www.abanet.org/tech/ltrc/lists.html) are two good ones. You may also find a discussion list for your particular product by checking the vendor’s website. The prevalence of high-speed Internet access allows many consultants to work directly with law offices throughout North America and the world. They can provide focused assistance with one issue or work with you to implement more far-reaching improvements.
|All Links Are Not created Equal|
The quality of program links varies. Some connections between programs are incomplete and have few options. To find out if a program will do what you do need it to do, try calling the vendor. How long you have to wait and how well they answer your question will give you insight into the quality of the company behind the product. You also may want to check with people who are actually using the link to see how they have fared.
And a few more words of caution: Terms such as “link” and “integration” can prove slippery. Connections between programs may be bi-directional, unidirectional, or import/export. With a bi-directional link, when you enter some information in either program, it will show up in the other program. With a unidirectional link, you need to enter new information in one particular program if you want it to appear in each of the two programs. Import/export connections usually require you to go through a number of manual steps to send information from one program to a separate file, then go through another set of steps to load the information into the other program. Connections may be automatic or manual. Some programs send comprehensive information across the link, while others send only partial information.
Does this mean that a comprehensive, automatic, bi-directional link is best? Often it is. But in some situations you are better off with less. For example, you may not want to clutter up your Palm handheld with all the appointments for your entire firm. You may want only your own appointments, plus those of one other lawyer with whom you work frequently. To achieve this, you’d need a Palm link with flexible, customizable filters.
Simplicity of operation can spell the difference between a connection that you will use and one you will not. Palm devices make it especially easy. You put the handheld in a cradle and press the one and only button; bi-directional synchronization starts immediately and finishes without any intervention. Though you may need to spend some time up front to configure a connection just the way you need it, you are likely to use it and keep using it if it is simple.
Wells Anderson, based in Minnesota, works with law offices throughout the continent in person and via virtual meetings to implement and customize software for specific practice areas. He can be reached at email@example.com.