Sweet Suites
Office Suite Choices for Solos and Small Firms

By Craig Ball, Ross L. Kodner, Donna Payne, and David Rakowski

Solo and small firm lawyers are faced with abundance when considering the crop of  office suites available today. The digital cup runneth over with powerhouse collections of core practice tools: word processors, spreadsheets, presentation systems, and e-mail engines. With potent packages from Microsoft (Office 2007 for Windows and Office 2008 for Mac OS), Corel (WordPerfect X3 Suite), online giant Google (Google Apps), and OpenOffice.org (OpenOffice Suite), how does the solo or small firm practitioner choose? We all want to be told that we have, in the words of the old knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “chosen wisely.” If you’re looking for insight, we’ve got it. If you’re looking for a cut-and-dried victor emerging from the ash pile containing its competitors, then you’ll be disappointed—there is no such simple answer.

But read on—the choices are strong, the options make sense, and the solo and small firm strategy emerges by osmosis, if not outright planning.

Donna Payne on Microsoft Office 2007

I was perfectly happy with MS-DOS until I used Windows. And I was happy with Microsoft Office 2003 too—until Microsoft introduced Office 2007. This new version of the software is the best that the company has released, and it’s winning over many of the staunchest WordPerfect aficionados, along with Word diehards like me.

So what makes this version so much better than legacy versions? It starts with a total makeover of the user interface. There are no more menus and toolbars. In its place are tabs, ribbons, and groups. The buttons on the ribbons are larger so they are easier to see—and commands are organized more logically, so you won’t spend as much time digging for buried functionality. This much change can be frustrating for the experienced Microsoft Office user; however, after working with the software for about 30 days, you will find it to be much more intuitive and productive than earlier versions.

Word. One of features that lawyers will appreciate is Live Preview, which allows you to hover your mouse over a paragraph or table style to see how it would look if applied to the active text in the document. Word’s Building Blocks are like AutoText on steroids (choose which block you want to insert and it puts it in the correct location like the header or footer, without your having to be there). The old Equation Editor has been replaced by an updated Equation tool with its own ribbon of commands. Document comparison that is now built into Word is more like what third-party tools offer (without the hefty price tag).

Excel. The capabilities of Excel have been greatly expanded. For instance, in Excel 2003 you could have a maximum of 65,536 rows and 256 columns. In Excel 2007 the maximum number per worksheet is 1,048,576 rows and 16,384 columns. That’s a lot of data. You also can apply 4.3 billion colors (instead of 56), 10,000 AutoFilter items (previously 1,000), and 64 nested formulas (instead of just seven). These are just a few of the increased capabilities.

PowerPoint. Even for a novice, PowerPoint is now easier to use. If you make a mistake on your slide, you can click the Reset command in the Slides group on the Home tab to bring the slide back to the original layout. Insert a Photo Album to have PowerPoint generate a document that contains all the photos in a particular file folder. Reach for Smart Art to graphically illustrate a point in the presentation.

Outlook. At first glance, Microsoft Outlook looks the same as previous versions. You still have menus and toolbars. The ribbon is there—it’s just not visible until you create or open an e-mail message. The To Do bar on the right-hand side of the Outlook window is one of my favorite improvements. It contains an integrated Calendar, Task list, and Outlook items for follow-up. You can expand and even collapse the To Do bar so it doesn’t encroach on the space available. Outlook 2007 also lets you send someone with whom you are trying to schedule an appointment an HTML snapshot of your calendar showing your free and busy time slots.

Conclusion. There are frustrations with Office 2007, such as a new document file type that makes it harder to share files with those using older versions of Office. This upgrade takes planning, preparation, and some good old-fashioned sweat to pull off. However, the result is definitely worthwhile. (For pricing and package options, see http://office.microsoft.com.)

David Rakowski on Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac

Today, Apple is widely viewed as the computer company that can do no wrong, while Microsoft continues to stumble from one misstep to another. So with the January release of a new version of Office for Mac, and the wide variety of convenient, less expensive alternatives available, the question for Mac users today is: Does Microsoft Office matter anymore?

The new suite comes in three versions: Office 2008 for Mac Home and Student Edition, Office 2008 for Mac Standard Edition, and Office 2008 for Mac Special Media Edition. (For pricing and package options, see www.microsoft.com/mac.)

All three contain the basic programs familiar to Office users: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Entourage (Outlook for the Mac), and all have the ability to save and share documents with their Windows brethren without a hitch; the Standard and Special Media edition provide support for Microsoft Exchange.

Word. If you’ve ever used any of the recent Windows versions of Word, getting used to Word 2008 will take you about five minutes. Rather than adding the ribbon interface from Word 2007, Microsoft continues to use floating palettes and drop-down menus for formatting and other routine word-processing tasks. Another new feature is the ability to save documents directly to PDF format.

Excel. For the left-brained among us, Excel 2008 continues to set the standard for excellence in spreadsheet software. However, it is important to note that Microsoft has removed support for Visual Basic for Applications, so hard-core spreadsheet jockeys who rely on macros be warned.

PowerPoint. The program that everyone loves to hate, PowerPoint has been upgraded with a slew of new templates and other cosmetic improvements to the interface. Its main competition continues to be Apple’s own Keynote. Think of the differences between the presentations of Bill Gates and those of Steve Jobs. ’Nuff said.

Entourage. Every Mac comes with Mail, iCal, and Address Book built in, so Entourage is often overlooked. It continues to be a perfectly functional program and is a must for those who rely on Microsoft Exchange to support their e-mail.

Conclusion. Office 2008 is a modest improvement over its 2004 predecessor. In its new iteration it is certainly more Mac-like, and now that it has been updated for the new Intel processors it runs much faster. But unless you consistently share documents in which 100 percent fidelity to Microsoft standards is a must, or unless you absolutely need Microsoft Exchange for your e-mail, I’d advise you to save your money.

Ross L. Kodner on the Corel WordPerfect X3 Suite

In a world dominated by the million-pound Microsoft Office gorilla, WordPerfect appeared to be down on the mat and at an eight count. Then the market granted Corel a major reprieve. In March 2005 the U.S. Department of Justice chose Corel’s WordPerfect Suite for its 50,000 users, rather than continuing with its previous Microsoft Office licensing agreement. Whether for greater functionality or, more likely, for more flexible licensing and far lower costs, the Justice Department’s decision was a shot across the industry’s bow. Factor in the strong trend toward exchanging documents in PDF form (in which case it makes no difference what word processor was used to create the original) and, as always happens in the legal technology world, things changed. WordPerfect will most likely never regain its dominance of the 1980s, but it is reasonable to predict that Corel’s office suite will continue to increases its market share incrementally and will be available as a choice for years to come.

Although Microsoft Word 2007 is a dramatic improvement over its predecessors, WordPerfect remains the objectively superior legal document generator. The famous “Reveal Codes” capability, which allows users to “look under the hood” of an uncooperative document, quickly spot the offending codes, and correct them,
is the first key distinguishing element between the two programs. (Although Levit & James’ “CrossEyes” utility, www.levitjames.com, adds much of the capability and appearance of WordPerfect’s
Reveal Codes to Word 2003 and earlier versions, it is not available for Word 2007.) A second distinguishing feature is the way the two programs handle automatic paragraph numbering, outlines, and bullet lists—essential for many legal documents, especially more lengthy contracts and agreements. In Word, even in the new 2007 edition, this process just doesn’t work the way any normal human would expect. Word effectively requires the additional help of Numbering Assistant from PayneGroup ( www.payneconsulting.com) to give it the ease with which WordPerfect naturally addresses these functions.

Yes, Corel WordPerfect X3 Suite also includes a very capable spreadsheet in Quattro Pro and slideshow creation tool in Presentations. And yes, the WordPerfect Suite comes with PDF writing capability. But realistically, buyers will purchase the suite for the best-ever word processing capability. Anecdotally, it is common to see “WordPerfect” firms using Corel’s word processor but using Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint for their number-crunching and slideshow creation. And yes, this does work perfectly.

Another factor in Corel’s favor is that WordPerfect Office X3 users get free, unlimited e-mail support, and Corel promises a 24-hour response time—which yields consistently positive results. Compare this to the time-sapping runaround you get from Microsoft when trying to find help on a Word issue—especially when your copy of Microsoft Office came to you bundled with your new PC.

Finally, there is price. Money talks in a tight economy, and spending as little as one-third the cost of equivalent Microsoft Office upgrades is compelling. Corel WordPerfect X3 Suite is available on the street for less than $150 per license and is even less expensive under the company’s eminently flexible Corel Choice Licensing Plans. (For more, see www.corel.com.)

Ultimately, it makes sense simply to not choose between the two suite titans, particularly if you are buying a new machine. Solos and small firms will find no better price on Microsoft Office than getting it bundled with PC hardware. Then spend the little bit of extra dough to acquire the Corel WordPerfect X3 Suite and Adobe Acrobat. (As this article went to press, Corel released its latest version of the suite, WordPerfect Office X4, to positive initial reviews.)

Craig Ball on Google Apps

Comparing Google Apps to Microsoft Office is like comparing a Swiss Army knife to a milling machine—each has its unique strengths and shortcomings. The advantages of Google Apps ( www.google.com) are its simplicity, support of collaboration, and cost (it’s free). It enables a solo and small firm practitioner to enjoy the core functionality of Microsoft Office—word processing, spreadsheets, presentation tools, website creation, electronic mail, and calendaring—without buying, installing, or maintaining any software. There’s no need to upgrade hardware to support new releases or install patches or service packs. Instead of waiting years to see new features in Microsoft Office, Google Apps is improving daily, and the latest versions are working for you every time you log in.

Apart from the unbeatable price ($0), the appeal of Google Apps lies in its ubiquity, compatibility, and integration. You can get to your information from anywhere using almost any gadget. It runs on PCs, Macs, and most handheld devices and cell phones. You can securely access your documents from any Internet connection. You can cherry-pick any part you like or tie all the pieces together in one attractive, customizable portal page called iGoogle.

Two places I won’t accept second-best are e-mail and calendaring tools, and in my practice, the anchor applications are Google Mail and Google Calendar. Particularly in these areas, I feel that Google may have gotten the best of Microsoft. I travel constantly and use a variety of different machines and devices to keep up with my e-mail. I use PCs for work, a MacBook Pro for leisure, and a smart phone on the move. Before I committed to Google Mail, I never seemed to have the e-mail message I needed on the device at hand. Using Google Mail allows me to ditch an Exchange server and Outlook. In fact, the only time I fire up Microsoft Outlook anymore is to create the occasional offline backup of Google Mail.

Much to its credit, Google Apps plays well with Outlook, supporting POP and IMAP mail protocols along with automatic calendar synchronization. Google Mail also permits a high level of customization to allow you to project a professional image. You can swap your personalized domain for the “@gmail.com” address, include a personalized signature, and even add your firm’s logo to the Google Mail page.

Without charge, Google affords each Google Mail user an online storage capacity of 6.5 gigabytes, and even that massive allocation keeps growing. I like the peace of mind that comes from leaving backup responsibilities to Google. No matter how often you back up, Google does it more often and more reliably—and offsite, safe from the damage or disasters that may befall your office. And, for my money, nothing beats Google’s capability of searching your stored e-mails. I’m completely comfortable with the privacy of my confidential communications stored on Google’s servers. I feel my confidential information is much less vulnerable stored as Google Mail than sent via the U.S. Postal Service.

I use Google Docs as a timekeeping tool by simply creating web-accessible timesheets for each matter. I can insert links to them on browser toolbars and my iGoogle page, so adding a time record is just “click and type.” It’s no substitute for a dedicated timekeeping program, but then, neither is Outlook. Google Docs timesheets ably meet my needs without undue cost or complexity.

Of course, being a web-enabled application is both the greatest strength and weakness of Google Apps. If you can’t get to the Internet, you can’t get to documents stored online (you can store counterparts locally, however). Google is working hard to develop offline access solutions, so it’s just a matter of time until even that negligible shortcoming disappears.

I’d never use Google Docs to draft a footnoted brief with table of authorities or tackle other complex documents. Word is unquestionably the better choice there. Neither do I expect Google Docs to offer the bells and whistles of Microsoft Excel for spreadsheets or of PowerPoint for sophisticated presentations. But for correspondence, memo drafting, and other run-of-the-mill tasks, you may find you don’t miss the power, complexity, or cost of Microsoft Office and even come to prefer the easy-to-use, intuitive, and uncluttered approach of Google Apps. If you need to collaborate on documents, you’ll almost certainly prefer Google Docs because it enables and tracks collaboration seamlessly, with none of the costly infrastructure or complexity needed to reach the same end using Microsoft Office documents.

And did I mention it’s all free?

Ross L. Kodner on the OpenOffice Suite

On a visit to my local big-box electronics store last week, I saw the full (i.e., not an upgrade) version of Microsoft Office 2007 Professional edition listed at a whopping $699. Maybe that strikes you as a little steep, and you’d much rather pay…nothing. As noted above, you can do that with Google Apps, but what if you’ve got an inconsistent or sometimes unavailable high-speed Internet connection?

OpenOffice.org’s OpenOffice may be just the ticket. It is a full-featured, downloadable software suite that functionally is nearly identical to Microsoft Office and offers Word file compatibility. The modules are named following a decidedly utilitarian convention that befits the Open Source-created product: “Writer” for word processing, “Calc” for spreadsheets, and “Impress” for presentations/slideshows.

I own an Asus Eee—a lovable, $399 ultralight PC weighing less than two pounds. To keep it “lean” I have loaded it with a version of the Linux operating system, but that means it cannot run Microsoft Office (at least not unless you’re a command-line-level Linux geek, which I’m not). So I’ve been using the OpenOffice suite regularly. I can do virtually anything and everything I could do in Microsoft Office, such as create pivot tables from spreadsheets and add animations to my slides. In fact, I’ve been able to save in Word and PowerPoint formats—the default save formats for OpenOffice Writer and Impress—and have had no trouble at all retrieving those files in their Microsoft counterpart applications.

The downsides for OpenOffice? WordPerfect devotees will still miss Reveal Codes. Word users won’t have Track Changes in any way that would be seamlessly compatible with collaborators who use Word. And Outlook is a practical necessity for e-mail integration with virtually all legal practice management and document management systems. But I’m racking my brain for any other reason not to seriously consider the OpenOffice suite in a small practice. At a minimum, although there may still be compelling reasons to use Microsoft Office 2007 in the office, you might give the OpenOffice suite serious consideration for your home systems.

The Bottom Line

Savvy, ingenious, resourceful, and frugal solos and small firm lawyers will recognize the need to be electronically fluent and compatible with the rest of the digital legal world. While any one of the above suite approaches can satisfy the needs of virtually any law practice, solos and small firm lawyers will opt for flexibility and compatibility. That may mean a combination of any of the above, along with Adobe Acrobat for gold-standard, secure PDF creation and then Google Apps as a backup if the net is all you have to pound out work when your regular tech tools are unavailable.

As lawyers, we all sell lots and lots of …words! Failing to have the right tools would be like opening an auto repair shop without screwdrivers. The sweet thing today is how capable and mostly interoperable all the suites are—no choice would be necessarily “wrong.” Writing savants choose WordPerfect for its logical “less is more” approach and for Reveal Codes. Collaborators choose Word for its vaunted Track Changes (and only choose the much-improved Word 2007). Perennial cheapskates will be amply rewarded by the OpenOffice Suite. Frugal pioneers of the New School will revel in Google’s Apps—it doesn’t get leaner than having no software at all to install.

Choices. But all good ones. 

Craig Ball is a former trial lawyer turned legal technologist, electronic discovery expert, and computer forensic evidence authority based in Austin, Texas. He is well known for his monthly “Ball in Your Court” column in Law Technology News ( www.lawtechnews.com). He may be reached at . Ross L. Kodner is the CEO of MicroLaw, Inc., a well-known legal technology and law practice management consultancy nearing its first quarter-century of service advising law firms and legal departments worldwide. A frequent speaker and author, he may be reached at . Donna Payne is the CEO of the Payne Consulting Group. She and her company have authored 12 books on Microsoft Office and are creators of the famous Assistants: Metadata, Forms, and Numbering Assistants. She is also author of a regular column called “Test Drive” for Law Technology News. She may be reached at . David Rakowski is the principal at West End Group, a research and writing consultancy in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He may be reached at .

Copyright 2008

Back to Top

< /