Twelve Tech Tips for Legal Writers
By Wells Anderson
All lawyers need help speeding up and improving their writing. The written word dominates the practice of law. Lawyers and legal assistants are called on to write a wide variety of materials: omnipresent e-mail, letters, agreements, pleadings, articles, and PowerPoint slides, to name a few. From the large selection of software features and utilities available to help you, here are twelve of the best.
1. Copy and Paste
Writing often requires synthesis: taking text from here and there and combining it into new, useful forms. You can speed up your writing process by learning to use two hotkeys (shortcuts or key combinations): Ctrl-C for Copy and Ctrl-V for Paste. Almost all MS Windows programs let you use these hotkeys to copy selected text from one place and paste it into another. Highlight the words you want to copy. Press Ctrl-C. Place the cursor in the new location and press Ctrl-V to paste the words.
Ctrl-C for Copy is easy to remember. For Ctrl-V, think of the little "V" you write in above a sentence on paper to show that a word should be inserted.
What if you want to copy several pieces of text from one document, and then paste them into another one? MS Office has a multiple clipboard feature, but it can be confusing and works only with Office programs.
CLCL is a free utility program that lets you copy pieces of text one after another, and then paste any of them where you want them. It has a pop-up menu with a numbered list of what is available for pasting. You can choose your own hotkey to open the program, and you can also set a number of other options.
I have found that CLCL works with all my programs while its competitors do not. CLCL may not work with everything under the sun, but it is well worth trying. It is available as a free download with no ads and no limitations at www.nakka.com/soft/clcl/index_eng.html.
As you write, you may need to refer to documents in Adobe Acrobat format. Moving around in them can go more smoothly if you make a few adjustments. For instance, you can remove toolbars you do not need to free up more screen space. In the top menu bar go to: View/Toolbars, or just right-click anywhere on a toolbar. Uncheck the toolbars you don’t use. I recommend keeping the Basic, Find, and Zoom toolbars.
Fill your whole screen with Acrobat so you can read more without scrolling. To do this, click the Maximize button, the middle one in the upper right corner. If the text of your document is too large, click the Pages tab on the left side to make the document taller and the text smaller. For larger monitors, go to View/Page Layout/Continuous Facing. To scroll through pages, advance one full page at a time using Ctrl-Page Up and Ctrl-Page Down.
Certain kinds of writing, such as quick letters and longer preliminary drafts, lend themselves to dictation. You may be a highly proficient typist, but dictation can allow you to record a burst of thought faster than you can type. It also provides a change of pace from the keyboard. You can dictate anywhere with less fatigue than writing at a computer. You submit your dictation to Cyber Secretaries in any one of a variety of convenient ways. They transcribe your dictation into word processing documents and e-mail them to you.
Pricing for this dictation service is a penny per word, or 1.5 cents if you want a legal secretary to do your transcription. There are no other costs. Turnaround time is advertised as about an hour, but in my experience the service is usually faster. No other service comes close to Cyber Secretaries’ low cost and excellent service. Contact the company at 800-828-3889 or www.youdictate.com.
Speed up your writing by learning a few hotkeys. Your word processor has a number of hotkeys for performing common tasks. Often you can see what hotkey does what by looking through the program menus. For example, in MS Word the Edit menu shows Find . . . Ctrl-F, Replace . . . Ctrl-H, and Go To . . . Ctrl-G.
A macro program, like Perfect Keyboard from www.pitrinic.com, allows you to create your own hotkeys and text shortcuts. For example, you could set it up so that whenever you type sigx the macro program replaces it with your signature block. Your word processor program may have a feature for this, but that feature will not work in your e-mail system or your practice management software. Perfect Keyboard Pro costs $29.95 and is highly rated by PC Magazine.
RoboForm automates the process of logging into password-protected websites. It can also store shortcuts or favorites for websites you visit often and let you carry this information around in a USB flash drive so you can use RoboForm on any computer. These features can speed up the Web research you do for your writing. RoboForm manages all of your usernames and passwords, locking them up tightly with one master password. You might be surprised at how much time you waste hunting around for passwords or trying the wrong ones.
A good bonus feature of RoboForm is its universal search field. Type a word or words into this field in your browser’s toolbar and then choose where you want to search. Among the options are Google, Yahoo, Merriam Webster, Amazon, and AllTheWeb. RoboForm has a free trial version that limits the number of logins you can save. The unlimited Pro version is $29.99. www.roboform.com.
A picture is worth a thousand words. One diagram makes a big difference when you need to explain a procedure with multiple options or outcomes. AllClear truly automates the process of creating choice trees and procedural diagrams. You do not have to tinker with the aesthetics of your diagrams with AllClear. You enter the steps, sequences, and choices. It takes care of creating the picture. AllClear is not cheap, but neither is your time. Once you are comfortable with the AllClear interface, you can produce diagrams very quickly.
Another advantage of working with a flowcharting program like AllClear is that it helps you to simplify the process you are charting. You can see opportunities for eliminating unnecessary steps that you might otherwise miss. AllClear is available from Proquis Limited for $284.00 www.proquis.com.
In any writing that has multiple parts, you can use headings and styles to organize your content for both you and your readers. These features can also allow you to generate a table of contents automatically. With the right tools and techniques, your Tables of Contents can be clickable in the electronic versions of your document.
In MS Word Heading 1, Heading 2, and Heading 3 are at different levels. For example, if your document has three main sections, each would start with a Heading 1. If your sections were subdivided, the subsections would start with Heading 2. Each heading level can have a different Style attached to it. Heading 1 could be 16-point Arial bold. To convert a line of text to Heading 1 in MS Word, press Ctrl-Alt-1.
If you use headings, you can reorganize your writing using the Outline View in MS Word. Headings show up as different levels in the Outline View. You can expand, collapse, move, and delete sections of your document in the Outline. This flexibility is great when rewriting a document to use for a new project.
You may take pride in your ability to spell and write well, but sometimes your fingers are disobedient. If you tried grammar and spelling checkers early on and rejected them because they were so tedious, give them a second change. With MS Word you can go to Tools/Options/Spelling & Grammar and turn on “Check spelling as you type” and “Check grammar as you type” by checking boxes. These features will highlight suspected misspellings and grammar errors using wavy colored underlining. You can scan your document quickly for real errors.
If you find one, right-clicking on it gives you choices for making a correction. This approach is much faster than the old way of reviewing each and every “error” in a window, one at a time. You can turn the features off while writing, but you owe it to your readers to use these features on your documents before they go out the door.
More than 95 percent of the Acrobat documents I read are missing important links. Their references to web pages and tables of contents are not clickable. If you write with MS Word and have the full version of Acrobat (not the free Reader version), you should have a button on your Word toolbar that will create a smart PDF file from your Word document. You can adjust the settings for the PDF files you produce using the Adobe PDF menu item in the Word menu bar. If you use WordPerfect, you have the option to Publish to PDF.
Use your practice management software to organize and find your documents. The better practice management products include tools for organizing and searching your firm’s documents. For example, Time Matters works side-by-side with your word processor to profile and save documents with little or no added effort. Instead of clicking Save or Save As in your word processor, you click the TM Save button. It allows you to link documents to Contacts and Matters and automatically save them to the corresponding folders. For documents unrelated to legal clients you can create Contacts and Matters for particular topics and subtopics.
Another powerful feature is the ability to link a document to more than one topic and subtopic. If you rely only on the folders and subfolders on a hard drive, a document can exist in only one place. You can copy it to other folders, but then you can lose track of the copies when you need to update content in the original. By linking your document to multiple topics with your practice management software, you make it easier to find the documents you need.
Maybe someday writing with XML editor software will be common, but for now it is for computer enthusiasts. Extended Markup Language (XML) has all sorts of very technical uses, but it also has significance for writers. At least in theory XML allows writers to attach meaning to the various parts of their writing without focusing on how the written work will look. For example, a writer can mark some lines as section headings, some words as links to web pages or other parts of a document, and some text as image captions. The appearance of elements can be determined later and can be varied for different kinds of publications.
XML Editors also enable writers to reuse a section of text as an element that appears in multiple documents. This feature is especially useful if you expect that a particular section is likely to change, and you want to have the new version appear automatically in any document that uses it.
A problem with XML Editors is that most are designed by programmers for programmers. They can be difficult to understand and lack features that writers have come to expect.
A step in the right direction is XMLmind XML Editor (XXE). It is designed with usability and productivity in mind. The writing screen is well laid out, and the program has a variety of hotkeys and clickable interface elements. Documents that you create with XXE are saved as XML files and can be converted to PDF, RTF (usable in MS Word and WordPerfect), and HTML. The free version of XXE is missing only a few more advanced features. The Professional version costs $220 from www.xmlmind.com.
Whether you are writing a quick e-mail or a long legal document, these tips can save you time and make the process of writing easier. If you have a favorite tech tip, let us know. We are always looking for good new ideas to share with our readers.
Wells H. Anderson is president of Active Practice LLC, a practice management software consultant, and a training materials author. Contact him at email@example.com.