GPSolo Magazine - December 2004
The Perils and Pleasures of Long-Distance Collaboration
I recall, during my career at a large firm, setting up conference calls between England, Singapore, California, and my office in New Hampshire to discuss documents concerning a multinational transaction. Typically, the conversations went something like this:
England: Good afternoon, everyone.
Singapore: Good night to you!
Me: OK, let’s all be sure we’re on the same page: let’s turn to the P&S, page 14, line 27.
California: Can everyone hear me?
Singapore: I can.
England: Can you speak up?
Me: All right, everyone on the same document?
Singapore: Page four?
England: There is no line 27 on page 14—it has only seven lines.
Me: How did you print it?
England: On A4 paper with reduced type to save paper. Why?
Me: OK, look for the page in section 5 with the paragraph beginning, “Certain Indemnities.”
California: I’m gonna go get coffee.
And if you think this was bad, try dictating a proposed language change so that everyone gets it just the way you intended. Nightmare!
Things are better today (my example was from the dark ages six years ago). Collaborating and negotiating over long distances can be almost as easy as setting up a meeting in your office. And it does not require a large investment or long training time. What is involved? Say you have a document and you want to get comments from half a dozen people. Do you send it as hard copy or even e-mail it? How do you get the changes into the final document? Say you want to negotiate a purchase and sale agreement and don’t have time to take three days out of the office to fly cross-country? What if you have local counsel on one side of the country, a client in the middle, and you on the other side? How do you effectively review and comment on documents? How do you gain the benefit of the give-and-take of face-to-face meetings?
There are a few basic rules you should follow when planning your long-distance collaboration.
1. However you do it, you need to make certain that only one person has control of the final, canonical document. This is true whether you are negotiating with the other side or simply commenting among yourselves. Failure to know which document is the current version can drive any attorney quickly around the bend, if not cause her to commit malpractice. Failure to note that a document returned to you actually contains more changes than are highlighted can result in unfortunate surprises . . . like a malpractice suit.
2.If you are combining electronically transmitted documents, use a good document compare program before you combine and look at the results. Don’t use a brain-dead compare function built into your word processor. For Microsoft Word users, Diff Doc from Softinterface (www.softinterface.com) is a good investment at $400. You want something that will find every change in the document and that is smart enough to recognize when a paragraph has been moved.
3. Beware of metadata. This isn’t just a collaborative editing issue—it’s a constant fear that should nag at you each time you send out an electronic document. Whenever you edit a document in a word processor, certain hidden information gets saved—such as various people’s markups, with annotation showing who said what—that are visible only if you have set your word processor to show them. Undo information may be saved. Comments may be saved. Lots of stuff you don’t want the other side to see.
The easiest way I know to clean out the metadata is to convert the document to a PDF file, but that rather defeats the effort at collaborative editing. Another way is to use a metadata scrubber, such as Metadata Assistant from Payne Consulting (www.payneconsulting.com); it sells for $79 for a single user license and works only with Word and Excel. Microsoft Word 2003 has a built-in feature on the File menu that removes hidden metadata. WordPerfect users may have a somewhat more difficult time, as there is no one single way to remove all the metadata from a Word-Perfect document. Corel has a detailed paper on how to do it, which can be found at www.corel.com/content/pdf/wp12/Minimizing_Metadata_In_WordPerfect12.pdf.
Document Collaboration: The Linear Model
For this example, we’ll use a Microsoft Word document. You can send out a document to person A, who then edits it and sends it on to person B, who, with the benefit of A’s work, edits it further. She sends it on to person C, who, armed with comments from both A and B, makes his changes and returns it to you.
This is slow. The total time required is the sum of the time each individual takes to finish—so you are all at the mercy of the slowest person in the chain. Additionally, all the people don’t get the benefit of everyone else’s comments. It’s rather like the military way of endorsing memoranda—only the top brass gets to see what everyone else said.
Microsoft offers a better version of this process, creating a shared workspace on a website that allows you to share a document with as many people as you want. Changes in the workspace document can be automatically uploaded to the local document, and vice versa. Everyone’s changes are tracked, and you can even assign and track individual tasks. To see the website in operation, go to http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/assistance/HA010930941033.aspx and run the demo. Two hitches: You need space on a web server runningMicrosoft Windows SharePoint Services, and each user needs Office 2003.
Document Collaboration: The Concurrent Model
Imagine that you have a room with a really good projector showing everyone the contents of your computer screen, say a document you are negotiating. You can all hear each other, talk at once, and suggest changes. Imagine, too, that every now and then two people can have a private sidebar conversation without the others overhearing them. Imagine further that you can easily hand over your computer keyboard and mouse to another person in the room to allow her temporary control to type suggested text for you all to consider.
That is what you can do with a variety of online services, except you don’t all have to be in the same room. You don’t have to spend a fortune, either. For example, GoToMeeting (www.gotomeeting.com) does all of the above and more, connecting (for the inexpensive version) up to ten computers over the Internet at the same time, all looking at the same page. They even offer dial-up telephone conferencing included in the same fee. (No, it is not a toll-free call—unless you pay an additional, hefty fee.)
This method is secure (it uses encryption to protect the information running across the Internet) and doesn’t require anyone to have any particular software other than a web browser. It’s a bit easier to use if you have some kind of broadband hookup (cable, DSL, T1), but it works acceptably at 56k modem speeds. If you commit to an annual plan, you can host all the meetings you want for a monthly fee of $39. The month-to-month plan is slightly more expensive—$49 buys you unlimited meetings during that month—but you are not locked into a full year of service.
GoToMeeting is remarkably easy to use—it took me less than a minute to become familiar with it. This is not a tool that has use only in large conference calls. It can save you and opposing counsel a trip across town, thus giving you greater productivity. Clients seem to like that, I hear. . . . You can accomplish in a 20-minute session what might otherwise take an hour—go to your car, drive across town, sit down with opposing counsel, negotiate for 20 minutes, get back in your car, drive across town, park, and return to your office. During which time you would be been out of touch.
There are a few drawbacks to this system. First, if you give control of the screen to another person, that person has full control over the host’s computer—they can go anywhere, do anything. If you are the host, don’t even think about leaving the room. Another downside is that you’ve got to get everyone online at the same time. Of course, this is still easier than getting them all into the same room at the same time. If you can schedule a conference call, you can use GoToMeeting.
There are other similar services, such as WebEx (www.webex.com), which as of this writing are far pricier (WebEx quotes 33 cents per minute per user). Given the state of competition, anticipate that prices will soon fall.
Document collaboration over the Internet is a tool—useful if you know what you are doing, dangerous if you don’t. There are benefits and traps for the unwary, but ultimately the benefits in saved time and increased productivity far outweigh the risks.
Daniel S. Coolidge is a recovering large-firm lawyer, now a patent attorney with Coolidge & Graves, PLLC, in Keene, New Hampshire. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.