General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

It’s Time to Become


(Word Processing Ambidextrous)!

By Ross L. Kodner

The most emotional debate in legal technology today centers on the software system that is at the heart of a law firm’s work production capability: word processing. No other debate reaches the same level of zealous fervor, perhaps other than the time-honored squabbling between devotees of the Macintosh and the rest of us. And this makes sense. As lawyers we sell words. Advice and good counsel are certainly prerequisites, but when it comes down to the tangible, visible work product that most clients see, we’re wordsmiths and wordsellers. A law firm can survive for a time without its automated calendars, without its billing and accounting systems, without its litigation management programs and . . . (gasp) . . . even without Internet access. But take away the ability to get documents out and a firm is dead in the water.

With that said, the legal document production battle lines have been clearly drawn for sometime. While other word processors exist, the only two that matter in our profession are Microsoft Word and WordPerfect, in their various "numerical soup" iterations. Both programs today are part of Suites of products—"bundleware" or perhaps even "bloatware," if you will—that come packaged with capable spreadsheets (Microsoft Excel and Corel Quattro Pro), presentation/trial graphics products (Microsoft Powerpoint and Corel Presentations), databases in the "Pro" versions of the Suites (Microsoft Access and Paradox) and all sorts of miscellaneous other goodie-ware like Microsoft Outlook for e-mail and calendar, CorelCentral that does roughly the same, Netscape Communicator in the Corel Suite, more fonts than anyone could ever need, and tons and tons of clipart to add some graphical spice to otherwise flat text-only documents.

The best news about the "Suite" approach to packaging and selling software today is that lawyers as consumers can save LOTS of money. One can buy the Standard edition of the current WordPerfect 8 Suite for as little as $89 in its upgrade version. Microsoft Office 97 is a bit more expensive, starting at about $215 in its "competitive upgrade" standard version (where "standard" for both companies means sans the database application). Compare this to the DOS era where you could easily spend $300 for your word processor alone! So consumers should rejoice—intense competition has brought us dramatically superior products that do anything and everything a legal user could ever hope for—for very little money (especially in an era when "Quantity 2" can qualify you for even less costly "volume licensing plans"). And note the new liberalism in being able to qualify for the less expensive "upgrade" versions of both products. Essentially, the qualifications for both companies are similar, to wit:

• You must be "alive," and

• At some point while "alive" you must have owned either a word processor (hmm, I wonder if my pen would count? Or perhaps "Scripsit" on the 1980 Radio Shack TRS-80 Model II I had?), a spreadsheet or a database.

In other words, you qualify.

Dispelling any misconceptions and unfounded myths, one must first understand that in the legal marketplace, WordPerfect, in its various versions, still dominates with anywhere from 55 percent to 65 percent of the market share, depending on who gathers the statistics. In my own national consulting practice working with law firms and legal departments ranging in size from approximately 1-100 attorneys, I’m seeing a roughly 65-30-5 split between WordPerfect (all versions in use), Microsoft Word (all versions in use) and "Others" including the rare case of Lotus’ Ami Pro and its successor WordPro. With that said, the rumors of WordPerfect’s death, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated.

In fact, I am noticing a very interesting trend in law firms I work with or come in contact with. To preface this, it is important to note that a very high percentage of all law firms and legal departments come from a long WordPerfect heritage, which in turn traces its ancestry on the document production family tree to dedicated word processing systems. When the Novell announcement of WordPerfect’s sale was made in late 95, there were clearly a significant number of law firms that made what I consider "panic transitions" to Microsoft Word. Fearing WordPerfect’s future had ended, some jumped ship (and please, don’t even think of getting me started on my "Microsoft Office New PC Preload" rant: it’s not a pretty sight).

Now though, more than two years later, I am seeing a number of those "panic transitioners" either rethinking their decisions or actually moving back to WordPerfect, in this case to WordPerfect 8. I have also seen several very large law firms vote in favor of WordPerfect 8—even while they might use primarily Microsoft products for e-mail, spreadsheets and their databases. What would motivate them to do so?

In a word, it can be simplified, probably oversimplified, to one key distinguishing feature between the two word processors . . . WordPerfect’s "Reveal Codes." This is the ability to "look under the hood" of one’s documents and see the text appearance and text layout codes that determine how documents look. With a severely screwed-up document, a WordPerfect user pops the electronic document hood, sees the "virtual oil leak" and with a couple of mouse clicks, or God forbid, keystrokes, fixes the problem. I have personally experienced and also personally have seen experienced Word users pull out whatever hair they had left trying to fix the same kinds of problems. While there is a feature in Word called "Reveal Codes," it is merely the counterpart to the "Show" feature in WordPerfect that shows paragraph break symbols, space symbols, etc. With apologies to Senator Lloyd Bentsen "I’ve met Reveal Codes in WordPerfect and Word does not have Reveal Codes." With Word’s fundamentally different "Styles" oriented architecture, it would appear that this key feature could not be easily added. Our panelists will undoubtedly shed light on many other distinguishing characteristics between the two word processing giants and their Suite-mates.

Ultimately, the question really should be, "must one choose?" I think most law firms assume that they need to pick one Suite versus the other and then live with their decision. I think the reality today, though, is different. While some firms might say, "we need Word because a couple of our big clients want to exchange documents with us," this in and of itself really does not present a compelling reason to switch if the firm is already using WordPerfect. And I think a firm does in fact need to apply my "Compelling Reason Test" to justify a WordPerfect-to-Word transition. Such a transition cannot be considered lightly—a strong case of business justification and a sound needs analysis must be made.

A switch from WordPerfect to Word entails complete retraining of people who have years of instinctive and ingrained WordPerfect habits and knowledge. It means lots of time cleaning up WordPerfect-formatted documents retrieved into Word. It means throwing out all of one’s macros and rewriting their counterparts in Word. It means acknowledging that the firm will expose itself to the risks associated with the Word Macro Viruses, a nonissue for WordPerfect users. Those are real issues; real BIG issues (or for my relatives in Texas, "big ‘ole issues").

The reality is that if a firm switches to Word primarily to facilitate the electronic exchange of documents with clients and other firms, it is deluding itself through a serious oversimplification. If a firm uses Word 97 and the client uses Word 6.0 for Windows 3.x, the client will not be able to read the document. In fact, the client might have an easier time reading a WordPerfect document than the Word 97 document. Word is extremely format-specific and without coordination between the sender and receiver; in spite of everyone’s good intentions in using "Word," smooth document interchange still may not happen. In fact, more and more recipients of electronic text would prefer to have completely unformatted text—either embedded in the body of an e-mail message or attached as an ASCII, RTF or even HTML-formatted file. These end up being easier for most companies to digest and assimilate into their internal systems. There is a strong argument in favor of indoctrinating one’s electronic document interchange counterparts to use the Adobe PDF format—the closest thing we have to a universal document format (read-only) today. One day we might see a truly universal document format based on the XML superset of HTML—but that’s beyond the horizon at this point.

So back to the Compelling Reason Test—can the firm find a compelling reason to switch? Probably not. Today I am recommending that law firms be "word processing multilingual" (and in our acronym-infested times, let’s just call it "WPM"). In other words, that they select one program to be their "Primary Word Processor" and fully license all their users. Let’s assume for the moment that that is the latest version of WordPerfect, particularly in the upcoming high-value "WordPerfect 8 Legal Suite" variation. Then, under this scenario, they would select Word 97 as their "Secondary Word Processor," buying perhaps a couple of inexpensive licenses of either Word by itself (did you know you can buy Word 97 all by itself in an upgrade version for as little as $75? It’s Microsoft part number 059-00442 if you’re so inclined) or the entire Microsoft Office Suite, which users could access as needed (and of course, "patch" it to correct it’s file formatting bugs . . . or . . . features— see com/ office/office97/ servicerelease if you haven’t already updated Microsoft Office 97).

If a client asks you for a document in any format, your answer should be "no problem." If you work in what is arguably the better legal word processor: WordPerfect, save the document in "Word 97" or "Word 6/95" format, then pull it up in Word to make sure it looks okay before you ship a misformatted document to a key client. If the client specifies some other format altogether, you need to be equally prepared. Consider having a document conversion tool like Dataviz’s "Conversions Plus" (visit http://www.dataviz. com/Products/ CPW/CPW_Home.html for information) available for your lawyers and staff to save in, and read from, just about any document format in the known universe.

The name of the game for lawyers in both public and private practice today is "better, faster, cheaper." Clients want top-quality work product—immediately—for less money. For firms, the challenge is to make a profit while satisfying increasingly demanding clients in a marketplace for legal services that has become viciously competitive. The law firms that can say "no problem" to any client document generation request are those that will thrive, irrespective of what word processor or Suite they use to do it. n

Ross L. Kodner is an attorney, having graduated from Marquette University Law School in 1986. He founded Milwaukee’s MicroLaw, Inc. in 1985, a national legal technology consulting firm serving over 400 law firms across North America. He is the Co-Chair of the State Bar of Wisconsin Office Management Section’s Technology Committee, Vice-Chair of ABA TECHSHOW for 1998 and ’99 and the new Chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section’s Computer & Technology Division. He cowrites the column "The Circuit Court" in Law Office Computing magazine with Dan Coolidge and Bruce Dorner and also cowrites the online column "Law Talk: Legal Technology for Everyone" on the Microsoft Legal Web Pages (can you believe it?). He is also the developer of the "Paper LESS Office™" concept and is a a frequent speaker and author internationally on a broad range of legal technology topics. He was recently asked to be the Guest Co-Moderator of the Corel Legal Technology Summit ’98 in Toronto. His personal motto is "Friends don’t let friends word process without Reveal Codes."

Back to Top