Q. Bill, I’m in a two-lawyer firm and, while our budget is limited, we like to keep abreast of helpful software for our office. During last year’s ABA TECHSHOW®, you were enthusiastic about Adobe Acrobat. What’s got your attention this year?
A. I enjoy walking through the expo hall at ABA TECHSHOW every spring to see what new products are being unveiled. I remember what used to catch my eye the most were the new product ideas from the small companies. Now, though, we see fewer small vendors, partly due to the recent consolidation in the legal software industry, with the big players buying up many of the smaller vendors. For example, formerly independent developers of products such as Time Matters, CaseMap, Elite, ProLaw, -HotDocs and others now all live under the Thomson or LexisNexis tent.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I’ve always enjoyed the independent and innovative spirit of the smaller developers. We seem to be seeing less of that as the legal software market consolidates. Don’t get me wrong, there are still intriguing ideas and products coming out, a number of which were on display at this year’s ABA TECHSHOW expo. Among the offerings that particularly interested me, for example, were Verdical trial presentation software, from the makers of the popular Sanction product, and the new 2008 Edition of Amicus Attorney, the case management software from Gavel & Gown. A number of products in the burgeoning electronic discovery (ED) category also caught my eye, and most were from independent companies.
However, what I’m really excited about are some of the new “open source” applications—not only because of the inherently independent spirit of open source, but also because (for me, at least) it provides alternatives to using Microsoft products.
I am talking about software like
NeoOffice—a suite of office programs that are all Mac OS X-native apps. NeoOffice includes a word processor that’s compatible with Microsoft Word, a spreadsheet program that’s compatible with MS Excel, presentation software that’s compatible with PowerPoint and a drawing application. Best of all, it is free (although a donation to the development effort is requested when you download the product).
NeoOffice is the Mac version of a product called
Open-Office that runs on Linux and Windows. To clarify, though, NeoOffice is an independently developed suite for Mac OS X and is no longer part of the OpenOffice development effort.
Can Open Source Meet Law Office Needs?
I had never considered an open source alternative until a few months ago when a friend told me about NeoOffice. Here’s why I found it particularly intriguing: I have used the Macintosh since the beginning of time and, even though I have always owned the Microsoft Office suite for Mac, my word processor of choice was WordPerfect for Mac. (I know, it hasn’t been updated or even supported for a decade, but I liked it so much I couldn’t give it up.) I kept on using WordPerfect for Mac because it never became “bloated” like MS Word, or later versions of WordPerfect for Windows, and it was extremely easy to use. What’s more, all my long-time files of addresses, forms, pleadings and the like were stored in the WP for Mac format and MS Word wouldn’t let me open those files. Sure enough, when I first launched NeoOffice, I found I could double-click on a WP for Mac file and it would open as a NeoOffice file. It was as easy as that! Now I use it every day and so does my legal assistant.
However, realizing that I might be a bit too enthusiastic about this new discovery, and open source in general, I turned to Law Practice Technology Editor Emeritus G. Burgess Allison for a reality check. Burgess, who is the IT director of Mitre Corporation and widely known as a legal tech guru, sums up the issue this way: “Compatibility trumps everything else, and nothing is more compatible with the product your client is using than the product your client is using.” He adds that he has “seen too many people spend too much time trying to beat their documents into submission. It’s not a good use of a lawyer’s time, and trust me on this, your clients won’t think it’s a good use of their time either.”
The question, then, is how compatible is this open source software with MS Office, which is what your clients are likely using? Will you have to “beat your documents into submission” if you leave the Microsoft camp? In keeping with the “open community” spirit of the discussion, I checked out Wikipedia’s entry on the subject, and it seems to echo Burgess, saying that: “As much as we would all like to pretend Microsoft Office doesn’t exist, it is a fact of life that at some point, everyone will have to
exchange documents with Microsoft Office users. While NeoOffice is quite good at reading and writing Microsoft Office documents, it’s not perfect.”
TechRepublic recently reviewed NeoOffice 2.2.1 (I’m using 2.2.2) and here is how it summarized the product’s strengths:
- A powerful word processing tool
- A highly compatible spreadsheet tool
- A powerful presentation program
- A strong diagramming tool
- A potent database program
At the same time, however, Tech-Republic pointed out that NeoOffice has the following shortcomings:
- Support isn’t available at the same level as for Microsoft’s Office platform.
- The NeoOffice applications don’t provide perfect compatibility with
- The NeoOffice applications aren’t compatible with the new Microsoft Office 2007 file formats.
So, should you consider this software for your law practice? I got excited about this open source option because it would let me open my WordPerfect files—but any law office with a large number of MS -Office users should get excited about having a choice as to what they use. PC Magazine hit on this same theme a couple of years ago when it reviewed OpenOffice (before NeoOffice for Mac was released). Its reviewer wrote: “Anyone who doesn’t want to pay Microsoft’s premium prices for rarely used features may prefer this free suite. It does mostly everything that typical users need it to do, and does some things better than MS Office.”
Burgess makes the point well when he says, “Open source developers are working on projects that really are driven by actual users having actual needs—and matched up with developers who are thinking up inventive ways to meet those needs.” And, he adds, “The open source developers (whose products happen to be free) are really bringing the energy and excitement to today’s software marketplace.”
As for the support issue, I found NeoOffice to have a robust built-in help system that answered all my questions.
Even if these open source products are not perfect, there is something appealing about having truly independent software developed by enthusiasts whose business model won’t make them a candidate to get bought by the bigger guys in the industry. You have to applaud that spirit.