observation on my office and the dominance of Word

blogger discussing how his lawyer used the Open Document Format instead of .doc:

The type of documents they produce in that [law] office, as in many other offices if not most I’m sure, is just pure text with a little formatting. They really have no reason to keep buying licenses for MS Office for this.

Now, disclaimer: this guy’s law firm is different than my firm. He says it is basically three lawyers plus some assistants; the firm I’m at this summer is around 1,000 lawyers with significant offices in the US, Europe, and Asia.1

So there is a bit of apples and oranges here, but… for better or for worse, what we do isn’t just ‘pure text with a little formatting’. That means we’re pretty deeply tied to Word. First, the tools around what we do are pretty sophisticated. The modern law firm has a suite of tools for document management. Among other things, these tools save all files to a central server automatically, provide revision control, automatically scrub documents to remove comments (albeit not always well), etc. These tools are not standalone- they integrate into Office.2 Second, it isn’t just ‘a little formatting’. Courts can be very picky- they’re perfectly happy to reject your documents if the margin or spacing is wrong. So, again, the tools are very important. Finally, time is quite literally money for lawyers- every moment usually counts. I don’t want to waste time thinking about formatting, and the client doesn’t want to pay me to waste that time either.

This isn’t to say you couldn’t replace Word. Obviously, some firms have done it, and many more will do so- not just for ODF, but also for markup languages or hosted software where no one ever sees a “file” in the old fashioned sense. But the switch isn’t nearly as easy as it might seem at first glance- lawyers often do fairly complicated things with text and are loathe to switch tools, often with good reason. So don’t expect that an overnight change is in the offing any more than you might expect all the vi users to switch to emacs tomorrow :)

  1. Larger firms are a global trend- people tend to like them because you can get many services and specialties under one roof. []
  2. If anyone knows of a way to tie OpenOffice/ODF to an RCS automagically, I’m all ears. []

22 thoughts on “observation on my office and the dominance of Word”

  1. Hi Luis,
    I appreciate the disclaimer but when you say “a bit of apples and oranges” it still s an understatement! :-)

    Clearly the environment you’re describing is closer to what is often found in large corporations than what’s found in small enterprises.

    In any environment where Word is hooked in some way to some other system it will be more difficult to switch. And the fact that Microsoft didn’t include macros in their “standard” OOXML is a major rip off for that very reason.

  2. It’s aggravating that this is a case where the proverbial “last 10%” hasn’t been completed. Because OOo files are essentially XML, version control and so forth should be easy to achieve. If someone like me can imagine a RCS where a commit unzips, systematically reformats, and then takes XML nodeset diffs, one would think a much smarter engineer — of which there are multitudes — could have a fully free prototype system working in short order.

  3. From http://svnbook.red-bean.com/en/1.2/svn.webdav.autoversioning.html

    “Because so many operating systems already have integrated WebDAV clients, the use case for this feature borders on fantastical: imagine an office of ordinary users running Microsoft Windows or Mac OS. Each user “mounts” the Subversion repository, which appears to be an ordinary network folder. They use the shared folder as they always do: open files, edit them, save them. Meanwhile, the server is automatically versioning everything. Any administrator (or knowledgeable user) can still use a Subversion client to search history and retrieve older versions of data.”

  4. Yes, I agree with Paul. The svn server (which indeeds does WebDAV, so easy to mount) should get some awareness of some zip based file formats like the OO.o ones, and optionally store/version them uncompressed (or this could be a higher level feature done in gnome, which could be easier). That’s actually far better than what the Office bianary formats can achieve.

    (In other “last 10%” projects, there is also flash and 3D drivers for Nvidia, I think)

  5. Funny you should bring this up. When I interned at a law firm (undergrad political science work/study abroad program I took to fill electives) in London one of the things I was looking at was switching them over from their WordPerfect for DOS and Netware setup to something more modern. The thing was they loved WordPerfect, knew all the macros and hot keys and just didn’t want to give it up (they even had it integrated into a client billing application written in Paradox).

    They knew they had to move (newer forms were not being made in WP format) so in the end what made them switch to MS Office was the availability of a subscription service for the legal forms they needed in .doc format. OpenOffice wasn’t even around back then but even if it was, and at the state it is in today, it still wouldn’t have been an option unless someone came along with a service for properly formatted open office forms.

    The lesson there is it doesn’t matter how good the technology is if there isn’t an ecosystem around the technology that solves the problems of your target group. An industry like Law will gladly use outdated tools if they are familiar with it and there are resources available which allow them to get on with their jobs.

    Questions like the above “If formatting is that important why not use (La)TeX?” are the wrong ones to ask (and indicative of a mentality that good technology is all you need). If you want to push (La)TeX, OO.org or any software for that matter there needs to be a catalyst for someone to move. Solving one issue without looking at the all of the requirements wont be enough to get people to change what they are used to.

  6. RCS, does WebDAV count? By which I mean WTF hasn’t OpenOffice fully integrated WebDAV yet. It is a great feature and can be closely integrated, and the kind of user that wants more than WebDAV can provide usually wants more, like realtime collaborative editing which is more than most systems can provide anyhow.

  7. The switch isn’t as daunting as all that, even in your environment. Document repositories exist that don’t depend on Word. There are large corporate firms that don’t depend on Word (they use WordPerfect, but still).

    You shouldn’t be doing much formatting. Learn to use templates and your secretary so you can focus on content. Secretaries are document production professionals. They need intensive retraining (because they need deep knowledge of the program), but they’re pros, so they *are* retrainable.

    That retraining is the bulk of the cost, just like any place else. It might be that doing more with your software creates higher retraining costs, but the finding and implementing of replacement software is not the inhibiting factor.

    BTW, at this little law firm, we’re built on a combination of emacs, svn, and openoffice. Can’t say anybody here has ever missed Word.

  8. BTW, at this little law firm, we’re built on a combination of emacs, svn, and openoffice. Can’t say anybody here has ever missed Word.
    I’m not saying I’d choose Word if I started a law firm from scratch- I’d probably go with docbook-xml + (xml editor of choice) + git, or something along those lines. I’m just saying that the switching costs once a firm has already invested in the entire Word ecosystem are typically not trivial and shouldn’t be discounted by those who think you’re ‘only’ switching from Word to OOo.

    (And thanks for the pointer on secretaries/word processors; I’m not actually doing anything formatting sensitive myself right now but it is something good to keep in mind if/when I am.)

  9. […] Observation on my office and the dominance of Word First, the tools around what we do are pretty sophisticated. The modern law firm has a suite of tools for document management. Among other things, these tools save all files to a central server automatically, provide revision control, automatically scrub documents to remove comments (albeit not always well), etc. These tools are not standalone- they integrate into Office.2 Second, it isn�t just �a little formatting�. Courts can be very picky- they�re perfectly happy to reject your documents if the margin or spacing is wrong. So, again, the tools are very important. Finally, time is quite literally money for lawyers- every moment usually counts. I don�t want to waste time thinking about formatting, and the client doesn�t want to pay me to waste that time either….If anyone knows of a way to tie OpenOffice/ODF to an RCS automagically, I�m all ears. [PJ: Note the comments list some.] – Luis Villa’s Blog […]

  10. With respect, many of the ‘it’s easy’ comments above underestimate the issue, and betray the fact that their authors have no experience in the legal IT field.

    My company has significant experience in the legal IT field (in the UK) as developers, retailers and in support. The OP’s arguments are IMHO fully substantiated.

    I should add that I am an OOo evangelist, and have persuaded many of our non-legal clients to try it – we have a small roll-out going on at this very moment.

    But!

    – All lawyers in any practice with more than 3/4 partners will be using a document management system (DMS)

    – We once were developing our own DMS which worked in the context of a billing system with macro generator and WordPerfect. But only a few % of lawyers in the UK now use WP, so that system went bye-bye ten years ago.

    – All DMS that I know of are MS Word-based

    – A DMS will tie in billing, time recording, document archiving, and search, as well as document generation and filing, and critically, overall case management

    – In the UK (I expect similar things are true of other markets) lawyers make extensive daily use of ‘precedents’. These are essentially pre-drafted form templates to deal with all the routine documentation generation surrounding legal practice. These ‘precedents’ are generally tied quite tightly into the DMS – and all the ones I know of are now supplied only as MS Word templates.

    So, I can see no reason at all why OOo cannot be the basis of a full DMS for lawyers BUT all of the above requirements would have to be comprehensively fulfilled before any legal practice I know of would even bother looking at it. Moreover all the precedents would need to be available in OOo template form (as stated above, formatting is often crucial) and moreover updated every time there is a significant change in Law that means the document draft text must be altered – in other words, multiple times each year.

    And that would require a solid investment from somebody. I hope that happens but I am not holding my breath.

  11. The appication that Tim Niemueller names, O3spaces now according to their website also is compatible with Mac OS X, maybe that can help?

  12. I’m no world class expert, but I have set up my own version control server at work, using Ubuntu Server and subversion, for storing software repositories.

    AIUI, version control systems work most efficiently with plain text. I’ve not so far had cause to use it, but doesn’t Latex take plain text files, which include the formatting instructions and process them into the finished documents as pdf? The facilities available to Latex should easily cope with legal documents and it is, of course, free software. And being plain text, the source files can never have anything embarrassing hidden away inside.

  13. Once upon a time, I worked at a law firm back when WordPerfect was king, which was not that long ago, in the world of Law. WordPerfect lasted longer in the Law “industry” than in other concerns because it was *accurate* – which Word had major problems with. Little, unimportant things like word count.

    Although switching from Word to OO.o wouldn’t be trivial, it would be no more trivial than the move from WordPerfect to Word.

    It was not as easy a task converting a firms WordPerfect-formatted documents to Word-formatted documents as Microsoft would have had the partners believe. All the secretaries had to be retrained. It was a big, hidden cost that nobody anticipated to be as big a deal as it was.

    Moving to OO.o from Word would probably actually be an easier task than the move from WordPerfect to Word was. Not only is OO.o better at “doing” Word formats than Word was at “doing” WordPerfect formats – we also have the experience of a major document system changeover behind us, to learn from.

    You can rest assured that should any of the problems the legal “industry” suffered with, with Word, ever crop up with OO.o (not likely, but in the interest of fairness…) that the OO.o community would have a fix in place MUCH faster than the wait we had to suffer with, with the Word bugs.

    To use the excuse that “all the software we use integrates with Word” is disingenuous. Before switching to Word, all the software you used integrated with WordPerfect. It’s an invalid argument on the face of it.

    Regardless, I am an Uninterested Party as I no longer suffer the wrath of the partners – I’ve moved on to the real world, where people actually make products that are of use to other people. I am posting simply to support and promote the use of OO.o in business, because it’s the right thing to do.

  14. […] the final result. He mentions you in the Back Matter.] – The Future of the Internet download page Observation on my office and the dominance of Word (2008-06-25) First, the tools around what we do are pretty sophisticated. The modern law firm has a […]

  15. ‘Questions like the above “If formatting is that important why not use (La)TeX?” are the wrong ones to ask (and indicative of a mentality that good technology is all you need).’

    I disagree. It’s a great question to ask. You answered it, although indirectly. The reason lawyers don’t use (La)TeX is that the support forms are not there, and lawyers are not programmers, (generally) do not want to be programmers, and therefore will not be programmers. According to your response, for a majority of lawyers to contemplate any presentation format, it must have the necessary support forms, and they must be updated with sufficient regularity and timeliness.

    Additionally, the fact that lawyers aren’t programmers also means that there must be a GUI which abstracts the formatting concerns from the lawyers. Even those lawyers I know who used to be programmers, and used to work with HTML and LaTeX will not want to spend the time to do LaTeX by hand when they have a looming court deadline. (This is not to say that I don’t think (La)TeX has GUIs, but rather my experience with them has been less than stellar. IIRC, the best one I’ve used was vaguely similar to Word Perfect 5.1 with reveal codes permanently enabled and impaired editing capabilities, but with much better support for output formatting. (For those unfamiliar with WP51, no WYSIWYG; that was introduced in 6.0.) What frustrated me most about it was that the developers thought of it as good (due to technical accuracy), rather than ‘needs much polish’. Admittedly, that was years ago.)

    Incidentally, I find most statements that ‘Questions like “why not [technology x] are the wrong ones to ask’ are not correct; they are given by people who are astounded at how bad technology x is for the purpose. The correct answer is usually, “many reasons. Let me list just a few; however, there are more reasons than I have time to mention.”

    I have, however, encountered a few cases where the question was, in fact, incorrect. These are situations when any direct answer to the question will be misleading.

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