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IN(NOVATING) WITH THE OLD: MICROSOFT WORD AND THE LEGAL PROFESSION

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By Jacob Field

Young associates would greatly benefit from being taught how to truly and fully use Microsoft Word—either by their law school or their firm. 

My first introduction to the use of technology in the legal field was when my wife, then a first-year associate in a BigLaw firm, amusingly told me that the rainmaker partner from the office next door had asked her how to copy-paste something. Such stories about partners’ lack of familiarity with supposedly ubiquitous modern technology came frequently from her and her friends. As these young lawyers navigated fuzzy camera-phone photos of handwritten edits, document-destroying formatting disasters, and briefs with such poor version control that even the partners couldn’t remember what was actually supposed to be in them, one would assume that seasoned lawyers who spent large parts of their career dictating to their assistant were to blame for such errors. 

However, the associates struggled with tech as well. By “tech” I do not mean cutting edge AI/ML, blockchain and smart contracts, or even complex e-discovery systems. For a profession that uses Microsoft Word day and night, lawyers generally know little about the software’s off-the-shelf capabilities beyond its typewriter-replacing functions. For example, my wife’s co-counsel once returned a draft with track changes indicating that a junior associate had spent a number of hours manually adding a second space after every single sentence. That is over a thousand dollars worth of extra spaces, but who’s counting? 

Inefficiencies and errors due to lack of familiarity with Word can even lead to court sanctions, like in the case of the law firm that did not understand the difference between double-space and Exactly 24, a line spacing option which is the equivalent of a 12-point space between lines, and was fined over $2000 for that confusion. 

After hearing these stories, I was unsurprised to learn that US law schools do not teach basic technology skills at all. Even those who have added legal technology to their curricula focus on more sophisticated, future-facing tech. For example, Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law familiarizes its students with “cloud storage, robotics, e-discovery software, machine learning, and other forms of artificial intelligence.” If this much is being invested in understanding the potential future of complex digital programs, why is so little being invested in efficiently operating the ones that are already in constant use?

The lack of familiarity with the software most central to legal practice leads to an inefficient drafting process and robs lawyers of time and brain power that should be spent on substantive matters, as well as quality personal time, without good reason. Furthermore, because Word is a “what you see is what you get” software, attorneys’ improvisation – making documents look right, but without using the right features – may require significant amounts of extra time when revising and finalizing legal documents. This can be avoided in two ways: firstly, by teaching in-depth Word to law students and lawyers and secondly, by customizing Word to address the needs of the legal professions. 

Teaching Microsoft Word in Law Schools and Law Firms 

The legal profession seems to hold a perfunctory understanding of Word. However, knowledge of advanced features of the software could lead to reduction of gross inefficiencies, for example:

  • Using macros or advanced clipboard functions to streamline the never-ending copy-pasting associated with answering a complaint.
  • Supras and infras can become less of a headache with the simple use of cross-references.
  • The find and replace function can save a lot of time and trouble in cases like that of the junior associate adding extra spaces. 

Beyond making sure that associates are armed with basic skills to make work more efficient and briefs look tidy and professional (think page breaks, keep with next, etc.), law schools and firms should explore Word’s functionality in depth and teach associates to automate forms and mail merge. This will save hours in drafting, for example, the 20th deposition notice for a case without forgetting to change the location or date.

There is plenty of opportunity for law schools to help familiarize future lawyers with Microsoft Word. In Legal Research and Writing classes, which are mandatory during 1L year in most law schools, professors should focus on both substance and form, ensuring law students understand and can proficiently apply court formatting and redaction requirements. Rarely are young lawyers asked to “solve the case” or write an impressive piece of advocacy in first assignments. Instead, they are asked to check court rules, make sure a brief’s font and formatting is correct, insert and edit citations, and redact sensitive information. Basic Word skills can make these tasks easier and more efficient.

Reinventing Microsoft Word for Lawyers

Word truly is a Swiss Army knife. Its functionality ranges from the banal to very sophisticated automation. However, being a general tool, its lack of focus on what lawyers need often mutes attorneys who advocate for a better firm-wide understanding of the software. 

Identifying and pulling together the functionality necessary to the practice of law is a fantastic way to nudge less tech-savvy lawyers into efficiently using Word. For example, in one BigLaw firm, the IT department has created a short-cut for converting straight quotation marks to “smart” ones. This is a small solution that saves a lot of time and agony. To bring these sorts of solutions to law firms on a wider scale with more success, a firm or legal technology provider needs to understand:

(1) The inefficiencies associated with a specific practice or law firm; 

(2) The most often-repeated drafting and formatting errors; and 

(3) The firm’s requirements or styles. 

By paying attention to these three issues, firms and legal tech leads can customize Word, or create additional software to declutter it.  They will enable lawyers to draft documents more efficiently, delighting their clients, and protect themselves from formatting-related embarrassments. Prelimine interviewed a range of attorneys and found, for example, that botched redactions are a big source of embarrassment for law firms, and that hours are spent – sometimes at the associate level, minutes before a filing is due – on numbering and renumbering exhibits to motions. 

Through Word automation and programming, these long-standing issues can be successfully addressed without the cost of specialized and daunting legal tech solutions. More than ever, firms should begin pushing for these changes and searching for the right solutions – especially as Microsoft moves towards Office 365, which features co-editing functions and cloud-based access that will likely only alienate non-technologist lawyers even further.

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Jacob Field is the founder of Prelimine, a producer of litigation-oriented software that aims to automate repetitive tasks while minimizing errors, as well as overhead costs for law firms. Prior to founding Prelimine, Jacob worked as a consultant, helping federal and Fortune 500 clients with process improvement, cost reduction, and strategic sourcing initiatives.

Photo by Vlada Karpovich from Pexels

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