An elephant's eye, looking down watchfully.

Under The Eye of the Elephant

A couple of weeks ago, two colleagues and I attended the ABA Techshow 2017 in Chicago. There were many interesting presentations, a wide range of exhibitors, and over 2000 attendees (mostly practitioners, but with a sprinkling of academics). We left with much to ponder. 

But the most significant participant was one not represented there at all: Microsoft Word. 

Hair Shirts

I have been to (and presented at) many conferences, and attended (and given) many CLE presentations. It’s quite common for a speaker at such events to gently chide his or her audience for not doing things in accordance with best practice. But ABA Techshow 2017 took this to a whole new level. 

Speaker after speaker berated their audience for having little or no idea about how to use Microsoft Word. But did the audience complain? On the contrary, the attendees visibly cowed their heads and nodded in a sad, collective admission of guilt. 

Including expenses, these attorneys were probably paying several thousands of dollars each to be there, and yet they evidently felt that such open criticism of their own practices was wholly warranted. 

Slow Learners?

I asked one attorney, who attends every year, what he expected to get out of the event since he had attended only a year before. “I’m hard-headed,” he said. “Sometimes I need to be told several times before I actually change the way I do things.” 

Now I know lawyers are, by nature, a conservative breed.1 1 For those who really are slow learners, I am not talking politics here. They are resistant to change, and prefer it to be incremental rather than by leaps and bounds. But that is simply ridiculous. 

And, if that is the mindset of those who at least had sufficient nous to attend the Techshow, what is the rest of the profession like? 

A Real Problem

Actually, don’t answer that. After I recounted some of what I had seen at the conference to one of my classes, a student told me that she clerks for a firm where they redact documents by hand. 

Yes, they literally: 

  • scan a document,
  • then go through it by hand to block out offending text with a black pen,
  • and then re-scan this annotated mess
  • before sending the result off to whomever is supposed to be entitled to it.

A twice-scanned, probably misaligned document? How professional! Goodness only knows what state it’s in for the recipient to try to read. 

Honestly, if this is you, could you please stop just admitting the horror and actually get around to doing something about it? 

Remedial Classes?

Session after session at Techshow 2017 was devoted to teaching attorneys how to use Word. (And when speakers weren’t berating them for being incompetent with Word, there were speakers berating them for being incompetent with PDF files.) 

The fundamental problem, as Barron Henley put it, is that: “Most people think Word is possessed.” 

You type in something or touch one of its buttons, and suddenly it re-formats itself! Woah, what just happened? 

And then you spend way too long trying to figure out how to undo what just happened. 

Forms and Templates

The solution to this nightmare of incompetence and wasted client money, said the speakers, was twofold. 

First, attorneys should simply learn how to use Word properly. Henley, for example, disseminated a dense manual of over 120 pages. 

Yeah, that’ll do it. 

Secondly, attorneys should invest in some other programs that will make Word behave more helpfully. Buy a Hot Docs license, everyone was told, and create proper forms and templates. 

Of course! Problem solved! 

Wrong Idea

I’m sorry, but anyone who believes that those two steps are the answer is just engaging in wishful thinking. No doubt they will work (and have worked) for some individuals, but they aren’t the solution that the profession as a whole requires. 

Even for a devoted techie, that manual is heavy going. And Hot Docs doesn’t actually create forms and templates for you. It just facilitates the task if you already know what you’re doing. 

Indeed, the sorry irony of the whole business is that, even if you do know what you’re doing, you will still be stuck with the shockingly-shoddy output that Word produces. So you will have put all that effort in only to still turn out a document that looks like crap. 

False Assumptions

As I hinted when adding a question mark to two of the previous sub-headings, I don’t actually believe either that attorneys are slow learners or that they generally need remedial classes. After all, we are talking here of one and a quarter million people who were top of their class at undergrad. 

The problem is that, in Microsoft Word, they are dealing with a tool that is simply not fit for its purpose. 

I don’t believe either that the attendee whom I quoted earlier is “hard-headed” at all. Actually, I think he’s instinctively ahead of the game. He just hasn’t yet been able to articulate the reason why he, like hundreds of thousands of others, is still “doing it wrong.” 

Clear Thinking

Let’s be clear. If we were talking about any other software, and found that a million and a quarter intelligent adults couldn’t work out what keys to hit, in what order, in order to produce an efficient result, we’d shun that software. 

After all, if whatever it purported to do were at all important, there would be bound to be a more intuitive competitor. 

So the real problem with the legal profession’s incompetence in word-processing is not that attorneys don’t know how to use Word. It’s that they assume that there isn’t anything available apart from Word,2 2 WordPerfect doesn’t count; it’s been dying a slow death even before Microsoft took a stake in Corel to ensure that WordPerfect couldn’t mount a comeback. or that anything that might be available would be too hard to learn. Those assumptions are completely false. 

Twenty years of Word, and still we can’t use it properly?! I think it’s pretty obvious that there must be a better alternative. 

The Problem with Lawyers

The real problem with lawyers is that they don’t take their own advice. Lawyers usually insist on evidence. We have it here by the truckload. But they ignore it. 

Lawyers also normally decry assertions, emphasizing the importance of reasoned argument. They challenge lazy assumptions, which are the very antithesis of reasoned argument. 

And yet they assume that they must use Word despite all the evidence to the contrary. 

Superior Word-Processing

The fact is that LibreOffice Writer is far ahead of MS Word in terms of what lawyers need. It’s far more robust with long documents, its styles feature is easy to use, and it has been well tested by governments, corporations, and other organizations. 

It also manages to offer something that Microsoft has never been able to accomplish. It really does offer the same software on all three major operating systems (Windows, MacOS, and Linux), so that a document created on one operating system doesn’t get screwed up when viewed on another. 

But LibreOffice Writer still remains far behind what is clearly the best choice for legal word-processing. 

Document Processing

That choice is LyX. I even write my blog posts in it. 

And LyX is not just the best word-processor around. It also produces the best PDFs you’ve ever seen. 

So, for any attorneys reading this, use LyX and you will not only be able to avoid the hair shirts and head cowing at MS Word sessions at future Techshow conferences. You will also be able to hold your head high when they move on to PDFs. 

Two for the price of one — and that price is free. What more could you ask for? 

Footnotes

1For those who really are slow learners, I am not talking politics here.
2WordPerfect doesn’t count; it’s been dying a slow death even before Microsoft took a stake in Corel to ensure that WordPerfect couldn’t mount a comeback.