Document creation in the legal business is usually done using Microsoft Word, the staple word legal industry word processor. My difficulty with Word is that, as much of an improvement the current version (Word 2011 for the Mac) is over Word 2008 for the Mac, you really need solid templates and styles to avoid losing hours getting document formatting right. Law firms tend to buy packages that implement custom styles but being a small firm, that tends to be a little outside my budget and overkill given the amount of time I spend in Word.
Well, either that or it is designed to exact revenge on lawyers for some forgotten injustice. I use Word at some point or another for document creation because, well, everyone else is using it. I constantly have some formatting issue with it: numbering that disappears or changes without warning; paragraph formatting that inverts and starts hissing at me or some other mess that leaves me clicking on buttons and menu options for hours to fix the almost complete document. It drives me nuts and I am sure at least one of the gray hairs I have is attributable directly to this application.
I have found alternatives for much of my document creation and writing process. I discovered a great writing application called Scrivener a little while ago. Scrivener is designed for real writers who tend to write longer form documents and don’t have complex formatting requirements. That said, it is a great writing application which has enough formatting options to enable me to prepare legal documents with multi-level paragraph numbering, text styles and even larger projects with multiple chapters or sections. It is a terrific application and I keep wanting to use it more often. It also appeals to my preference for a simpler format that lets me focus on the text and less on how to get the line correctly formatted without throwing the rest of the document’s formatting out and tearing my hair out in the process. I want to focus on my work, not messing with styles and fonts.
So what I have started to do is create my longer documents in Scrivener and once the document is complete, I copy and paste that into my Word templates and use Word to apply my pre-existing formatting and make my documents more visually appealing. That part usually doesn’t take me that long because the basic text and formatting is complete by then. I typically use this methodology when I prepare reports and proposals but find myself returning to Word to create agreements and letters from inception. Letters are short enough for Word to be perfectly suitable and painless. I have started creating agreements in Scrivener using a fairly simple bullet or numbering structure. Agreements have multi-level paragraph numbering, dynamic paragraph references, tables and indices. Scrivener handles the basic document pretty well and breaking the overall document down into clauses structured hierarchically helps make long documents more manageable and easier to manipulate. Ultimately, though, I seem to wind up back in Word when it comes to finalising a document for distribution and that is where the wheels tend to come off.
I should be tracking the amount of time I spend messing around with Word to persuade it to display documents the way I want them displayed and the number of reasons why Word is preferable to some other option are rapidly diminishing. The big things Word brings to the party is the ability to insert special fields which track to paragraph numbers, making it easier to amend documents and update paragraph numbers in one or two mouse clicks. I used to use iWork’s Pages as my primary word processor and it lacks that feature and also seems to output Word-formatted documents a little off. Pages doesn’t work with MS Office documents natively and, instead, imports them into iWork formats (word processor, spreadsheet and presentation formats). When you are done, you basically export into Office formats (the current version has a “save copy as” option so it may actually save in native Word, so I stand to be corrected here). With Pages, the numbering conventions are pretty much locked so no fiddly bits to screw things up. I use the Legal numbering system and it takes the hassle out of multi-level numbering almost completely. I’ve just had people complain about the output document’s formatting to the point where it was a bit easier to just struggle with Word. That was also probably a version or two ago so I should probably try again.
A couple people have suggested using OpenOffice (now LibreOffice) but this doesn’t really address my apparent inability to work with a word processor that uses configurable styles and other things. I don’t really see a big difference between Word and Open/LibreOffice from a practical perspective. My document styles are still going to be wonky in LibreOffice and I’ll still lose hours and days I’ll never get back trying to get them right. Besides, LibreOffice is just a tad ugly. The open source community still has a way to go to deliver an aesthetically pleasing UI.
To top this all off, there is also the issue of document formats. Pages may be a great hassle-free option but the .pages format is hardly a future proofed and durable document format. Word’s .doc and .docx are de facto standards but there are doubts about our ability to access those documents in the coming decades. The Open Document Format used in Open/LibreOffice is designed to endure and remain accessible in the coming years and decades (well, as much as can be anticipated). The big question is whether all these documents we create now will be meaningfully accessible to us in the future. If you don’t think this is an issue then consider whether you could open those old WordStar files you created another lifetime ago?
Returning to the current day and my challenge getting a document out for a client before I lose my mind and start drooling, I keep thinking there has to be a better alternative to Word. Scrivener saves files in RTF and some XML implementation. Scrivener is probably the best option I have at the moment for pure document creation but it lacks automatic and easy multi-level numbering options and the ability to insert contents tables based on heading styles (I could be wrong here and if I am I will probably cry tears of joy). Those deficiencies exist largely because Scrivener is not designed to be a legal document creation tool – its not its purpose but it can do much of that stuff well.
Perhaps my solution is to replace Word with Pages to finalise documents and get them out the door. Fiddling with Word is just taking too long and is driving me slowly insane.