Separating Content material and Model: Why It is So Tough to Write and Collaborate in Phrase

When people in the legal or corporate world sit down at their computers to write a briefing, memo, or personal note, they are likely opening Microsoft Word, the de facto corporate word processor. You start with either a blank page or a template and begin entering text. However, they quickly find that their input may not look exactly how they want it, and spend the next twenty minutes changing fonts, spacing, styles, and other formatting elements that need a backseat to the important content that is needed to highlight them.

Once the page looks exactly how the author likes it, he can retype the content. But wait; something doesn’t look right The bulleted list has strange spacing gaps and header 2 is still in Calibri! The author then watches as another 15 minutes are sucked out by formatting. Eventually, the draft is complete and can be given to a colleague for editing before the final version can be sent.

A day goes by and memo_v2_JAF_edits.docx appears in the author’s inbox. Your colleague turned on track changes (good) and changed all the fiddly line spacing rules as well as the size of the tabs and manually added an extra space at the end of each sentence (bad). Worse still, the only change to the content is a comment on a paragraph that just says “plz fix, thx”.

Bike shed or Parkinson’s Law of Trivia

If this has happened to you or someone you know, you may be familiar with (or should become familiar with) the term “bike shed” (more formally known as Parkinson’s Law of Trivia). In 1957, C. Northcote presented Parkinson Law’s Parkinson (“The work will be expanded to fill the time available to complete it.”) A fictional argument based on real observations and centered on the design of a nuclear power plant.

Throughout history, the plant designer presents his plan for the plant to a board of directors who has the wallet and the authority to make changes. The designer first presents the plans for the reactor, the complex and expensive design at the heart of the plan. It is obviously the most important design and should have the most control. The board asks no questions and has no hesitation in approving the reactor design. With the approval of the most important piece, the designer begins explaining the little things: the simple design of a shed on the edge of the site to serve as a storage room for employees who cycle to work. Arguments and opinions follow, divided, shot down, defended. Time is essentially wasted as the construction of a bicycle shed has little or no impact on whether the nuclear reactor is safe and efficient.

The reactor gets approved quickly because it’s so complex that the board either believes the designer knows what they’re doing and that their plan is more than adequate, or that they don’t want to waste the mental energy on everything to understand. The board focuses on the bike shed instead. It’s something that any member easily understands and can afford to have a preference without the chance of ruining the project as a whole.

When employees review written Word documents, they inevitably start riding bicycles. Aesthetics are the focus and if you are able to change the aesthetics, they will. How can this problem be solved? How can the focus be put back on the nuclear reactor?

Substance over style

The primary way to avoid changes (and distractions) due to style is to separate the content of a document from the formatting process. Ideally, text would be in its own file, simple and unadorned. A separate file or section will then list choices for how to display the text, such as: B. Choice of font, line spacing or margin size. To couple certain parts of the text file to the decisions made in the formatting file, a simple set of tags instructs the computer when a line is a section heading or part of a list.

If you’ve studied computer technology for the past several decades, this will likely sound familiar to you. Add an additional file of instructions to update the contents of pre-marked sections of text or images based on context or user input, and this series of files reflects the basic framework of the internet: HTML + CSS + JavaScript.

HyperText Markup Language (HTML), Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), and JavaScript work together to create some of the most complex documents imaginable. However, much of the information on the web shares CSS and JavaScript. You can see this on blogs, social media websites, or almost anywhere online that lots of people have the option to enter text separately. Because of this, all tweets look the same when rendered. With this model, text can be inserted into a style at any time during production. If the text changes, the formatting stays the same. An added benefit is that a judge or partner who wants to see the content in a different style simply has to load it with a different formatting file. Widespread use of this way of creating and formatting text would solve many of the problems involving compatibility, file size, and conflicting settings. This would save time, shift the focus to substance, and make it easier to automate court or judge-specific formatting requirements.

But is it too complex?

Multiple files to create a document, scripts that automatically change some of the content, less control over how a reader sees each page of your pleading: separating substance from style already seems to take a steep learning curve and investment in time limited lawyers. This is misleading, however, and after an initial setup (likely by technologists, not individual lawyers) creating unformatted content should be as easy as using a digital typewriter.

To see an example of how easy this could be, consider the proliferation of Markdown, a markup language that is characterized by simple markup tags and easy conversion to other formats, namely HTML for viewing on the web. It has free and open source online editors like Dillinger, as well as extremely complex desktop or iOS apps like Scrivener. Markdown has gained much of its popularity with writers and bloggers because the technical knowledge or familiarity required to create good-looking text is relatively small and the tags can be quickly learned by writers of all skill levels. However, Markdown was created to parse text intended to be read on the web. It lacks functions that would be fundamental to legal documents, while others that would have no place in a letter could easily be included. However, it’s important to look at Markdown in the context of how it changed the workflow of authors. With the creation of a legal markup language, lawyers can also take advantage of these advantages.

What about Word?

But could you just use Word for that? In practice, while the potential exists, it would deprive Word of its core functionality and purpose. Microsoft Word was first published in 1983 and marketed as a WYSIWYG (“What You See Is What You Get”) editor. This means that formatting is inherently tied to writing Microsoft Word. The meaningful content is extremely difficult to separate, and Word always displays a facsimile of a sheet of paper, a ruler to declare the tab size, and a drop-down font selection. In addition, the way the underlying Word document files are structured mixes formatting decisions with the actual text of the document.

Word has some great and inspired writing tools like spell check, change tracking, and styles. Recently, however, these tools have been showing up in text editors of all flavors, with styles even being the focus of Markdown as headings. In particular, the tools to facilitate collaboration have increased as the internet has become the norm on the internet in both the office and home over the past two decades. Tools that replicate or surpass all of the capabilities that Word provides lawyers with while keeping much of the kitchen sink in the Microsoft suite are on the rise, although they are not always tailored exactly to the needs of lawyers.

The delay in introducing legal tech

While all of this sounds like the solution to myriad problems, attorneys have not adopted these practices en masse. I see several reasons for this:

  1. The word is ubiquitous and has been around for decades. Customers and co-counsel can (and often only want to) open, edit and revise documents in DOCX format.
  2. Law schools and law firms do not teach or adopt alternate technologies, probably also because the more established senior members of the profession feel that their time is better spent not learning new drawing technologies.
  3. There is a general lack of contact with technology and advancements in the legal profession, with lawyers too busy to improve their status quo and unable to try technology with real-world examples.
  4. There is currently no legally targeted tool that is good enough. While Word can do whatever it takes to create briefs, it is also unwieldy and no more focused on the legal market than the aspiring writer market.

For this reason, Word will no longer be replaced in legal practice in the near future. It’s just too deeply ingrained in company and customer culture. For this reason, we have decided to create LitKit as a suite of tools that integrate previously unattainable automation such as using editors or renumbering exhibits directly in Word. As we patiently wait for the day when the legal world adopts easily portable and platform-independent technology, we encourage all lawyers and legal technology providers to familiarize themselves with the features and benefits of Microsoft Word.

The best tool for programmatically generating legal content today is a little-known solution called LaWTeX. LaWTeX works in LaTeX – a program with which the writer can adjust almost every facet of a print with sentence markup. LaWTeX is a macro package that tries to solve some of the weaknesses in law making, e.g. B. the automation of quotations in bluebook style.

While LaWTeX has many advantages, it has some disadvantages. First, unlike most Markdown editors, live previews are not available and the document must be compiled before it can be viewed. Second, the markup used by LaWTeX is quite complex. While WYSIWYG users are powerful, the transition is unlikely to be as easy as transitioning to Markdown. Finally, LaWTeX has not received any significant updates since its release in 2014 and does not provide any user support outside of the community forums. As such, law firms are unlikely to seriously consider adopting LaWTeX, although smaller law firms with tech-savvy staff may find it easier to do so.

Comments are closed.