A Warning About Dating in the 90's

by Kendall Callas

In my consulting travels I've seen law offices handle form documents in many different ways. Macros, merge documents, format files, styles, templates -- each of these tools has strengths and weaknesses and offers a different trade-off between ease-of-use and vulnerability to error. (See my general discussion of handling form documents in The ALA Bridge, February 1996, page 9.)

Inserting the current date is a need common to most forms, such as letters, pleadings, agreements, and memos. WordPerfect's date command is often used, specifically the "Date Code" feature. (In WordPerfect for DOS, it's on the Shift+F5 Date/Outline key; in WordPerfect for Windows, it's under the Insert, Date menu.)

The date feature (in any version of WordPerfect) offers two forms of the current date: Date Code or Date Text.

On first glance, Date Codes offer great convenience. A Date Code floats to remain current. On 9-1-96, a Date Code reads "September 1, 1996"; on 9-2-96, it reads "September 2, 1996". (Of course, you may change the format of the date.) It's very handy for automatically dating documents as they are printed -- headers always show today's date, and when a document is re-used, there's no need to worry about correcting the date.

The Date Text feature inserts a date that does not float, it is fixed. On 9-1-96, a date inserted as text reads "September 1, 1996"; on 9-2-96, it still reads "September 1, 1996". The Date Text feature inserts the date just as if you had typed it, preserving a record of the date which appeared on the document sent out.

Dangerously, however, I have found many firms that over-rely on Date Codes. A Date Code makes it seductively easy to re-use an old letter as the basis for a new one -- if Date Codes are used at the top of page 1 and in the header then no date correction is necessary at all.

The problem with Date Codes, however, is that they do not preserve a record of the date in the computer file. A date code updates to the current date when you retrieve the document.

Sure, you can refer to your paper copy, but that means you've lost one of the great conveniences of computerized work product. Of course, you might argue that the document's date can be seen on the List Files screen (in Windows, the "File Open" screen). But this is the date the file was last saved, not necessarily the date it was printed. The two dates would be different, for instance, if a user opened the file to refer or add comments to it and saved the file again. (Many untrained users save files when exiting, even if they were just looking and made no changes.) That leaves the actual date of the document in doubt and not determinable from the computer file. Already, more than one law suit has turned on this very point.

To improve on the Date Code approach, here are two techniques to automate insertion of today's date as fixed text:

To make best use of your computerized assets -- and if you consider accurate record keeping important to your work -- you may want to re-examine your procedures and user training to make sure you're using date features properly.

Copyright (C) 1996 by microCounsel, (415) 921-6850. All rights reserved.

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