Why Lawyers Love WordPerfect

by Kendall Callas

Appeared in the September, 2009, issue of NextGen_Law, published by the Daily Journal Corporation

No one can deny the importance WordPerfect has earned in the history of law. It provided a tool that changed the way lawyers work. Gone are the days of longhand and dictation — now lawyers type. This competitive edge cut document turn-around time and improved attorney-staff ratios, causing law offices to convert en masse to PC-based word processing with WordPerfect in the 1980's and 1990's.

Those were the glory years: The WordPerfect reps (every one a Mormon) tossed bags of M&Ms into enthusiastic crowds at user group meetings, and founder Alan Ashton teased us to guess how many kids he had adopted. (A dozen!)

Early on, Utah-based WordPerfect Corp. proclaimed a commitment to develop features for the legal market and legal users have held WordPerfect close to their hearts ever since. They will gush with very little provocation:

“WordPerfect is ideal for a law office because of its flexibility and transparency. In Word you are forced to do things the Microsoft way, in WordPerfect you can do it your own way.”

“Word is for amateurs, WordPerfect is for pros.”

“WordPerfect is popular in the legal market because we've paid close attention to our customer's needs and have given them tools that make sense for what they need to accomplish — whether it's precise layout, PDF functionality or features like meta-data removal,” said Jason Larock, Corel’s Director of Product Management for WordPerfect Office. “We're always talking with our legal customers to ensure that WordPerfect continues to evolve to meet their needs.”

With the early development of features like automatic paragraph numbering, Table of Contents, and Table of Authorities, and add-ons like Black’s Law dictionary and citation software, WordPerfect caught fire internationally, everywhere law was practiced in English.

WordPerfect also deserves a heroic place in the pantheon of computer software as one of the first programs to offer recordable macros. Macros are simple recordings of (keystroke) tasks — fast and easy to replay — the ultimate step in the ‘personal’ computing revolution, freeing the productivity-hungry user from needing to learn a programming language, even from writing code.

An under-appreciated advance in user programming, now WordPerfect macros have fully developed into PerfectScript, a comprehensive programming language complete with DDE and OLE features. Macros, along with WordPerfect’s ‘merge’ programming language, offered tools more than powerful enough to satisfy the demanding document assembly needs of most law practices. And it didn’t stop there, as WordPerfect continued to add speed and convenience with features like the Address book, Templates, and the QuickCorrect/QuickWords abbreviation tools.

Many who’ve walked both sides of the street say WordPerfect’s customizability and automation features make it the technical winner of the contest against Microsoft Word. Lawyers say the precise control WordPerfect provides for tasks like footers and pleadings makes it “easier to learn and operate for making documents in legal format.”

Why do lawyers still love WordPerfect? One attorney answers with “Two words: Reveal Codes. At one point about 10 years ago, I tried switching to Word. My secretary and I agreed we hated it after only a few weeks.”

Attorneys say macros and ‘merge’ forms are easier in WordPerfect, and they love the legal-specific features, such as paragraph numbering, Table of Contents, and Table of Authorities. Many also think page numbering, columns, and tables are easier to work with in WordPerfect vs. Word.

But marketing factors chose a different popular winner. Though Microsoft was late to the PC word processing game, MS Word started to take off when Windows blossomed after version 3.0 was introduced in 1990, sounding the near-death knell for WordPerfect, though no one knew it at the time. The years have made clear that it is tough to compete against Microsoft, given its size, name recognition, and the authority that comes from authoring the operating system we all love and hate.

Despite anti-trust conflicts in Europe and the U.S. — at least one judge considered severing MS Word from the Windows family — Microsoft’s dominance in word processing (and web browsers, and operating systems) has grown unchecked.

Of course, the corporate owners of WordPerfect shot themselves in the foot more than once. When WordPerfect made the leap from DOS to Windows, it was late to market and performed poorly, a combination of management neglect from Novell and Microsoft keeping secrets about Windows code. Profit pressures came to the fore when Corel acquired WordPerfect from Novell in 1996. To squeeze profits from support, Corel abandoned free telephone tech support and discontinued printed manuals.

The power of the bundle, and the skills pool that the ubiquity of MS Word created — many colleges and law schools have standardized on MS Word — made it seem that buying WordPerfect was an avoidable cost. (Why spend extra on WordPerfect software and training?) Many law firms were lured by the appearance of short-term savings with MS Word, and by systems consultants who bow to Redmond each morning. Ultimately, pressure from clients using MS Word drove most law firms to adopt Word. Today most large law offices are split shops, running both Word and WordPerfect.

The simple fact is that most users and most markets need only light-weight word processing, but the document factories of the legal market need more powerful tools. Microsoft has won the larger market with aggressive marketing and bundling, and this includes the clients of law firms. So the popular success of MS Word has created pressure on law firms to adopt MS Word as well. Like VHS versus Beta, the popular product is quashing the better one.

But Corel is still slugging with its expansion into Linux, nimble responsiveness to changing market demands (such as the new metadata removal feature), and impressive new features like the ability to open/create PDF files (unmatched in MS Word). Nevertheless, many users are “a little worried” about WordPerfect, given Microsoft’s near-monopoly power.

Can WordPerfect hang in there? IT industry analyst Allan Hurst of Fremont, California, sums it up: “I think the advantages are diminishing, especially as third-party support for WordPerfect continues to wane.”

Bill Lundy, IT director at Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass LLP in San Francisco, made the switch: “Word finally made some improvements to their auto-numbering and other features, and legal-focused macro packages became more sophisticated ...”

Corel needs to continue being aggressive to avoid fading away. Some users suggest the folks at Corel “redeem themselves and leap ahead of Word by improving and extending customer support” — particularly telephone access and the quality of the Help function.

If Corel plays its cards right, it can count on a loyal user base. As one user put it, “As long as there is a conversion program, I will always use WordPerfect.” Another agrees, echoing Charlton Heston, “I will continue to support WordPerfect until Microsoft pries this software from my cold, dead hands!”

Copyright (C) 2009 by microCounsel. All rights reserved.

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