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Microsoft Office XP - Interesting Technology to Consider
One of the major goals we should all have is to reduce the number of different technology applications we use. Not only is switching from application to application inefficient, it often leads to information being stored in different locations on your computer or network, and in different, sometimes incompatible formats.
The best practice-management systems integrate with many of the other applications lawyers use. They try to be that one application that lawyers, law firms, and legal departments use to manage their practice and interface seamlessly with other applications. How well they do this varies from system to system, but complete, seamless integration is very difficult to achieve, especially for a small corporate legal department with limited resources.
One of the realities for corporate counsel is that most of our employers use Microsoft Office as their basic software package. It stands to reason, therefore, that there would be some real advantages in using Microsoft Office programs to manage our practices. In fact, many corporate legal departments have assembled their own practice-management systems using tools such as Microsoft Access and Outlook. In part, this is a recognition of the desire to do as much as possible with the fewest possible number of applications, and also the reality that there are advantages in using the tools we already have that are supported by our corporate IT departments. Unfortunately, such home-grown solutions have a number of problems, some of which reflect limitations of the underlying software tools, and others that arise from the inherent difficulty and inefficiency of developing and maintaining applications internally.
Much of practice management revolves around managing and sharing communications, matter, contact, and calendar information, something it would seem that Microsoft's Outlook program should be able to do well. Unfortunately, Outlook has had limitations that have made it less than ideal as a true practice management or groupware solution. As Microsoft continues to add features to its products, however, some of those limitations may be addressed.
One of the questions we should be asking ourselves is: How different are the technology needs of our department from those of the rest of the corporation? We corporate lawyers have tended to think of our departments as having needs that cannot be met by the systems in place to support other departments, and that may be true. However, I have been attending some presentations by Microsoft regarding their new Office XP product, and I have to say that what the Microsoft representatives are saying about the new capabilities built into Office XP is almost exactly what I have heard lawyers say they want. Lawyers want integration, ease of use, collaboration tools, project and workflow management, flexibility, better ways to store and access information, better ways to communicate, and so on. According to Donna Payne, of Payne Consulting Group, Microsoft really has been listening to the legal profession. In her article that appears in the April/May issue of Law Office Computing. Donna gives Microsoft high marks for meeting the needs of legal professionals in a number of areas, including better integration with document management programs and a feature similar to WordPerfect's Reveal Codes that many of us old-timers remember and love. (For a more skeptical report on Office XP, see Walter Mossberg's May 17, 2001 column from the Wall Street Journal.)
Although Microsoft has created problems with backward compatibility in previous Office releases, this time the file format reportedly has not changed. However, according to Payne, this is a very different product, and retraining of users will be required. Because of this, as well as the expense of upgrading and Microsoft's track record with new products, corporate IT directors are likely to be slow to adopt Office XP. However, for a corporate legal department, it might be a good investment if you can convince your IT folks to start the upgrade with the legal department once it's clear that Microsoft has worked the bugs out.
Keep an eye out for how the legal software vendors integrate Office XP products into their offerings. The better vendors will be working to figure out how they can take advantage of the new MS Office capabilities in their own systems.
Archived Microsoft presentations on Office XP and other subjects are available at http://microsoft.corpsoft.innoviacorp.com/Templates/Template1/summary.asp?Sponsor=CS&Event=CSMS.
Last updated: 01/04/02 (Originally published 05/17/01)
Copyright 2001-2005 David A. Munn