February 2011

Hey Lawyer! New iPad? Get These Apps First (Word and Excel Compatibility – Part 6)

This is part 6 of my 8 part series about starter apps for a lawyer to build a basic work machine. I’m not digging into a lot of custom apps here – just the meat and potatoes of the workflow for many lawyers. Last time I talked about presentation apps. Today I’ll talk about a subject that is probably of top concern to many lawyers – Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel compatibility.

Even if you do most of your drafting in raw text (which I recommend), you will inevitably need to view and edit a .doc or .xls file. For those times, my preferred app right now is QuickOffice Connect Mobile Suite (iTunes link). For a mobile Microsoft Office compatibility suite, this app offers everything you would expect. While you won’t be generating cross referenced tables of contents and custom styles in QuickOffice (or any of the competitors), all the basic formatting tools a lawyer uses are there. The reason this app is at the top of my list compared to the other capable apps in this area is in how it manages files. QuickOffice uses an intuitive drag, drop and tap interface that resembles how one might work on a desktop computer. Given that file management and version control is so important for lawyers, this feature pushes QuickOffice ahead of the competition in my eyes. QuickOffice Connect Mobile Suite is also just $14.99 at this writing (usually $24.99) (iTunes link).

That said, Dataviz’s Documents to Go Premium (iTunes Link) is still on my iPad and gets used from time to time. The main positive distinguishing feature between QuickOffice and Documents to Go is that DTG supports footnoting and QuickOffice does not. If documents with footnotes are part of your workflow, then you are going to want DTG. I draft contracts and correspondence rather than briefs and memoranda so footnotes are rare in my legal writing workflow. On the flip side, I find DTG’s file management scheme simply Byzantine at times with unintuitive panels of file management options that don’t seem linked together in any intuitive way. I’d love to see this aspect of the app get a refresh.

One thing to remember with both of these apps is that they aren’t WYSIWYG like your desktop version of Office. This is unfortunate as WYSIWYG seems like it is certainly possible on the iPad. Indeed, Apple’s Pages for iPad is much closer to a WYSIWYG experience. I think the reason QuickOffice and DTG don’t offer WYSIWYG views is because they are ports from older mobile devices and mobile operating systems (I think Palm may have been the original platform) where WYSIWYG was not an option.

Both apps have a standard version. Documents to Go’s (iTunes link) basic version is $9.99, but it lacks PowerPoint editing and cloud storage access. The basic version of QO is QuickOffice Mobile Suite (iTunes link) $4.99 but also lacks cloud storage integration and is only an iPhone app. Because cloud file storage is so critical for effective workflow on the iPad, I only recommend the premium versions of these two apps. There are other “Office” suite apps out there including Office2 HD (iTunes link) and the Pages (iTunes Link) / Numbers (iTunes link) combination, but these apps did not fare as well as DTG and QO in handling the quirky formatting of typical law firm documents (see my posts about pleading formatting and business agreement formatting on the iPad).

Stuck with a WordPerfect file? Well, you can’t edit it, but you can view it with WPD Viewer (iTunes link).

iPad, Lawyers and Text

Probably the #1 question I get from lawyers asking about the iPad is “Does it work with Microsoft Word?” The reason for this isn’t surprising given the ubiquity of Word in law firms and client environments. But more and more, I’ve felt like these folks are asking the wrong question. The better question, in my mind, is “What is the best way to write while mobile?” As I’ve said before, Word is a formatting application, not a writing application. If you want to write, there are far better tools for the job, most of which rely on plain text.

I’ve been wrestling with how to effectively make the case that mobile lawyers should consider text editors in their writing workflow. Fortunately, David Sparks makes the case beautifully in his post yesterday The Joy of Text over at MacSparky:

The watershed event, however, was the iPad. Very quickly after using the iPad, I realized I didn’t need a full blown word processor on my iPad as much as I needed a way to enter, edit, and manipulate text. It had to be seamless and fast. iPad developers largely delivered and the Dropbox API provides the glue to hold it all together. Now we can write 1,000 words on our Macs, add 500 more on our PCs, rewrite the introduction on our iPads from a park bench and do the final proofread over a Taco on our phones, all using text.

Sure, there are many times as a lawyer where you need to edit a Word file and there are plenty of great tools on the iPad for doing just that. But for the draft brief, the file memo, the first cut at a chunk of correspondence, the insert to the contract and all the other things that lawyers write, using plain text as the basis of your writing workflow will enhance your productivity and mobility. For example, this post started its life as a one line entry of text on my iPhone made on the web synced text editor, Simplenote (iTunes link). I expanded it into a rough draft of a post on my PC, again on Simplenote in my browser. I finalized it, still in text, on my iPad over lunch. A quick copy and paste into into WordPress and I’m done. If this was a letter to a client or an insert to a contract, it could just as easily been pasted into Word for final formatting. I could not have done the writing nearly as easily using Word files and I would have been distracted all along the way to make formatting revisions when I just needed to be writing.

Want to give text a try? Start small. Grab the Hogs Bay Software app Plaintext from the App Store (iTunes link) and get it synced up with a Dropbox account. Both are free, easy and a great start on a path to better text.

TrialPad for iPad: Courtroom Presentation Tool for Lawyers

I was happy to see an update for the new app TrialPad (iTunes link) on my iPad the other day. This new app from Lit Software LLC (website) promises an easy way for trial lawyers to collect, organize and present PDF based exhibits and demonstrative evidence in the courtroom.

At it’s core, TrialPad is a PDF organizer with annotation and VGA out capabilities. When I first looked at this app, I thought it was duplicating features in other apps. On further inspection, I think the developers have put a lot of time into thinking about small details that would be important to an attorney presenting at trial.

On entering the app, the user is prompted to set up case files into which PDF files can be imported. TrialPad added Dropbox support in its most recent update, which is a welcome addition to being able to import files from Mail. Imports from Dropbox retain whatever folder structure they had ensuring that organization is preserved. Once PDFs have been added to a case folder, they can be organized into subfolders or reordered. The ability to reorder files in any way you want is nice most apps simply organize by name or date. I’d like to see a little better file management in the app in the way of being able to synchronize a case with a particular Dropbox folder or perhaps with a desktop app. Currently, once a set of files is added to a case and organized, there does not appear to be a way to incorporate changed or new PDF files other than by adding one file at a time manually or by starting from scratch.

TrialPad File and Presentation view with Annotations

The app is organized like many document based apps: list of files at the left (in landscape mode), a viewer on the right with annotation tools at the top and VGA presentation tools at the bottom. The annotation tools are minimal, but seem appropriate for what a person would want when presenting at trial: a highlighter, a redaction tool and a freehand pen. The highlighter is nice in that it highlights a block rather than line by line. This is nice when you want to highlight an entire paragraph, but I’d also like to see line by line highlighting. One aspect I found frustrating is how the annotation tools turn off after one stroke. This makes sense with the redaction and highlighter, but it didn’t make sense to me with the freehand pen. Numerous times in testing the app when I wanted to write a word, I would have to switch the pen annotation tool on for every stroke. The ostensible reason for this choices is to prevent inadvertent marks on an exhibit when a user wants to pinch and zoom. This seems like it could be overcome by simply not making marks if two fingers touched the screen rather than having the frustrating.

The presentation tools have some nice features tailored for the courtroom including the ability present one exhibit on screen while you find, queue up and annotate another exhibit on the iPad. This took some getting used to for me, as typically VGA out in apps is either off or on. But once I started thinking about how I would want to present in a hearing, this was a welcome feature.

One of the key features of the app is the ability to save multiple annotated versions of the same document (a “Hot Doc”) and access those views different questions or witnesses. I can see a plaintiff’s lawyer in an auto accident case asking a the driver, passenger, witness, and cop to each annotate a map of the intersection where the accident occurred – saving each as a separate annotated file for presentation in closing. One problem I encountered was that all Hot Docs made of the same file have the same name. While a file can be renamed, this seems like an extra step that might get missed in the heat of trial. I might like to see each Hot Doc of the same file separately and automatically labeled with letters or numbers as they are created (e.g., Map – A, Map – B) or labeled with a time stamp. This would make referring to them later more useful.

I’m not a trial lawyer, but I can see this app as a useful tool. It seems like it would be best for small to medium trials. Even more common will be the short trial or hearing where you have just a few exhibits to present. It simply takes no time to add those documents to TrialPad and be ready to go. Use in more complex trials with dozens of exhibits seems possible, but I think some other navigational aids like thumbnails, tagging, quick naming and the like may be necessary – especially once multiple Hot Docs start to be added. Also, as the cases get larger, the power of the more fully featured trial management programs are probably more appropriate.

I have had a couple email exchanges with the developer and I know they are listening to customers, which is always good. One thing we exchanged emails about was the price of the app. The app retails for $89.99 which is high for many apps. But, in terms of typical legal software, it is nothing. The app is about the same cost as preparing a large foam core board with an exhibit. I also think there is a difference in pricing apps for personal use and professional use and in the latter case, TrialPad is not inappropriately priced. Perhaps the TrialPad folks should consider launching a free version of the app with limited functionality (e.g., 3 documents max, 3 minutes continuous VGA out max) so people can try before they buy (or ask a firm to buy). There are a number of videos on TrialPad’s website introducing the app and highlighting some of its features (an example below).