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8 ways to leverage technology as a lawyer

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We lawyers and law students are trained to think in the past. We are taught that the law changes slowly, that we should stick to precedent, and that stare decisis is king. But living in the past comes at a cost: we are often the last ones to pick up on new ways of doing things. Technology is no exception. Others have documented how bad lawyers are at adopting new technologies, despite the obvious payoffs.

And that is a travesty. Many of us are scared about how new technologies will change what it means to practice law (or, perhaps, redefine it all together). But that’s the wrong way to look it. This is an opportunity for lawyers to redefine our profession in exciting ways. It’s an opportunity to explore how our unique skills can add value for our clients (and society). Do these changes bring challenges? Absolutely. But make no mistake: these changes also bring possibilities.

Ultimately, the key to leveraging technology as a lawyer—and to avoid being steamrolled by the tech revolution we are in—is to regularly spend time exploring new products as they come out and embrace new ways of thinking when it comes to how you practice law. To start you on that path, I’ve interviewed some of the most tech-savy firms and lawyers out there to bring you a list of eight simple ways to start leveraging technology today.

1. Macro-fy common tasks to save time in Microsoft Word

Creating macros is one of the simplest ways to leverage technology as a lawyer, but also one of the most feared. Lawyers suspect that creating macros requires a computer-science degree. But not so. You can create macros in moments.

The simplest way is using Word’s macro-record feature, with just three easy steps:

  1. Click on the record macro button (under the View tab)
  2. Type or carry out a task that you frequently do (like writing out a boilerplate legal standard)
  3. Stop the recording and save it to a trigger (such as a button or keystroke)—you’ve created a macro without any coding whatsoever.

You can now place the macro on your Word toolbar, or trigger it using the keyboard stroke that you setup. Here is a detailed walkthrough if you need more help.

Once you have harnessed the power of the macro, the possibilities are endless:

  • Create a procedural standard that auto-populates whenever you click a button on your Word toolbar (or whenever you press Cntrl-P-S, for example);
  • Create a macro to populate a table of contents or table of authorities just like you like it;
  • Create a macro shortcut for commonly-used legal phrases (such as precedent, binding authority, Ninth Circuit, district court)
  • Use a macro to create nicely-formatted block quotes or inserted images;
  • Create a macro for your legal citations—one keystroke can populate everything but the case name (for example, Cntrl-9 to create a blank Ninth Circuit citation);
  • Setup editing macros (for example, create macros for different sorts of feedback you commonly give others so that you can add the comment with a button or keystroke);
  • Anything else you can think of—I add new macros to my arsenal every week.

There are also a few built-in key strokes in Word that operate as helpful macros.

CTRL + Spacebar: Remove all character formatting (font, bold, size, italics, etc.) from your selected text. This saves lots of time by allowing you to remove whatever is bothering you without having to select each element of your text.

CTRL + Q: Remove all direct paragraph formatting. We all hate spacing or formatting problems, this key will remove everything troubling you at once.

ALT + Shift + Up/Down Arrows: Move a paragraph or table row. Click in a paragraph or select more than one and hold down Alt + Shift while pressing the up or down arrows. Your entire paragraph moves! This is helpful in legal documents where you want to change up your arguments’ order.

Shift + F5: Return to the last edit points. If you edited text and then moved to another place within your document, Shift + F5 will move your cursor back to your previous edit. This is helpful in all documents, and it is especially helpful in legal documents when you rethink an edit.

CTRL + G: Navigate to a specific part of your document. This is a lifesaver when you need to navigate in large documents.

2. The mysteries of Microsoft Word’s Style feature explained

I constantly talk to lawyers or law students who are about ready to delete Microsoft Word from their computers. The most common problem I hear is that Word is changing their formatting. This is a feature, not a mistake. Word’s formatting uses what are called “styles” to auto-format your text; you can find this option on Word’s main menu bar.

Create an infinite number of styles for all the sorts of legal writing that you do. Instead of manually creating headings in bold, indented etc., create a style for headings and apply it to the text you want to format. For example, if you are having issues with footnote text, check out the Footnote Text style. If you use nothing else in Word’s advanced features, use styles. Here is a link to a tutorial if you are ready to take the plunge.

3. Don’t reinvent the wheel: create Word templates

You can create templates for all of the legal documents you commonly create—briefs, memos, letters, etc. The default Word template is the “blank” template, with no text on it and basic formatting, but you can easily save a template with your custom styles and pre-populated text (like a caption page) to save time. Here is a link to a more thorough guide if you are interested.

4. You now have your own personal assistant robot: meet ActiveWords

This simple program turns takes your words and puts them into action. Think of it like setting up macros, but for your entire computer. ActiveWords creates a box for you type commands into on your desktop. Type in “motion for summary judgment” and ActiveWords can open Microsoft Word, pull up your templates, and bring up your summary judgment template.

If you invest some time into this program setting up commands, you will shave hours off your work week. Create a command to enter your signature block whenever you type “sig”; create a command to open Pacer, navigate to a case, and pull open the docket; or create commands to open any other file, folder, webpage, or application. In other words, anything you can do, ActiveWords can do. And now ActiveWords can sync across all of your devices.

5. Evernote to success

Evernote has been around for a while, but this app just keeps getting better for lawyers. Evernote allows you to easily take notes and store pictures or any other text (such as that brief you are working on) so that you can easily access and edit it from anywhere. For example, the Scannable app uses your device’s camera to capture something on paper and turn it into a high-quality, shareable scan.

6. Legal research 2.0: Bestlaw

Bestlaw is an extension that automatically adds features to your browser to streamline legal research on Westlaw and Lexis. You have to try it to believe it. Bestlaw reformats how legal research is displayed to you so that the information is more intuitive. For example, statutory text is automatically parsed out into clickable units, and those pesky page numbers in cases are highlighted in Westlaw so that you can easily spot them in the text. Users can also copy Bluebook citations, titles, docket numbers, and full text with one click, jump between footnotes and the main text, and much more.

7. Cleaning up your writing

Linguists have long struggled to create effective grammar-checking technology, but we are finally at the point where these programs can make a big difference to your writing. Grammarly is probably the most advanced writing technology out there; it will check your writing for the basics (such as passive voice)—but it can also spot sophisticated grammar issues. PerfectIt is another advanced plugin that comes loaded with styles specifically for lawyers: including legal terms from Blacks Law Dictionary, the Bluebook, and the Red Book. Hemingway App and Writer’s Diet are free programs that will check your writing for passive voice, adverbs, adjectives, and several other writing red flags. I commonly use all of these programs with my students, and they get results.

8. For the most adventurous: CARA, Ravel, and more

It’s an exciting time to be a lawyer. New legal tech comes out every day, and if you take the time and effort to embrace these new tools—the rewards will be worth it. For example, CARA, by Casetext, is an artificial intelligence program that will analyze your brief or other legal document and do legal research for you. Pretty amazing stuff. Ravel offers a suite of advanced legal research tools, including data you can’t find anywhere else (such as statistics about judges and what kinds of decisions they make). And there are dozens of other exciting new legal technology product out there.

Joe Regalia Joe Regalia clerked for several years in federal district courts and at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. These days he keeps his plate full as an adjunct law professor, an associate at the firm of Sidley Austin, and a frequent speaker and consultant on legal writing and legal test-taking.