It’s no secret that firms of all sizes are experiencing a shift in the ratio of attorneys to support staff. Attorneys today cannot rely on a dedicated legal secretary being available as they were in years past. That means attorneys must become even more functional and self-sufficient. While there are many areas where law firms can take steps to improve efficiencies, these undertakings often require extensive investments in training, software and new workflows. Often overlooked is a very simple, common task that can benefit significantly from a few small and free adjustments: document creation. The right document creation techniques can produce documents that are accurate, complete and acceptable to clients and the courts, and save a great deal of time while minimizing the chances for errors.
For those who have never done any formal training with Microsoft Word, the program provides many different tricks to enhance consistency and standardization. Here are five practical, easy-to-implement tips for attorneys to be more efficient as they create documents throughout their day and week. Even better, each tip builds on the next, so results improve exponentially.
Use styles for global formatting
There are generally two ways to format documents in Microsoft Word. One is to apply individual formatting attributes each time you need them. For example, if something needs to be formatted with bold type, underlined, and indented, you can highlight the specific text and use either the keyboard command or select the appropriate tools from the Home ribbon or right-click menu. While this is a favorite approach for many attorneys, it is extremely repetitive and time-consuming. It’s also highly prone to error, since it’s easy to inadvertently miss a format command, not specify it accurately or skip over a section that needs to be formatted.
A better approach to consistent, standardized formatting throughout documents is through the use of “styles.” Styles make formatting and reformatting the document a lot easier and more efficient. Styles allow you to identify a format or a group of formatting attributes under a single name, eliminating the need to apply each of the individual formatting elements manually.
Styles can be applied from the Home ribbon. Microsoft Word offers a range of different built-in styles for headings, titles, quotes, lists, bullets and numbering. By clicking on one of the styles, that style will be applied automatically throughout the document, eliminating the need to go back through and carefully proof for formatting. Most legal documents will only require a few different styles, such as Heading 1, so choosing and using them doesn’t need to be complicated.
Attorneys will also save time and avoid confusion by reviewing the document first to decide which styles to use. This involves spending a few minutes becoming familiar with the document as a whole and considering all the different elements, including titles, outline numbering approaches and paragraphs with no formatting. Typically, most people create documents by drafting and formatting them as they go along. That means documents may have inconsistencies throughout or could contain significant variations from a similar document created previously. But by designing documents hierarchically, it will be easy to apply styles.
Institute proper outline numbering
Many documents attorneys create involve extensive numbering in the form of outlines. This is another area where a manual approach can lead to inconsistencies and time spent changing numbers, and then changing them again.
Many people simply click on the first Numbering button they find in the Home ribbon. Instead, specifically select the Multilevel List button. Some of the numbering options provided are associated with styles, and others are not. It’s very important to choose one that is associated with styles, which will enforce consistency and standardization throughout the document. The selections that indicate “heading” styles are associated with the numbering and should be selected.
Apply design themes
Rarely do attorneys start new documents from scratch. Typically, they select a relatively similar document created earlier and work from that. However, recycling documents over and over can lead to document instability, corruption and inconsistencies.
Some attorneys may try to mitigate this through the use of templates. While templates offer advantages over cloning previous versions, incorporating a design theme provides flexibility in formatting. With a theme chosen, documents will benefit from coordinating colors and fonts. Once attorneys have created the design theme, including their choice of styles and numbering formats, they can apply it across Word documents and beyond. According to Microsoft, “you can develop a theme in Word, and then apply it to a PowerPoint presentation or Excel sheet. That way, all of your related business documents have a similar look and feel.”
Pasting information into a document or other file is another area that most attorneys don’t think about very often. However, by developing a system and being deliberate about it, users can save time and minimize mistakes.
It’s important to not simply click “paste” or use the Control-V shortcut. Doing this type of straight paste will carry formatting from one file to the next. That could introduce inconsistencies and override your styles and formatting instructions. It can also completely corrupt a file. There’s nothing quite like that stomach-sinking feeling of opening a document shortly before it’s due to the court, only to find out all the numbering systems have disappeared or paragraphs are no longer indented.
Instead of simply pasting, it’s important to do a “paste special.” This is done by going into the Home ribbon’s Paste function, then indicating “unformatted text.” Even faster, after clicking on Paste, under Set Default Options, click a few boxes to ensure text always pastes without formatting. That includes, under the Cut, Copy and Paste options, changing the Keep Source Formatting (Default) option to Keep Text Only.
Utilize hyperlinks within a document
Cross-references and table of contents fields can provide links to items within the document. These can be particularly helpful for navigating, as they allow readers to jump to the section they are interested in. Hyperlinks also come in handy for proofreading and editing. Cross-references can link to headings, images, footnotes and other items to their place within the document, and these field links can be updated so that if a change is made to a title in the document, it will also update in the table of contents. Table of contents and cross-reference tools can be found in the References ribbon.
While each of these features improves efficiency when used alone, their usefulness increases when they are applied collectively. Each step builds on the one before it.
While some initiatives to improve efficiencies can present more trouble than they are worth, these provide powerful flexibility and demonstrate proficiency in formatting. By properly leveraging the tools that firms already pay for, such as Microsoft Word, attorneys can easily become more efficient.