Generic v Specific Software

April 30, 1998

The more I researched and considered the issue, the more convinced I became (as I thought I would) that indeed considerably more can be done with generic products than most firms probably appreciate and that this is going to increase steadily over the coming years. This is a debate whose time has truly come and I hope that my views will elicit responses and spark further discussion.

I had primarily, though not exclusively, the smaller firm in mind when writing this piece, as it has most to gain from the employment of generic software. I focus primarily on two categories of generic software, Microsoft and Open Source Software (OSS), for the following reasons.

I deal with Microsoft, first because of its ubiquity in the legal arena (Microsoft products being what the majority of firms already have and underutilise) and secondly because, having monopolised the consumer market and corporate desktop, Microsoft has to expand into other markets to further its growth. One tactic, which it is aggressively pursuing, is to reach out from its domination of the desktop and the familiar interface with which we are all comfortable, to embrace all other aspects of business/corporate IT, whether through programs running on that desktop or the servers behind it. To Microsoft the legal IT market is nothing special, just another business area to which to apply its products and marketing. As we all know, once it turns attention to a particular sector, it usually succeeds.

If any one doubts the increasing influence Microsoft will have in the legal marketplace, potentially at the expense of the producers of dedicated legal software, they should heed the recent words of Tikit’s Liam Flanagan. “With the coming of age of products such as Longhorn, SharePoint, Information Bridge Framework (IBF) and SmartDocuments, Microsoft products are becoming established. I believe many established niche legal products will disappear over the next few years. One clear objective will be to become the leading Microsoft legal system integrator of choice.”[1]

OSS is discussed because of its (debated) cheapness, and because open source products now constitutes the greatest threat to Microsoft in most of the spheres it currently dominates; a threat which is growing. OSS as such is either free, or, at the very least, cheap compared to the onerous licence fees Microsoft imposes. Detractors argue that associated configuration and running costs make Microsoft products overall cheaper to use; proponents vigorously refute this. The reality is that it probably depends on the particular case. Therefore it would be remiss in an article such as this not to consider whether OSS is yet ready for the legal office.

I will conclude with a suggestion of how the matters discussed in the article can be taken forward from theory to practice and a call for empirical piloting of what I suggest is possible. Hopefully others will augment and challenge my opinions, as obviously the more practitioners and/or technologists who advance their views, and perhaps more importantly their actual experiences, the better. However argumentation can be interminable (not to mention inconclusive); what I believe is most needed is a co-ordinated, ongoing, and above all practical examination of the theme of this article.

Why is the theme worth exploring?

There may be other reasons but the overriding one, which is particularly relevant for smaller firms, is cost. The cost of purchasing software additional to essential basic office software. To quote Charles Christian “there is certainly no shortage of good quality legal software available out there, providing you can afford it – unfortunately the pressures and precariousness of modern legal practice mean most small practitioners just cannot afford it”.[2]

Is the theme realistic?

In other words, is it really feasible for a firm to employ generic software for most of its IT needs? I cite some memorable words from one practitioner to illustrate that it is, and has been for some time, “… we have one of the cheapest lawyers’ accounting systems available … and for virtually everything else we use Microsoft Office 2000”.[3]

Document / Information management

Given the importance of information, in particular documents, to the legal profession, the processing of documents would seem a good place to start with this generic investigation.

The legal industry is the epitome of a document-intensive business, and its constituents exemplify the information workers, on whose needs Microsoft is now focusing its attention. Documents, structured and unstructured, constitute the life blood of the law firm. Document Management Systems (DMSs) are considered indispensable legal technology by many firms. They are also expensive. Some larger firms are now finding that the products which are specifically built for the legal sector are no longer adequate for their needs and are investing in the enterprise level tools employed by multinational companies. Consequently, it has been suggested that, in order for legal software developers to increase (or at least retain) market share, they must reposition their products to serve smaller firms. However this may prove a fruitless approach, due to the possibilities of deploying generic software to manage documents.

Windows File System

Free document management advice on using generic software, that the vast majority of you already have, abounds in Web sites, blogs and fora such as the TechnoLawyer and LawTech mailing lists. In particular, tips and step-by-step guidance on using the Windows file system (via Windows Explorer) and under used features of Word to manage your documents appear regularly. The number and variety of independent contributors is evidence that this approach is not just the idea of one or two eccentric lawyers or techno-enthusiasts but that it has been developed by and works adequately for many firms. The fact that there are so many articles on the matter, and the favourable reaction to them, implies that there are many practitioners who have simply not considered the convenience (particularly for the smaller firm and sole practitioner) of this cheap approach to basic document management.


A debate currently underway in the US is whether a law firm should deviate completely from the traditional approach to finding documents.[4]

The idea is that you should not bother trying to force your disparate repositories of data, structured and unstructured and in their various proprietary and standard file formats, into a particular vendor’s DMS. Instead, leave them in their messy state and avail yourself of the vast expertise, research efforts and sums, expended by the search giants and their competitors on tools to retrieve results from all sources, no matter where or in what format; these are now available to all as (free) generic search utilities.

Evidence from the US is that such generic desktop search applications (from the likes of Google, Copernic, X1, Yahoo, Blinkx) are already serving the needs of US practitioners to retrieve desired documents. Versions of these generic products are also being used by firms to search across the entire firm network, and beyond, it being their simplicity to deploy and configure that appeals to firms, particularly the smaller ones, which lack the time and/or IT expertise to deploy more sophisticated alternatives.[5]


Microsoft’s collaborative working technology, SharePoint, may not have been designed solely for DM, but the company certainly seems to have had that in mind as one of its specific purposes. Its purported search and indexing capabilities could not suggest otherwise. For example: SharePoint can search across file servers, e-mail repositories, Exchange public folders, databases, Web sites (both internal and external; the latter being either public or, given necessary log-in credentials, private). It can index local and external document collections and search over 20 million documents. Already there are testimonials from law firms employing Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) to create a shared document library. The full-text search capability is perceived to be a huge benefit allowing, for example, 16 GB of documents to be searchable directly from Word 2003.[6]

WSS is a free download for the Windows Server 2003 operating system (and comes with Small Business Server 2003). Given Microsoft’s decision that the end-of-life for Windows 2000 was 30 June 2005, most firms will appreciate the wisdom (for security reasons if nothing else) of upgrading their servers to 2003. That being the case, it would seem ludicrous for a firm not to explore what SharePoint can do for it.

The established Web search giants are obviously aware of specific facilities offered by SharePoint that will appeal to businesses and hence the development by Yahoo, for one, of a “deep web” search service to allow searching of subscription-based and password-protected sites, simultaneously with that of internal resources and public free sites. Commentators are already suggesting that it could pose a challenge to online services such as Reed Elsevier’s LexisNexis.[7]

Knowledge Management

SharePoint is, moreover, increasingly being discussed in a context more grandiose than that of document management, ie as an approach to implementing that most nebulous concept, knowledge management (KM).[8]

As noted, SharePoint possesses powerful indexing and searching (across repositories of structured and unstructured data, in various file formats). That is certainly one requirement of KM. Also regarded as essential is support for taxonomies and here SharePoint, with its native taxonomy capability, has a clear advantage over the other search engines noted above. A particular KM headache in regard to taxonomies has always been ensuring that documents newly added to the collection are classified (in accordance with the taxonomy). To address this, SharePoint supports automatic categorisation (based on a training set) and can be configured to require a user to categorise a document when submitting it.

Virtual DealRooms, Extranets, Portals and Collaborative working

We have all read about the vast sums the City firms have spent over the last five years or so on developing bespoke systems, to provide virtual dealrooms and aggregation, or portal, facilities.

It was always suggested by certain commentators that a generic product would be produced which would provide these facilities (for a fraction of the investment of those pioneers) thus enabling even the humblest firm to provide such things as, for example, ad-hoc Web sites for client updating, or matter-specific extranets for collaboration with third-party partners. In the space of a few years we would seem to have received that product in the form of Microsoft’s SharePoint.

Facilities such as the ability to personalise the view of, and customise the permissions on, a set of data (as appropriate for different audiences) are built into the product. Thus it is possible to have one view for a client Web site, another for dealings with third-party partners (eg extranet for counsel or government agencies) and a third for intra-firm (intranet) work.

Given SharePoint’s simple wizard-based mechanism for configuration and population of content (no programming expertise necessary), one has to wonder about future demand for single function products in this area.

Practice Management Systems and Accounts Software

Charles Christian neatly distinguishes these two as follows “Generally accounts software is a cheap and cheerful package that will look after your ledgers and ensure your books balance, whereas with a practice management system (or PMS) you will pay extra for reporting facilities that give you a clearer picture of how your practice is performing as a business.”[9]

He directly addresses the issue of whether generic software can be used to meet the accounts function. “There are a lot of small practitioners who have been able to manage their accounts and client records perfectly adequately by using the tools provided within the Microsoft Office suite, including the Excel spreadsheet and the Access database applications. There are other firms who, instead of buying dedicated legal software applications, make do with general purpose accounts software such as Sage.”[10]

To this one might add that accounts programs and Business Intelligence (or analysis) software,[11] are two of the many areas in which Microsoft is, through acquisition and development, broadening and deepening its reach in the corporate area. The recent addition of ‘key performance indicators’ reporting to various of its business management suites being indicative of the sort of features that Charles Christian notes as marking out a PMS from a basic accounts package.[12]

Automated Workflows, Document Assembly and Case Management

The idea of workflows is to use technology to guide and control the steps necessary to carry out a particular business operation, or class of legal work, and automate the performance of as many and much of those tasks as possible.

Workflows have consistently been cited as a mechanism by which firms can cope with an increasingly competitive environment, whether as a mechanism for streamlining the efficiency of standard business functions, or as part of the commoditisation of specific legal processes. Many firms have already successfully followed this path, and with the even greater competition that will transpire on the entry into certain legal marketplaces of new players (which will certainly occur when the new ‘Tesco’ laws come into effect), the need for certain traditional firms to adopt this route, as a means to increasing throughput while minimising expenditure and maintaining (or even improving) quality, will become ever more urgent.

Specific packages exist for this purpose but fully exploiting (existing) generic products could prove more cost effective.

Yet again we have a business function that Microsoft appears determined to dominate. The Exchange mail system already has the capability for workflows to be developed, albeit with the need for some technological understanding and effort. However SharePoint, which Microsoft is promoting and developing as its preferred method for document collaboration and sharing (at the expense of the Public Folders aspect of Exchange), has much better, and user friendly, support for building workflows, incorporating, for example, document routing, approval and version control.

This, combined with InfoPath (Microsoft’s forms generation and handling tool), which is part of the Office 2003 suite, makes the task of creating and using workflows to implement business processes or automate document assembly much easier than it has been in the past.

Indeed it has been observed, of InfoPath per se, that it enables “relatively low-skilled office workers to ‘program’ workflow systems when they create documents. .InfoPath is already enabling even small organisations to build sophisticated end-to-end workflow systems that had previously only been possible using prohibitively expensive .infrastructure systems such as IBM’s MQSeries”.[13]

On reading reports in the legal IT press about sales of Business Process Management systems and document assembly software for thousands of pounds (such systems themselves often built on top of Microsoft products), one wonders whether firms would not instead be better off fully exploiting generic products, which they may already have.

The same thought occurs in the context of Case Management Systems.

Workflows are often described as one of their essential elements, tying together the others such as case and client databases, calendars/diaries, reporting and document generation.[14] If one views the processing of a case, or matter, from inception to close, as simply a particular type of business process, one can subject it to the workflow analysis necessary to identify the relevant business logic (ie the work elements and their interaction, interdependence and sequence) and determine to what extent it could be automated using the generic technology, such as that discussed above, at one’s disposal.

Client Relationship Management (CRM)

CRM is an area into which the legal IT press has been increasingly urging firms to invest, as part of addressing their need to become more business-like (to retain existing customers and attract new ones in an ever more competitive marketplace).

Larger firms are already doing this. The enterprise products of the likes of SAP and Siebel are suitable for the big firms and affordable by them. There has been little to interest the smaller concerns (which no doubt contributes to their lack of attention to this area) until the recent entry of Microsoft into this field. As one observer put it “The number one competitor to Microsoft today is nothing. It’s 3-by-5 cards or a Rolodex.”[15]

Those of you (and there are a few) with a slightly cynical attitude to the whole notion of CRM, may suggest that proper use of the Contacts element of Outlook is all the CRM one needs. And indeed one might infer that this is in fact the kind of thinking behind Microsoft’s own approach, in that with Business Contact Manager (included in Office Small Business Edition 2003 and Office Professional Edition 2003) Microsoft is itself adapting its own generic product, Outlook, to fulfil a specific function (ie CRM), by better using existing features in Outlook that many customers have found too cumbersome to use. For example, using the Journal element, for tracking meetings, e-mails and phone calls; building on the forms capabilities already available in Outlook; generating reports.[16]

Open Source Software (OSS)

The space available for this article does not permit a detailed discussion of OSS in the context of legal practices. However there is an ongoing debate on the state of its readiness for the law office.[17]

One side of the debate is neatly (albeit acerbically) encapsulated as follows; Linux in the Law Office: Just an idea on a napkin at best,[18] and there certainly appears to be little use being made of it currently among firms in the US,[19] (and one might extrapolate from that, the UK). However proponents believe it will be ready in 12-18 months and in Australia (which, as has been seen from initiatives such as AustLII and firms like Blake Dawson Waldron and Mallesons Stephen Jaques, is often even more a legal technology leader than the US) we certainly have evidence of positive developments.[20]

The sceptic would argue that it is not worth considering the possibility of turning generic OSS products to particular law office functions because OSS itself, in any form, is not yet ready for the law office.

However, in the context of generic software, the argument of OSS ‘unreadiness’ immediately loses part of its validity for the simple reason that a prime component of this view is the lack of legal specific software available or being developed for an OS environment. If one is considering the application of generic programs in law practices then that is no longer an issue.

There are many OSS products and developments other the Linux operating systems whose suitability for law firms form part of the discussion of OSS. The OS Office suites, such as Star Office and Open Office, are the prime examples, but others include Content Management software, CRM programs and Business Intelligence tools.

Given the tendency of the OSS community to develop programs which mimic, interoperate with and compete with Microsoft products, it might be asserted that when (or if) OSS per se becomes acceptable in the law office, any lessons learned in making fuller use of generic Microsoft products could be applied to the corresponding OS offerings.


The general thrust of this article is that most firms could do more than they do at present with generic software; much of which they already have or can obtain for minimal cost. However that leaves the vital question of how might a firm pursue this thesis of using generic software where usually specific legal products are employed?

In the context of the smaller firm, which has most to gain from this approach, we are faced once again with the harsh reality of a lack of resources (expertise, inclination, but above all time) to do so. Such firms cannot even manage their existing, basic IT, let alone innovate. See, for example, the recent comments of the LSSA’s Barry Hawley-Green, that only about 5% of sole practitioners and the like are well run from an IT perspective.[21] Of course this is not news, but a restatement of a fact that has been expressed throughout recent years.

One might suggest that, as part of its service to its members, investigating the potential of generic software, or sponsoring a practical study of it, is something that the Law Society should undertake. It surely accords with the ethos of, even if not explicitly articulated in, its recent E-strategy paper.[22]

Or maybe the SCL itself, in fulfilling its ‘essential educational role’,[23] could pilot the use of, and produce best practice guidance on, exploiting generic software. We might then even see some content when, on the SCL Web site, we click Groups > Other Groups > Small Firms!

Alastair Morrison hopes that, on reading this article, you won’t think he has shares in Microsoft. Nor that he is looking for work! However, on returning to ‘the grind’ after writing this essay he found himself considering the similarities between what the central IT Service in a large educational institute does for its client departments and the sort of assistance some law practices might benefit from. (By the way, Alastair Morrison works in IT at Strathclyde University.)

[1] InBrief, March 2005, p 48 (Emphasis added.)

[2] Software on a Shoestring: Survey of Solicitors’ Accounts and Case Management Software for a £1000 or less, January 2005, p 2

[3] Katz, A. ‘Starting from Scratch’, Computers and Law, December 2000/January 2001, p 16

[4] Document Management’s Future, TechnoLawyer mailing list, 21 February 2005, Editorial posting

[5] ‘Google searches for new business goals’, Computing, 2 June 2005, pp 40- 2

[6] Frazer, Ryan, Goldberg, Arnold & Gittler (FRGAG), casestudies/CaseStudy.asp?CaseStudyID=14763

[7] Yahoo launches search service, Financial Times, 17 June 2005, p 28

[8] Indeed it has been suggested that “there is a good chance that SharePoint will become something of a de facto standard”. ‘Knowledge Management: Share and share alike‘, Legal IT, May 2005, p 36

[9] Note 2, p 2

[10] Ibid. p 3

[11] Business Intelligence – a term coined by Gartner in the 1990s to define the process of transforming the raw data organisations collect from their various operations into useable information.

[12] ‘Microsoft beefs up its business intelligence‘, IT Week, 4 April 2005, p 27

[13] Invest in Intelligent Documents, The Effective IT Report 2005, p 76 (supplement to Information Age, February 2005)

[14] Andrew Z Adkins, III, Case Management Systems – The New Generation, Legal Technology Institute at the University of Florida College of Law:

[15] Microsoft Raises New Appreciation of CRM, 28 November 2004:

[16] Microsoft puts CRM on the desktop, 25 February 2003:,39020645,2131008,00.htm

[17] See the TechnoLawyer and LawTech mailing lists.

[18] TechnoLawyer mailing list, 10 June 2005

[19] Under 1% of those US lawyers recently surveyed use it. 2004-2005 Legal Technology Survey Report, The survey was sent to 11,000 random ABA members in private practice. Posting to LawTech mailing list 14/15 June 2005:

[20] ‘Aussie leads development of open source O-S for lawyers‘, The Age, 2 May 2003:

[21] ‘LSSA: Interview with Barry Hawley-Green’, Computers and Law, February/March 2005, p 18

[22] E-Strategy For The Law Society, February 2005:

[23] Computers and Law, April/May 2005, p 2