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Use of Open Source Software in Legal Firms? 58

jhenkins asks: "This is a question to all of the legal beagles out there, especially practicing lawyers and advocates. Normally there are quite a number of restrictions posed on law professionals with regards to file formats by courts etc, but I would like to know whether there are some success stories out there. It would be very interesting to get some opinions in this field, because where I come from (South Africa) this is an almost *total* M$ stronghold. The only area where I saw a really big score for Open Source is the adoption of things like Kolab for groupware and scheduling. So, do you use Open Source software in your line of work? If you do, please let me know what you use and for which purpose (things like document management, knowledge bases, word processing et al). Thanks!"
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Use of Open Source Software in Legal Firms?

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  • by AtariAmarok ( 451306 ) on Monday March 28, 2005 @06:27PM (#12071335)
    I recall that SCO's lawyers made a lot of use of open-source software.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    In any case, in the US, the legal world is the last huge stronghold of WordPerfect, due partly to inertia but also to the fact that its word count apparently is more accurate than Word's.
    • Lotus Notes is also used in many law firms for email and document tracking. A lot of custom work, I suspect, and probably a tough job to port it all to open source.
    • Not true anymore. Many firms have transitioned from Word Perfect to MS Word for one simple reason: their clients use Word.
      • For everyone's information, please note that Openoffice 2.0 beta can use Wordperfect files.
        • Nice information -- I still think and WordPerfect completely own MS Word.

          Using a great deal of open source software is not a bad thing at all... my last workplace (a regional hospital in Ohio) used several FOSS apps, including and Mozilla apps. The licensing costs alone saved them hundreds of thousands, and that was just in the short term.
          • Perhaps. But you should still have one copy of M$ office. Before sending files to other people, it might be nice to be able to check the "benchmark" just to verify that your formatting survived. OO does a good job of reading/writing M$ formats. But I have seen cases where the margins and spacing are just different enough to turn a one-page document into a two-page one. For most applications, they are close enough. But I can easily image a few cases where the exact formatting matters.
      • Any many have not. It's telling that MS has gotten that far with their lockin. Perhaps some firms have newer clients.

      • I don't believe that for a second. My wife will soon BE an attorney, and the guy she is currently working for will not be moving to Word anytime soon. My wife already has WP 11 on her laptop and also refuses to use Word or MS products because of how quickly she gets frustrated using them. She needs to worry about wording and formatting her briefs properly, not hassle with the lack of options or lack of a view into the engine that's generating the Word document that she's working on which is why she wanted a
        • I don't believe that for a second.

          You can choose to believe what you want to believe. The simple fact is that I know of many lawyers in "big" law firms and they all use Word. My former firm (yes, I am a lawyer) transitioned from WP to Word in 99. The firm I worked at before that (in 98) used both WP and Word but was transitioning to Word. My law school accepted Law Journal submissions only in Word. My current firm uses only Word.

          Ohio requires electronic documents to be in .doc format now.

          Doesn't that t

        • The problem is that too many lawyers and/or lawyers' IT departments think they know it all, but they don't, and hence they never realized how easy it is to convert files back and forth to whatever format you need them to be in for clients, the courts, etc.

          No, the problem is that clients sometimes want to edit documents lawyers send them and vice versa. If the conversion isn't perfect, someone gets upset. Upset clients turn into former clients very quickly. Why go through the problems of a possible conversi

  • by Roadkills-R-Us ( 122219 ) on Monday March 28, 2005 @07:29PM (#12071898) Homepage
    Several years ago I was involved in putting a law firm on the internet, and helping install a LAN in their office here. They really wanted to go Linux as much as possible, even then, but their HQ IT weenie refused, because MS was all he knew.

    There are several law firms in town now that rely almost exclusively on OSS; I met with a vendor today who set up one of the most recent ones. He walked in for a first meeting, and they asked, "What kind of open source solution can you provide us for [list of stuff]?" He will provide whatever meets the clients' needs and wants, but he is an OSS advocate, so he was a happy camper. Saved them a hunk of change, too.

    Sorry I can't give more details at this point, but here in Texas, at least, it's doable.
    • That's good to hear. When I was doing IT work in Kentucky (yes, they have computers there), everything was mandated by the state. All the law firms did their thing in Wordperfect, because it's the only format the state bar would accept. They were loosing up some when I left the state, so I don't know where they stand now. The odd thing was the state bar was basically alone in their use of Wordperfect, the other state agencies required Word documents.
  • I think I read something somewhere (maybe even here on /,, but i'm too lazy to search) a while back about how the House/Senate standardized on some version of Office (97 or 2k, crw) and a custom XML setup.
  • At my firm... (Score:4, Informative)

    by RaboKrabekian ( 461040 ) on Monday March 28, 2005 @07:50PM (#12072059) Journal
    I am not a lawyer, but I am a project manager the technology department as a major NYC law firm.

    We're basically a Microsoft and Novell shop, and we've been trying desperately to move away from Novell. We're not in any danger of moving from Microsoft, but we have started to take a serious look at using Linux or *BSD for some of out lighter load web and file servers.

    The impetus for this was Microsoft licensing. We're happy in general with Microsoft products, but law firms need a wide variety of applications, most of which we've bought third party. The problem here is that so many require or strongly recommend being on their own server (or atleast virtual server). The cost of licenses for every separate server adds up very quickly.

    So we're looking at FOSS as an alternative to some of the machines that don't absolutely require Windows.

    The major stumbling block is accountability. We're not prepared to start signing enterprise agreements with Red Hat unless we're going to make a major shift, and that's not happening any time soon. right now Microsoft and our software vendors can be held accountable for their software (we've been very proactive with our boxes, and have not had any significant security, virus, or spyware problems). We're concerned about who can be held accountable for FOSS solutions.
    • "Microsoft and our software vendors can be held accountable for their software"

      Yeah...good luck with that.
    • Re:At my firm... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by finkployd ( 12902 ) on Monday March 28, 2005 @09:20PM (#12072628) Homepage
      You work at a LAW FIRM who (presumably) after reading Microsoft's EULA has come to the conclusion that Microsoft can be held accountable?

      What law firm is this? Just so I never make the mistake of using them...

      (ok, that was harsh but you get my point)

    • Re:At my firm... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by thepoch ( 698396 ) on Monday March 28, 2005 @11:43PM (#12073288)
      I don't get your logic... who can be held accountable for FOSS?

      You say right now Microsoft can be held accountable for their software? I don't believe that. When have we seen a major lawsuit because of security holes in Microsoft software? In fact, when have we seen lawsuits because of security holes in any software, proprietary or open source?

      You say you've been very proactive with your boxes. Then that answers your question on accountability. You manage them, so you're accountable. If you outsourced your service to Red Hat, they would be held accountable. If Microsoft was the one that deployed and manages your IT setup, they would be held accountable.

      What's up with responsibility and accountability these days? Do we always have to blame others rather than ourselves?
      • Re:At my firm... (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Oloryn ( 3236 )

        I don't get your logic... who can be held accountable for FOSS?

        You say right now Microsoft can be held accountable for their software? I don't believe that. When have we seen a major lawsuit because of security holes in Microsoft software? In fact, when have we seen lawsuits because of security holes in any software, proprietary or open source?

        Once again, we're seeing ManagementThink in action. Us techies tend to think of support in information-gathering terms, while management tends to think in busin

    • Think back to the last time you installed Windows (any version will do). Think about that little guy called a EULA that you clicked "I agree" under.

      Among other things, you agreed that Microsoft would never be accountable for any Bad Stuff that their software might endeavour to produce.

      So, they're obviously not accountable, either. What's the difference?

      • Microsoft may not be technically "accountable" for their software but at least if something goes wrong with it you have someone to talk to / yell at / request a fix from.

        Most /.'ers are now saying: But with FOSS the fixes come from the community and are usually faster / higher quality...

        That may be true but what the upper management in most companies want is a sure thing. They do not understand FOSS and do not want to understand it. They want someone to call when there is a problem and they want an as
        • This is absolutely correct. Ask the FOSS community for some features / fixes, they stand a high chance of benig included, often pretty quickly.

          Ever try giving feedback to Microsoft, asking to add a feature or fix a bug? Heh. Heh. Heh. Welcome to the Digital Round File.
          • > This is absolutely correct. Ask the FOSS community for some features / fixes, they stand a high chance of benig included, often pretty quickly. Exactly. One of my biggest pet peeves about big software companies is that their products get so stagnent. They try so hard to please everyone that they please no one

            So... like the opposite
    • Maybe a weird question, but why move away from Novell?

      I work in a mostly-Novell college infrastructure shop... the Netware servers handle file storage, printing and directory/access control; Linux for the web servers, DHCP, DNS, network monitoring, IDS, web filtering, even the behemoth that is the WebCT course management system; and Windows for the stuff that requires it (PeopleSoft on MS SQL Server ::shudder::). We have minimal issues with the Novell machines; rock solid stable and they don't take much ti
  • by TheWanderingHermit ( 513872 ) on Monday March 28, 2005 @08:10PM (#12072206)
    I provide services to mostly lawyers. My system uses OOo, and that means they have to use OOo at least a tiny bit to use it. I've had several clients ask me more about it and if they could use it on other computers. They're shocked when I tell them how much OOo costs, what kind of licensing it's under, and what open source is.

    I know at least one of my clients decided to start rolling it out in his offices because he liked it, liked the pricing, and felt it was a good alternative.
  • What makes law firms special?
    They use pirated copies of Windows and Office just like the rest of us.
    • "They use pirated copies of Windows and Office just like the rest of us"

      But unlike the rest of us, they will sue anyone who calls them pirates. Arrrr! Avast ye tortlubbers. Swab the court, ye scurvy witness!

  • The kind of software their clients use will directly determine what software/OS/apps will be in use at a particular firm.Of course law firms have some flexibility in using F/OSS for back-end admin (billing, IT operations, etc.), but in my experience (I used to work in IT for a large international law firm) there are few firms that have ventured far from MSFT.

    IMHO, F/OSS adoption will reach law firms via a trickle-down effect from their clients. As open-source adoption among corporations grows, so will i

  • I want my money first!

  • I typed my briefs with emacs & LaTeX for the first year. Occasionally I got a prof. who said they liked the funky font, but after a year of getting hammered for having my pages look different from everyone else's, I gave up & did the work I needed to hand in with Word.

    Just like any business, there is a lot of exchange with other lawyers and a lot of pressure to have your stuff look like everyone else's. Those things made me give up using open source for public material (though I still took my pr

    • the funky font

      You couldn't import Times New Roman and whatever else into TeX? A quick Google Search shows a method [] for MikTeX at least.
    • Isn't there an open source program out there that can create files in Word format? Or has Microsoft successfully made the Word format itself part illegal to use in OSS?
      • RTF (Score:2, Informative)

        by tepples ( 727027 )

        Isn't there an open source program out there that can create files in Word format?

        It's easy for a Free program to output RTF, which is in essence a character-based encoding of a Microsoft Word document. If you write RTF and name it .doc, the recipient's copy of Microsoft Word will open it, and the recipient won't know the difference.

        And as for reading .doc files, can read damaged ones better than even Microsoft Word can.

    • I know a couple of barristers in the uk who still do their letters and briefs in LaTex. They just look so much better....

      It is so nice to concentrate on content rather than layout...
  • but I do some contracting for a company that has many legal requirements. They develop databases for medical institutions. To my knowledge there is no OSS being used, but that's primarily because the company was founded after the CEO took a liking to Filemaker.

    The company has no problem making use of Macs as well as Windows machines. If there was an OSS Filemaker Pro clone, I'm sure that they'd take a look at it.

  • Every law firm that I have consulted for/worked for in an I.T. role has actually used Macs. MIght seem strange, but it is true
    • My brother is a lawyer in a small firm (2 lawyers, 4 employees) that started two years ago. After much discussion, they went with Macs and have been happy ever since. No viruses, easy to use, easy networking, etc.
  • I have a good friend who manages a small but thriving Law Firm (20+ lawyers). They all use Firefox as their primary browser, the are working with Open Office on some desktops (although MS($) office is used as well).

    BTW - They also use a Novell network which has had 0 critical viruses distributed over their network since installed 2 years ago. They are not currently on Linux but are considering for their network.
  • Have a poke around on Groklaw [] - there are several people active there who identify themselves as lawyers who are certainly into FOSS that you could talk to.
  • A friend of mine is a business lawyer and he needed some way to easily create a PDF. I set him up with primoPDF. It's a derivative of Ghostscript and even though it looks like a commercial site, the software is LGPL.

    So when he wants to make a PDF of some papers, he'll use it.

    I won't release his name, but hope that information helps a little.
  • We are using a Gentoo box w/CRM-114 & Spamassassin to filter out spam. We also use MySQL with an app to collect print job info from all our printers for tighter resource accounting. I would like to move a M$SQL app to MySQL but the application developer doesn't have any plans on porting it over - any body out there familar with ProLaw?
    • Yes, ProLaw probably won't be abandoning MSSQL, or porting to Postgres or MySQL. I have bugged them about that for two years, and all they seem to want to do is pull away from supporting Sybase.
      There have been many talks in the past about starting development on an open source alternative to ProLaw and it's competitors, and a couple of projects out there. Maybe it's time to start on this front again.

      BTW, ProLaw will run (the end user app) under Wine, but not very well.
  • by triclipse ( 702209 ) <slashdot AT combslaw DOT cc> on Tuesday March 29, 2005 @10:27AM (#12076081) Homepage
    IAAL here in San Diego, CA. I just wanted to reply quickly to say that Adobe is by far the most widely used format. Both the states courts and the fed courts make their forms available in Adobe PDF format.

    The fed courts also make many of their forms available in WordPerfect format. I have never seen a downloadable form in MS Word!

  • Back when I was in Houston, TX, a number of the lawfirms used a document tracking system calls DOCSOpen, (not open source as I recall) ... at any rate, it was basically a DLL call that when ever you tried to Open/Save/Save As it called this third party application, that was essential a front-end to a SQL database, used for document tracking. Interesting really, slightly bloated, and the parent company offered NO suggestions on how to optimize the database.

    At anyrate, that type of database gets to be rathe

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