The Google Docs ate my homework
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The American legal system runs on time. As one practicing attorney wrote in an official American Bar Association publication: “[M]Giving a filing deadline is a lawyer’s worst nightmare. “
This is especially true if you are representing plaintiffs in an “Emergency Complaint for Expedited Declaratory and Restraining Orders” involving the United States presidential election in a federal district court. For those who score at home, that’s two emergencies and one expedited in a single application.
All of this makes this weekend’s filing by the plaintiffs’ legal team in Gohmert v. Pence particularly noticeable:
Plaintiffs unqualified request for late filing of a reply letter
Now come to the plaintiffs, U.S. Representative Louie Gohmert (TX-1), Tyler Bowyer, Nancy Cottle, Jake Hoffman, Anthony Kern, James R. Lamon, Sam Moorhead, Robert Montgomery, Loraine Pellegrino, Greg Safsten, Kelli Ward and Michael Ward, through and through their undersigned attorney, ask this court to allow plaintiffs to submit their reply letters an hour late. In support, the plaintiffs state:
The plaintiffs hired a team of lawyers to prepare their answer assignment. During the preparation, the plaintiff’s attorney discovered numerous technical incompatibilities in the software versions between Google Docs and Microsoft Word, which led to editing difficulties and text problems.
The applicants therefore request that the deadline for submitting their reply be extended by one hour.
I read that and had to rub my eyes and read it about five more times to make sure I was really seeing a federal court where the attorneys of a seated member of the United States Congress were suing the vice president of the United States. told a federal district court they needed an hour extension because they were having trouble getting Google Docs and Microsoft Word to play well together.
The most amazing thing was to find a lawyer who even approved the use of Google Docs. For those in the legal community, Microsoft Word isn’t just a de facto standard. In many cases this is also the de jure standard. For example, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California states on their attorney information page that it is a “Microsoft Word Court.” (The page includes helpful Word document templates in a variety of fonts, none of which are Comic Sans, as well as instructions for saving WordPerfect documents in Word format.)
I conducted an informal survey of lawyers on Twitter and the results were crucial. Of 69 responses, 57 (83%) said they and their law firms only use Word. This comment from a New Jersey-based attorney was representative: “I’ve never used Google Docs in law school or as a lawyer. We always use Word. No court or law firm I’ve worked for uses Google Docs. Tables. “
A Pennsylvania-based attorney added, “I find Google Docs useless for legal work. It’s too difficult to get the final formatting to work, especially if you work with other attorneys. Maybe I could fix this by letting me Spend hours understanding them, but well, I won’t. So Word is. “
Another five respondents stated that they use the previous legal standard WordPerfect. Five lawyers said they use both. This comment was typical: “In 95% of the cases Google Docs (we run our office on G Suite). We use Word for documents such as appeal documents that require more complex formatting.”
In the current case, however, the problem seems to be that the document file was repeatedly converted from Google Docs to Word and back again as it passed from hand to hand, likely as a series of email attachments. The problem is particularly acute when you add footnotes, endnotes, and a table of authorities.
So where has the learned advice to plaintiffs gone wrong, and how can you avoid making similar mistakes the next time your dispersed team is working on a very important project with a very tight deadline?
I have three recommendations:
Choose an editing platform for the project. Period. Point. Once you start editing in Google Docs, you’ll stay in Google Docs. If you start in Microsoft Word, you will stay in Word. Every time you convert a document to a different format, there is a risk that you are munging your document in subtle ways that you might not even notice until it’s too late. Performing multiple round-trip conversions is a recipe for chaos.
Use cloud-based storage for real-time collaboration. We are well into the 21st century and anyone trying to manage a group edit project with email attachments has to catch up. If you use Microsoft Word, you can share your documents with OneDrive for Business, Dropbox, or Box. All documents have add-ins that allow you to open and save files directly in Word. (Note: Google has detailed instructions on how to save Office documents to Google Drive and edit them with Word.)
Don’t cross the streams. If a team member (or external contributor) insists on using their preferred platform instead of the standard you set, the posts will be quarantined. Let them activate change tracking mode and then designate another team member to commit their changes to the master document.
In the Gohmert v. Pence case, the plaintiffs’ legal team was given an hour’s extension, but that did little to help them as the court rejected their request in less time than converting a Google Doc to Word.
Maybe they should have enabled the spell checker too. It probably didn’t help that the header in BOLD CAPS misspelled the district court name at the top of the first page. Oops.