Will your law firm be backwards compatible?

The client comes in all excited after learning about his status as the sole heir of his eccentric and wealthy uncle. The client’s anticipation is largely based on the uncle’s legendary music collection. Imagine the client’s dismay upon discovering the legendary music collection is completely on eight-track tapes. There might be some rare recordings in that collection, but who has the equipment to listen to them?

As we lawyers produce more and more electronic “documents,” we need to consider whether we will be able to open and use those documents in five, ten, or even twenty years from now. No one knows what might happen if I tried to use the current version of Microsoft Word to open a file created in the late 1980s with the then-current version of Word. There are probably countless documents on 400k floppy disks that are doomed unless you happen to have an ancient (and working) Macintosh with MacWrite.

This potential dilemma is what makes Markdown interesting to me. Markdown is a simple system for formatting text that does not depend on any particular word processor. There are a number of free or inexpensive Markdown text editors available. The file that you create—your electronic document—is simply text. No proprietary formatting codes, nothing like that. If your word processor or other text editor can open text files, you’re covered. Another nice feature of Markdown is that it lets you work on the actual content of your document rather than worrying about how it formats on the screen.

The one thing that keeps me from adopting Markdown completely is one of its strengths: limited formatting. I’m a fan of good typography (even if I wouldn’t necessarily know it if it hit me in the face; thank goodness for Typography For Lawyers). I want my documents to look just so. I am not certain that Markdown will give me that much control. So, I will have to continue the investigation and exploration.

The point of all this rambling is to encourage you to think about how you will make sure that many years from now you’ll be able to open that complicated document that no one wants to re-type. Markdown may be an option, as is plain text. It might be wise to spend some time thinking about workflows as we produce our documents. Saving a document in its native word processing format, as plain text, and as PDF ought to cover everything. There are probably other solutions, and I’d love to hear your ideas.

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