B R I E F S

Good with words

Solicitors' practices could be entering a new era in office automation and efficiency, thanks to a promotional deal launched last week by software giant Microsoft, with the implicit blessing of the Law Society, writes Charles Christian.

The deal comprises the well-known Microsoft Office integrated software suite with a bundle of optional third-party products and services at discount prices, including the CompuForms electronic legal forms library and the Lawtel on-line legal information service.

The bundle makes an attractive package price-wise, even when the Lawtel and forms options are not taken up. The standard version of Microsoft Office, which includes the latest versions of the MS-Word word-processing and Excel spreadsheet applications plus some other software, retails for around £360 - almost 25 per cent less than Word and Excel bought separately. In addition, because the legal bundle is also available as part of Microsoft's "competitive upgrade" scheme, existing users of the rival WordPerfect word-processing software could move over to Office and take advantage of the forms and Lawtel discounts for under £300.

A potential complication is that the legal bundle is an all-Windows package, so users must have the more powerful and more expensive 486 PC hardware. For older DOS applications, a 286 personal computer will still suffice. A new 486 computer costs around £l,000.

The legal bundle is officially described as having "been developed in association with the Law Society and ... suitable for solicitors' offices".

Qualifying this endorsement, the society's IT adviser, Christina Archbold, says the objective was to create a low-cost package to meet most office automation needs, including legal research and electronic forms, of smaller high street firms. Similar deals may be negotiated with Novell/ WordPerfect and Lotus.According to Microsoft's legal business development manager, Charles Emes, the new Office bundle is just one of several initiatives the company is pursuing within the legal community.

Microsoft's founder, Bill Gates, whose father is a leading lawyer in Seattle and one-time president of the Washington State Bar Association, has a particular interest in the computerisation problems of law firms. It is unlikely that filial devotion alone lies behind these latest moves but the ease with which Microsoft Word can translate files created in other word-processing formats suggests part of the Microsoft agenda is to tip WordPerfect off its perch as leader in the legal word-processing sector.

Then again, playing what American lawyers call "hard ball" is how Bill Gates became one of the world's richest men - and his 40th birthday isn't until October.

Phone Direct

Details of European Counsel Direct, the handbook for in-house lawyers, described in last week's Finance & Law, may be obtained from 0171- 738 2303.

Independent Partners; request a free guide on NISAs from Hargreaves Lansdown

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