Behind the Scenes of the Texas Bar Journal Article

January 6, 2010

To start the year off, I wrote an article for the Texas Bar Journal on open source applications for lawyers, Open Source Software Helps Lawyers Cut Costs, Increase Productivity (PDF). The opportunity presented itself through Twitter, naturally. John Sirman contacted me via Twitter, asking if I’d be willing to write an article on open source for lawyers. Nothing too fancy, nothing too technical, but he thought it a good idea to weave more open source info into the Texas Bar Journal.

Nothing too fancy. Nothing too technical. Perfect. I’m not a big fan of fancy or technical. Too many bells and whistles and the substance gets lost. All flash and no substance, as they say. So of course I jumped at the chance.

To be perfectly honest, I was a wee bit nervous. Aside from this blog, my undergraduate thesis (if you can find it), a couple of short stories (if you can find those) and postings on my JDSupra profile (which are mostly decisions), nothing out there has my name on it. Content I write for websites does not appear with my name. Though, now that I think about it, there are probably some press releases with my name on them from 2005ish.

So, for all intents and purposes, this would be my first “real” article. My name as the byline instead of my name mentioned as part of the subject matter.

Nothing fancy. Nothing too technical.

Past experience taught me that lawyers can be fast learners, and tend to remember things, so there was no sense in beating a dead horse by describing what “open source” means and the legalese behind the licensing. Nothing fancy. Nothing technical. And a new element: practicality. Lawyers have become more interested in how to apply technology than the nitty gritty licensing mumbo jumbo. They just want applications that help them accomplish tasks. Law has enough barriers as it is, so when they get the chance to “get it done,” they get excited and jump on it.

So I offered three open source applications most can probably use right now: OpenOffice, WordPress and a CMS (Joomla! or Drupal or DNN or any number of others). OpenOffice as an alternative to MS Office, not only because it’s free but also because you can open WordPerfect files with it, not to mention .doc and .docx files. I’m a fan of Writer’s Tools myself, too. As well as WordPress. I used Blogger for awhile, then experimented with WordPress and haven’t looked back since. With the CMS, well, I merely presented some options. There simply wasn’t enough room to go into detail, That’s what this blog is for! I also think it’s best for firms to do some due diligence to figure out what they need from a CMS, and I’m happy to help as it can be daunting.

The response has been positive. I’ve gotten a couple “thank you” emails, of saying he’s been using open source software in his practice for six years and wanted to touch base, and another who choose OpenOffice and saved himself $100. He even pointed out that OpenOffice allows him to use/open WordPerfect files!

Ah yes. And then there is Twitter. On the advice from @JDTwitt, I uploaded the article to my JDSupra profile, and found it being retweeted often. I’ll tell ya, it’s one thing to watch a random thought or insight of mine get retweeted, but it is something else entirely to watch an article I have written get retweeted. Both are exciting events, but the article retweets seem to lend more credibility.

Not a bad way to start the year, eh?

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Open Source Comes to the White House and Hopefully the Rest of Government

November 4, 2009

By now you’ve probably read the coverage whitehouse.gov received when it was revealed that it is built using Drupal, an open source content management system.

The White House is not the first to employ Drupal, nor will it be the last, but it does stand as an example to the rest of government. I’ve spent a great deal of time on government websites lately, and government website administrators would be wise to take their cue from the White House and institute change. Navigating, say, the Illinois CHIP website, is a real pain. It present information in a counter-intuitive, non-user-friendly manner, and is almost impossible to find anything, let alone know where you are on the site. Well, not impossible, but very cumbersome. It was actually easier to make a phone call for information than try to find anything on the site.

Perhaps other government agencies are taking notice, though. The Department of Labor website, for example, has gone through a design overhaul. It is much cleaner, and easier to find information. It provides a nice list of bulleted topics, FAQs, latest labor numbers and other rather useful information.

It’s good to see government agencies advancing into the 21st Century, and using open source software to do it. It is certainly a step in the right direction. Government is catching up with what many of already know: open source gets the job done.


Open Source Primer Presentation

October 15, 2009

Update 10/15/2009 5:45pm: Adding sound, I agree, is a good idea. I’ll work on that. Let me know if the presentation seems to brief, if there are other things you’d like covered…seriously, any feedback is welcome. Posting in the comments is probably easiest, though you can certainly post feedback on Twitter (#osprimer) and my handle is @econwriter5

When I started this post, I started with the 4 “pieces” of open source:

  1. Computer Software
  2. Source Code
  3. Freely Available
  4. To Alter and Change

And then asked: what is “open source,” exactly?

I could go through a lengthy explanation, full of stuff you’ve probably read somewhere before but didn’t know it at the time. I very well might do that at some point, but it seems prudent to first present to you the Open Source Primer I walked members of the Chicago Bar Association Law Practice Management & Technology Group through. And yes, I am aware it is in PPT format and not ODP format. I actually created it in ODP, but liked the PPT template better.

Feel free to leave comments. First time I actually gave this presentation to an audience of lawyers, so feedback is welcome and encouraged.

Hopefully this works so here it goes…


What About Electronic Health Record Portability?

July 23, 2009

President Obama gave a press conference last night about his proposed health care reform. The one thing we seem to all agree is that health care is well overdue for an overhaul. How to overhaul health care, however, is where consessus is lacking.

One piece of this debate that brings people together is this whole idea of electronic records. My dad’s medical practice was recently acquired by a large health care outfit, and he is going through the pang of converting 20+ years of paper charts into an electronic format. Before his practice was acquired, he had been going through the process but was told to stop because the system his group purchased was not compaitble with the system of the health care outfit.

This issue of compatibility has avoided the spotlight, which is problematic. How exactly does the use of electronic records cut costs if those records have to be printed and then faxed/mailed to a different hospital or doctors’ office because that hospital or doctors’ office uses a different system? The answer given: privacy protection. Granted, no one wants his or her medical records publically viewable, but I don’t see why it has to be all or nothing. I would rather have important information like allergies and medications I’m taking made readily available so that if I were to need emergency surgey, say, the surgeons and staff will be able to provide appropriate care and not kill me, mangle me or face a malpractice or wrongful death lawsuit.

So it’s not so much a question of electronic records to cut costs, but a question of balancing accessibility with privacy. Again, electronic records that have to be printed and faxed creates the same kind of “waste” Obama wants to eliminate.

A simple solution is to require every company making electronic health care record applications make the code open source. Or better yet, make the entire concept of electronic health records open source. Companies that support open source, like Google, Red Hat, the Linux Foundation, etc. will participate. And yes I know Google is building its own health care dashboard. But think of the resources available, worldwide, if health record applications are open sourced. And talk about cost savings!

Granted, the government will have to come up with specific guidelines (and they may have already), and such things as HIPPA compliance need to happen, which may be a foreign concept to those not familiar with US health care. Source code would have to be vetted. All the various steps of application development would still have to occur, but at least we’d all know what we’re getting. And if there are features that seem obvious to patients but not so obvious to doctors, there would be an easier way to address them and find a solution.

The few companies that already build and deploy health record apps are not going to like the idea of making the code open source. I can understand that. They need to make money, and selling the app is how they make money.

So why not allow a public API? That way, the companies can still keep their software, but if I need emergency surgey in Arizona, at least the Arizona hospital system will be able to communicate with the Illinois hospital system, increasing my chances of successful treatment and decreasing Arizona’s chances of malpractice lawsuits.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I’m all for electronic health records. But if the ultimate goal is easier exchange of information in order to eliminate waste and poor decisions, then make the systems compatible.

I don’t see why there can’t be an OpenOffice-type health record system. By that I mean, I can open up a WordPerfect document, or .doc or .docx or any number of different extentions to get the information I need. I can save it with the original file extension, too, and all is good.

So why can’t electronic health records work the same way?


Open Source Pieces Part II: Freely Available, To Change and Alter

March 11, 2009

In my previous post, I discussed the first two pieces of “open source”:

I ended the previous post by asking you to remember two terms: “freely available” and “to alter and change.”

As you can guess, “freely available” means that you do not have to pay to be granted permission to use the computer software. In other words, you don’t have to plunk down $200-$500 for software like Microsoft Office. And note: you are paying to just use the computer software, not tinker with the source code to get it to do something you want.

A common example of “freely available” software is OpenOffice.org. When you go to the site, and click around, you’ll notice that if offers the same types of computer software applications as Microsoft Office. There is a Word Processor, a Spreadsheet application, a Presentation application, a Database application…even its own Draw application. All in a single download, all for zero dollars. Yes, $0.

But, not only do you get the computer software for $0, you get access to the source code!

And this is where the fun begins because, with the source code, you are allowed “to alter and change” and make OpenOffice.org do what you want. Plenty of people have given you a head start with various extensions. One of my favorites is the Writer’s Tools. It has this nifty feature, called Start/Stop Timer, that “can be used to keep tabs on the time spent on the currently opened document and save the time data (the document name, used time, and date) in the accompanying WriterDB database.”

Oops. There’s a scary word: “database.” If you’ve used products like Microsoft Access, I can understand (though I hear it has gotten better but I’m skeptical). Not all databases are bad, though. When done correctly, they can make life easier. Dynamic websites are often run by databases. Google runs off many many databases. There has to be some efficient way to track and store those millions of search queries every hour or so, right? So the word may seem scary, but databases are pretty useful.

So the Writer’s Tools has a timer function that tracks your time on a document and lets you store it in the accompanying WriterDB. Then there is this other nifty feature called MiniInvoices: “a customizable invoicing solution for writers. miniInvoices is built with OpenOffice.org Base and relies on the Sun Report Builder extension. The solution features support for multiple currencies and basic reporting capabilities. The latter allows the user to generate print-ready invoices and earning reports.”

At the moment, the timer function does not hook into the miniInvoices feature, and the Timer does not start/stop automatically when you open/close a file. I posted a comment on the site, and the developer responded that the miniInvoices integration is under consideration for a future release.

When I mention this small set back, many people throw up there hands and start that “not different that MS Office” speech, until I ask “Well, where is the Timer function in MS Word?” There is silence, followed by “Is there a Timer function is MS Word?” I’m told there is, but have yet to find it, or anyone who uses it.

Do any of you?

And good luck hooking a Microsoft product to a non-Microsoft product to generate a Client bill. Not saying it isn’t doable, but it seems people use a different billing system that doesn’t necessarily communicate well with Microsoft. The “proprietary walled garden” cuts off communication. The source code for Writer’s Tools, however, is freely available under the GNU GPL. The “proprietary walled garden” has no walls, so communication is open, flowers are free to bloom where they please. There is no barrier in connecting different computer software applications together in order to produce an end result, such as a Client bill.

I’m curious…how many steps does it take to create a Client bill? Do you keep a spreadsheet that gets imported into computer software such as Quicken? Everyone seems to have their own methods, and they all have tricks they’ve learned but also wonder why technology can’t help automate some of these tasks. There is an open source solution…

So “freely available” and “to change and alter” mean that you don’t have to pay anything to get the computer software AND the source code, you less likely to get sued for infringement for tinkering with the source code and in the end, you’ll have a more streamlined, productive business side so you can focus on doing what you do best: lawyering.

OpenOffice.org is just one example, and comes readily to mind as I have been using it for a project the last two months. I work on a MacBookPro, and the Client sends me documents in .docx but I have MS 2004, which can’t read .docx, so I use OpenOffice.org. Problem solved!

Thus concludes the introduction on the 4 pieces of Open Source. There are many other examples of open source applications, though, that lawyers and legal professionals may find useful, so stay tuned!


Understanding Pieces before Understanding Open Source

February 23, 2009

Using the term “open source” around non-intellectual property lawyers tends to elicit blank stares. I even got a few such stares at a recent Toastmasters meeting. People have heard the term. President Obama has been tossing it out there, along with “transparency,” but people don’t quite know:

  1. What “open source” means exactly
  2. Why, or how, it applies to them

Before we get to those, however, I’ve found it useful to break down the pieces of “open source” before explaining what it means.

One definition, using a Google definition search, defines open source as: “of or relating to or being computer software for which the source code is freely available.” Another definition goes a little further, saying “An open source program has its source code distributed allowing programmers to alter and change the original software as much as they like.” The important terms to remember here are “computer software,” “source code,” “freely available” and “to alter and change.”

Just about everyone knows what computer software is, thanks to the ubiquity of Microsoft Office. Browsers are also computer software, like FireFox, Internet Explorer, Opera and Safari. The various email clients, like Microsoft Outlook and Apple’s Mail, are also computer software. If you think about it, most of your computer interaction is with computer software.

What makes computer software work is the source code.

Source code is very much like language, like English, French, Spanish, Latin, etc. And just like language, there are many different dialects of source code. .NET, PHP, C+, C++, C#, AJAX, CSS, HTML…a seemingly endless list. You’ve probably heard about some of them. Browse the Web, you interact with PHP, AJAX, CSS, HTML, Javascript…probably more languages than you think.

You can see some of it, like HTML. In FireFox, for example, if you go up to View –> View Source, a window will appear full of what may look like jibberish:

<table border=”0″ cellspacing=”5″ cellpadding=”5″ width=”90%” align=”center”><a href=”http://www.citpl.org/redesign/schedules.html”><img src=”images/courseSchedules2.gif” border=”0″ alt=”” vspace=”2″ /></a>
<a href=”http://www.citpl.org/redesign/syllabi.html”><img src=”http://www.citpl.org/redesign/images/syllabiMaterials2.gif&#8221; border=”0″ alt=”” vspace=”2″ /></a>
<a href=”http://www.jcil.org”><img src=”http://www.citpl.org/redesign/images/jcil2.gif&#8221; border=”0″ alt=”” vspace=”2″ /></a>
<a href=”http://www.jmls.edu/academics/it_law/contact.shtml”><img src=”http://www.citpl.org/redesign/images/contact2.gif&#8221; border=”0″ alt=”” vspace=”2″ /></a>
<a href=”http://www.jmls.edu”><img src=”http://www.citpl.org/redesign/images/jmls2.gif&#8221; border=”0″ alt=”” vspace=”2″ /></a> Welcome to the John Marshall Law School Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law website. The Center was established in 1983, and provides a formal structure for a wide variety of activities, including courses, conferences and continuing education seminars, scholarly publications, student organizations, competitions and other programs related to the field of Information Technology Law. We invite you to browse the website, the Center’s flashship publication, <a href=”http://jcil.jmls.edu/&#8221; target=”_blank”>The John Marshall Journal of Computer &amp; Information Law</a>, and to learn more about the <a href=”http://www.jmls.edu/academics/it_law/it_ms.shtml&#8221; target=”_blank”>M.S.</a> and <a href=”http://www.jmls.edu/academics/it_law/it_llm.shtml&#8221; target=”_blank”>LL.M. programs</a> offered in IT and Privacy law.
For more information, please contact <a href=”mailto:”>Panagiota Kelali</a>, the IT and Privacy Law Program Coordinator.</table>

What is easily readable is simply text, and all the stuff around it is code. The code gives instructions, in this case to the Web browser, on what and how to display the text, just like symbols over letters in some in languages help you pronounce a given word.

The same is true for other software applications, like Microsoft Word. The code provides instructions to your computer, and other components, like a printer. When you bold or italicize something, the code in Word follows instructions given to it when you select those options, just like a link opens a different Web page when you click on it.

The code, the source, for Microsoft Word is hidden, however. It is not as easy as clicking View –> Source as it is in a Web browser. This holds true for Microsoft Office and any machine running Windows. The source is hidden; you’re not exactly sure what’s in it or how it works, and you can’t (legally) go into the source, tinker and make it do what you want.

Which brings us to the next two terms I asked you to remember: “freely available” and “to alter and change.”

Stay tuned…


OpenSource, Transparency and Legal Professionals

January 30, 2009

NB: This is a self-reflective piece that started as a “Career Path” paper for Technology in the Practice of Law, a course I took in the summer of 2008. I recently earned a Master of Science, with Honors, in Information Technology & Privacy Law from The John Marshall Law School, and have decided to turn the idea into action. I talked often of openness and transparency in class, and this initial post, this declaration, is part of walking the walk. It should also be noted that this document was written prior to Barack Obama taking office. Comments are welcome, and encouraged.

Gwynne Monahan
12/06/2008
Independent Project
Presentation Outline

Open Source, Transparency and Legal Professionals

My how things have changed. When I first pondered this idea of “professional independence” in August, there was some uneasiness and a great deal of caution. I was still convinced, perhaps delusional, that I would be able to land a full-time job doing something remotely interesting. I did not pause and give myself the opportunity to really think through the concept of “gainful employment,” and exactly what that means to me now. It used to mean a steady paycheck, health benefits, a 401(K) if I were lucky and the opportunity to devote my spare time to my first love: writing fiction. Having gone through the demoralizing process of job-hunting with no success, I have come to the realization that “gainful employment” does not mean what I thought. Having spent considerable time reflecting on the interviews I had this past summer, I have come to the realization that I must stop fitting myself to a position or a particular ideal and, instead, fit a position or particular ideal to me.

I have often framed this as needing to be continually challenged. At some point, however, challenges are conquered and it’s time to find another. Continually looking for challenges becomes exhausting, and downright frustrating. It starts to take on the air of impossibility, a mountain that will never be scaled. It’s hard to shake a defeatist attitude with that point of view. I need to change my approach, my line of thinking.

Instead of continually searching for a challenge, I must pursue a passion. And if I pursue a passion, then challenge is sure to follow. Being a very curious individual, I read a ridiculous amount and have acquired a wide-range of information. Throughout my Masters education, I have discovered that a fair amount of that information is useful, and when I’m passionate about sharing it, things start to happen. There is an active engagement of ideas, and a sense of accomplishment, whether that is providing a different perspective or introducing some new technology or communications tool.

It was with this different line of thinking that I went back and reviewed my “professional independence” declaration. Not too shabby, but given the economic climate, it’ll be tough to implement. Businesses across the board are cutting staff, cutting budgets and preparing for what many economists are predicting to be a long recession. Longer than the memories of most people, anyway. On the one hand, it seems like the perfect climate to go in and tout the benefits of open source applications. As the economy continues to wreak havoc, law firms are downsizing, or closing all together, which makes convincing them to switch to open source rather ridiculous. Previous line of thinking would have gone down the “defeatist” lane, and thrown in the towel before anything got started.

The “passion” lane, however, leads in a different direction. With law firm layoffs, that means there is an increased likelihood of solo practitioners and smaller firms. Thanks to the credit freeze, it’s hard, if not impossible, to get loans. Without loans, there is less money to use to purchase equipment, equipment lawyers working in big law firms are used to having. They’re going to need alternatives. Alternatives like OpenOffice.org.

If past experience is any indication, these newly minted solo practitioners have probably never heard of OpenOffice.org, or even open source applications. And if they have, it has more than likely been under some kind of licensing or intellectual property umbrella. Helpful, but irrelevant if they are not intellectual property lawyers. What they need to know is what open source applications like OpenOffice.org are, what they can do with such applications that can also be accomplished using Microsoft Office, and how they can make OpenOffice.org do what Microsoft Office can’t. For example, there is a timer extension for OpenOffice.org so you can easily see how much time you are spending on a document. A database can be set up to record and store this information, which can then be used for billing purposes. Apparently this same thing can be done with Microsoft, but figuring it out requires learning Word, Excel and Access. Most people already know Word and Excel, but few know Access and the application is an additional expense. Not so with OpenOffice.org. And, to be really geeky, it is possible that the extension and database can be integrated into other, more sophisticated, billing applications. That is for future consideration, though.

And there is a bigger picture to incorporate: the whole concept of transparency. The word has gotten quite a bit of attention lately due to the economic crisis and the recent arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Such events, coupled with the NSA wire-tapping mess, telecommunications companies tracking and throttling Internet usage unbeknown to its customers and a whole host of behind-the-scenes dealings, have outraged the public and increased the demand for greater transparency. President-elect Barrack Obama appears to be heeding those calls, inviting America to weigh in on discussions through his website, change.gov. I would not be surprised if Obama’s administration ushers in an age of transparent, open source governing. That will take time, however, and can be undone with the next administration.

It is in this spirit of transparency I have come up with the following outline for a Continuing Legal Education class on open source applications and their uses for the legal profession. It must be understood that the outline consists of broad strokes, creating a sense of the big picture before drilling down into more specifics of open source applications like OpenOffice.org.

I. Introduction

A. Definitions
1. Proprietary Applications
2. Open Source Applications

II. Lawyer Interest

A. Sunshine Laws

B. OpenDocumentFormat
1. Massachusetts Open Standards Initiative

III. OpenOffice.org

A. Overview

B. Specific Applications
1. Writer
2. Calc
3. Impress
4. Base

C. Useful Extensions
1. Writer’s Tools
a. Timer Function

D. Where to Find More Information

The outline is by no means exhaustive, and it can also be adjusted to incorporate more collaborative tools, such as wikis, or communication tools like Twitter. There are numerous lawyers already using wikis and services like Twitter. Though such services are often seen as marketing tools, they can be useful for collaboration and the exchange of ideas. Lawyers often write articles, and sometimes co-author articles. It can be demonstrated that wikis are a better vehicle for such collaboration, eliminating the annoyance of exchanging countless email attachments.