Dear Lawyers: It’s Not Word, It’s You

Here are two important facts about Microsoft Word:

Fact 1: 100% of the formatting problems you’ve experienced when drafting new documents can be completely avoided before they occur.

Fact 2: When editing a document someone else drafted, any formatting glitches can be resolved in just a few clicks, no matter how bad of a mess it is.

Unfortunately, the foregoing facts are true only if you have mastered Word.

If, instead, you feel like every complex document turns into a wrestling match, don’t feel bad. Only a tiny percentage of Word users have achieved domination. In my decades of experience, even people who feel they know what they are doing with Word have almost always misdiagnosed themselves. The ability to beat text into submission via formatting work-arounds and hacks does not indicate that you know how to skillfully use Word.

Word should be doing the work for the user, not the other way around.

Most users find Word to be pretty frustrating when drafting or editing documents with complex formatting. This is because many of Word’s most important features are either concealed or nearly impossible to figure out without research and training.

For example, the most important feature one must understand in Word is styles, and nothing in Word’s interface indicates this. Clicking around in Word will not reveal what styles are, how they work, or how to control them. Word’s (fairly useless) built-in help sheds little light on the subject. I can give you all of the steps to construct a 5-level deep, auto-paragraph numbered outline that works perfectly in every situation thanks to styles. However, you can use Word every day for the rest of your life and not stumble upon those steps or discover what they are by accident.

Having said that, styles are definitely not difficult or illogical for you to use once you understand them. To the contrary, styles are a wonderful formatting tool that allow you to completely control font-and-paragraph formatting in your documents in all situations. It’s just that these features are not easily mastered simply by using Word.

The fact that mastering Word requires training isn’t the problem; the problem is that most people don’t expect a word processor to be that complicated. There’s a general assumption that simply using the program over time will increase one’s skill with it. I’m here to tell you that this assumption is patently false when it comes to Word.

For example, I ran a quick search on Amazon for Word 2013 manuals. Here’s what I found:

  • Microsoft Word 2013 (Signature Series) by Rutkosky and Roggenkamp is 1,152 pages
  • Word 2013 Bible by Bucki is 1,056 pages
  • Word 2013 In Depth by Wempen is 1,008 pages.

The page counts alone would indicate that there’s a lot more going on here than most people expect.

In my experience, you can only build Word proficiency by working through comprehensive manuals or taking hands-on classes. Most people would rather clean toilets than read software manuals, but you have to keep in mind that not all classes are created equal. The critical issue is that legal professionals need to understand word processor functionality that most people do not need to use.

As a professional, you need to know how to turn page numbering on and off in the middle of a document, start it over, and switch from romanettes to Arabic and back again. You need to understand how to use Word’s table of contents and table of authority feature, how automatic paragraph numbering works, and how to control styles. These are precisely the kind of features ignored in Word classes designed for the general public. So it is important to find legal-specific training that will address these issues.

For years, I’ve heard experienced Word users complain that Word can’t do this and can’t do that. I always ask those complaining if they’ve ever read a whole manual on Word or taken a hands-on class. Invariably, the answers are no. When I demonstrate how easily one can do all of the things they were complaining about, they often look at me like I just pulled off some kind of David Copperfield magic trick. Once you learn how the program works, it’s not complicated (and I’m no magician).

Ultimately, you can’t complain about the politicians if you don’t vote; and you can’t gripe about the technology if you don’t attempt to educate yourself. The thing to remember with Word is that practice does not make perfect unless you know what to practice, and simply using the program won’t reveal it.

Featured image: “Illustration of a monochrome cartoon character (modified)” from Shutterstock.

Originally published March 4, 2015. Republished June 24, 2016.


  1. Avatar Word Neophyte says:

    I’ll admit I don’t know what “styles” are. Perhaps the author could let us know where to find some good training classes? Are there some online?

  2. Avatar Lisa Solomon says:

    I understand that Baron wants to make a point about the length of some of the Word 2013 manuals out there. On the other hand, he also stresses the importance of training geared to the things lawyers need to know. So, it would have been helpful if he had pointed readers to two books about Word geared towards lawyers:

    The Lawyer’s Guide to Microsoft Word 2013 by Ben Schorr:

    Microsoft Word 2013 for Law Firms by Payne Group:

    Most important tip for me as a former WordPerfect user: Shift+F1 reveals the formatting pane.

  3. Avatar Kirk Garner says:

    This is why I still use WordPerfect, even though it is a hassle to run Parallels on my Mac.

    • Avatar Sam Glover says:

      If you’re a whiz at using styles, tables of contents/authorities, automatic paragraph numbering, etc., in WordPerfect, then that might make sense and I think you should use whatever you prefer. However, that also means you could adapt to Word quite easily if you chose to.

      If you aren’t using those features of WordPerfect, which is fundamentally just as complicated and hard to use as Word, then you are in the same boat as most Word users.

      • Avatar David Rosen says:

        I find that WordPerfect is quite easy to customize, both in mid-document and in making changes to the default template. That Corel hasn’t made a version of WordPerfect for the Mac is the biggest reason I still haven’t switched from PCs to Macs. I was just about to make the leap when I read your pieces on Word – now I’m having second thoughts.

  4. Avatar Paul Spitz says:

    Well, I rarely start with a blank page. I’m almost always either editing a document someone else put together, as part of a negotiation, or adapting a document that already exists. And in both cases, the formatting is already there. I’ve experimented with styles a little, and it’s a clusterfcuk. It’s a real pain to go through an existing 25 or 50 page document, and change all the formatting from what’s in there to styles. More trouble than it’s worth.

    • Avatar Sam Glover says:

      I just maintain a template with the styles I like, and then I import all the styles from that whenever I’m dealing with a document that doesn’t have the right ones.

      • Avatar Paul McGuire says:

        Yes but this assumes that the document you received used styles at all or at least correctly. I was working on a big complaint for a civil litigation case and the couple hundred page template that I received to start applied Heading 1 to most of the body text in such a way that if you tried to fix the styles it would screw everything up.

      • Paul, any document can be fixed and no train-wreck document is worth working on. Period. With macros and other techniques, you can quickly apply styles to even a total mess of a document. The effort is worth it and doesn’t take that long. As Sam points out, you don’t have to rebuild styles each time, you just import the ones you like and use them.

      • Avatar Live & Die in Word says:

        Another trick when using a document that already has *some* Styles that aren’t used consistently is to update the Style to the format you want. Select the paragraph, see which Style it is in the Ribbon, right click on it and select “Update [Heading 1] to match selection”. All paragraphs with that style should update to the same format. But it’s Word so nothing is guaranteed…

    • That’s the thing – you’re using styles whether you want to or not. There is no OFF button. Word automatically applies styles to every single thing in every document in every version of Word. If you don’t control them, they will control you. So you’re not changing what’s in your document to styles. Styles are already there. What you want to do is CONTROL them. Using them effectively, one can format a document perfectly in probably 1/10th of the time it takes you to ignore them and format the document manually.

      • Avatar Paul McGuire says:

        Yes but many attorneys don’t bother to use styles for their headings and sub-headings. So changing the default style changes the whole document. For years before I learned about styles I didn’t apply them to anything and left everything in the normal style, manually formatting everything. Though yes it should be quick to change the body style and then find the headings and apply proper heading styles.

      • Avatar Paul Spitz says:

        Word for Mac 2011.

  5. Avatar Paul Spitz says:

    Oh, and all the help guides for styles that I’ve been able to find are not for my version of Word. So, essentially useless.

    • Avatar Jen Bacon Wojeski says:

      I don’t mean this response to be glib, but you can google just about any question you have. I switch between Word for Mac 2011 and Word 2010 pretty regularly. No doubt, there are differences, but the concepts are the same. If you need a starting point, a user guide for Word 2007/2010 would work just fine for you, and it would set you on the right path for what you need to google.

      • Avatar Paul Spitz says:

        Well, I have googled these format and style questions. And the responses were invariably unhelpful, and that’s not a knock on Google. The problem is this: the commands and features and menu options for a software program vary from platform to platform and version to version. So quite simply, Word for Windows 2007 is NOT the same as Word for Mac 2011. Word for Windows 2010 is NOT the same as Word for Mac 2011. When you’ve wasted an hour using a tutorial that simply does not match up with the program you actually are running on your screen, you will understand this.

        • Avatar MLSandler says:

          I agree that the two are not the same and it IS frustrating. I am currently teaching the technology portion of a Transactional Drafting class at CU. I am a clone user since all the law firms I have been in have been solid clone networks. A good 1/3 of my class are Mac users. So I present the material in Word 2010 but on a separate machine I have Google open so I can attempt to look up answers to Mac related questions. It DOESN’T make me hate styles or hate Mac. If anyone has a great reference for going back and forth, please share it!!

        • I don’t think Microsoft has ever had a justifiable reason for making the interfaces and layouts so different between the Windows & Mac versions of Word (or MS Office). I always felt the Mac version was their way of punishing people who don’t use Windows. Hopefully, the new, enlightened, let’s-work-with-all-operating-systems Microsoft will make the interfaces the same.

        • Avatar Marcus Yap says:

          I switch between MS Word 2011 and 2010 a fair bit (was a pure Windows user till a couple of years ago). The primer from MS Support should help those who are more familiar with MS Word for Windows figure out what/where the equivalent commands for MS Word 2011 are.

          In particular, working with styles (MS Word 2011):

          Most of the techniques for MS Word 2010 available can then be applied, but of course there still might be hiccups, to which MVPs come to the rescue:

          As a last resort, I usually google using keywords “MS Word 2011”, “Dissertation”, and “thesis”which will return articles written by IT Depts of universities dealing with styles, templates, and other usual issues that might be faced by students when they have to type their dissertations.

          Hope the above helps a bit.

      • Avatar Sam Glover says:

        You and Paul are both right. While you can apply most Word for Windows tutorials to Word for Mac just by clicking around a bit, Word for Mac is actually missing key components for managing styles. It’s annoying as heck. I’m pretty excited for Word for Mac 2015, which promises to finally bring feature parity.

        Edit: Holy crap, the Office 2016 for Mac preview is available RIGHT NOW!

        • Avatar Jen Bacon Wojeski says:

          I agree to all of what Sam is saying. Although, there are a couple of things I find more straightforward on Word for Mac (outline bullets, the style highlighter function, for example).

          As for Word for Mac 2015: fingers crossed. But first step for me is to get my Mac functioning again. I think my hard drive is dead. 92 days out of warranty. Fingers crossed the Genius I meet with today is in a giving mood.

  6. Avatar Amanda Hazel says:

    As a contract paralegal, I am working with MS Word 2013 day in and day out. I completely agree with Barron’s recommendation to learn styles. I’m by no means an expert with Word, but you cannot learn the finer points without a class or reading a manual. It’s hard to take the time to learn the program; I’ve been a contract paralegal for almost 4 years and this is the most I’ve felt comfortable with Word ever, but it’s because I took the extra time to learn the program and what it can do. Also, for those who are interested, consider a gaming keyboard and mouse.

    You ‘re probably looking at my post and thinking “She’s crazy” but hear me out.

    I have a Logitech G510S keyboard with programmable “macro” keys. What I use them for is to quickly open up the formatting dialogue boxes in Word such as “paragraph” and “font” to name a few. I also use the macro keys to keep court addresses handy without having to retype them every time. I essentially have up to 54 programmable macro keys. In addition, I have a Razer Symapse Gaming Mouse. What I’ve done with the mouse is to use the macro keys on the side of the mouse and program them for common formatting elements such as bold, underline, italics, all caps, etc… These little tricks give me an advantage in quickly completing documents for my attorney clients.

    • That’s a great tip Amanda. You can also make your own speedkeys in Word for almost anything without using Macros (it has a well-hidden utility for that). You can also customize the Quick Access Toolbar (QAT) for those kinds of things. From left to right, you can push buttons on the QAT by hitting Alt+1, Alt+2, etc.

      • Avatar Amanda Hazel says:

        Thanks for the additional tips Barron. I was aware of the QAT customization but I did not know about hitting the Alt+1, Alt+2, etc… I’m so spoiled on my “G Keys” on my keyboard that if I’m using a keyboard other than mine for editing in Word, I’m completely lost! I definitely look forward to more of your posts about MS Word.

        Now, maybe a post about OneNote?

  7. Avatar MWrando says:

    No. It’s Word. The designers obviously have no concept of the term “user-friendly.” Don’t do something I didn’t ask you to do and then expect me to figure out how to undo it. I have never used another program that had the audacity to (wrongly) predict what I wanted and then implement it without my permission. If I can hit one wrong button and destroy my entire document with no idea of how to restore it, that is a poorly designed program. And I shouldn’t have to take a class to learn how to avoid a disaster when using the most basic aspects of a widely-used type of software. I would bet that no more than 1% of users have the proficiency that this author says Word can justifiably expect. Although his closing analogy has some merit, because our politicians are just as useless as Word.

    • Avatar Live & Die in Word says:

      The best key to know about in Word is the UNDO button. It’s a circular arrow pointing left. It’s always on the top ribbon, third from the left. I’m not arguing that Word is terribly challenged but they did provide this escape key.

    • Word is designed to predict your next move and do it for you (these are called the AutoFormat features and are supremely annoying). As you point out, it’s almost NEVER what users want to do and then they have to figure out how to un-do what Word just did to them. All of that is solved by fixing its default features.

    • I agree. Word has always been a mess. Word 5.1 for Mac was the last decent version. It has become so bloated with features I’ll never use that it is much harder to use than it should be. We have moved to Google Docs for 99% of our work and couldn’t be happier.

    • Avatar Jim Slaton says:

      I so agree. Word must have been designed by a desktop publisher who grew up in pagemaker. The DOS versions sucked and the windows versions are no better. WordPerfect is the only word processor available which was designed for and by actual adults.

  8. Avatar Sam Glover says:

    Does anyone know why the default styles in Word are so terrible? I have to strain to imagine a situation in which they would be appropriate.

    I mean, I’m totally with you on this. For better or for worse, Word is the current industry standard for creating legal documents. If your job is using Word and you aren’t good at using Word, you are bad at your job.

    But why is Word so damn bad at its job?

    • Avatar MLSandler says:

      They were not developed for Legal. I have no clue who thought any of those default Style Sets were a good idea, most likely someone in a magazine publishing frenzy. Word 2000-2003 had a half decent default for legal to start with but it wasn’t kept in 2007. SAVING the scheme as a Style Set is the most important part of my Styles class. Set it up once, and reuse it.

    • I assume that Microsoft reaches out to the legal community in some way but if they do, whoever is giving them advice really doesn’t have a clue OR Microsoft just isn’t listening. For example, the ridiculous Design ribbon/tab in Word 2013 practically ruined the Style Sets feature. You can’t see the names of the sets and the thumbnails are literally useless. I have a long list of head-scratchers related to the design of Word. Clearly people not involved in working with long or complex documents are steering the ship.

  9. Avatar Chelsea B. says:

    “I can give you all of the steps to construct a 5-level deep, auto-paragraph numbered outline that works perfectly in every situation thanks to styles.”

    I want a link to that tutorial, please.

    • Chelsea, I meant that figuratively. I should have phrased that, “If I gave you all of the steps to construct a 5-level deep, auto-paragraph numbered outline that works perfectly in every situation, you would immediately realize that you could have used Word for the rest of your life and not stumbled upon those steps.” Sorry for the misunderstanding.

  10. Avatar Devin L. Ganger says:

    This is a fantastic article. The only way it could have been better is if you had linked to some of those resources that give that kind of in-depth Word training — classes, books, webinars, whatever they might be.

  11. Avatar Valerie Staab says:

    What’s wrong with Microsoft Word? Any time I put the word “it’s” in front of a noun, it underlines it in blue and wants me to change it to “its”. I’m not trying to use a possessive; I’m trying to use it is, and Microsoft Word is incorrectly correcting me. Under the “Grammar…” it says that it’s and its are commonly confused words, and I’m using it correctly. (For example, I would say, “It’s dinnertime and we’re all gathered around the table,” and it will correct me.) Does anyone know how I can stop it from doing this? I looked under options and turned off frequently confused words, but it still corrects me.

  12. Avatar Malby says:

    Two thoughts: First, most attorneys don’t feel they can take the time to “learn” Word–it seems we are always putting out fires and inheriting documents that have 3 or 4 different formatting sources, and it’s often not until you’re stuck in indent hell that it occurs to you to figure it out–but that’s usually a hack. Second, Word gets worse. Word for Mac (all of Office for Mac) is horrible compared even to the just the Windows version.

  13. Avatar pdwclinton says:

    Not as bad as it used to be… Remember Clippy? Microsoft’s “office assistant” that would pop up with helpful remarks like “I see that you are writing a letter! Would you like some help?”

  14. Avatar Donald Lowrey says:

    Word can do anything, IF you have to the time to screw around with it. I have developed sets of fairly sophisticated styles incorporating Butterick’s typography tips and invested a lot of time in building templates to make everything “just right”. I also use document automation (TheFormTool).
    Even with all of that, Word docx still (almost always) need to be checked carefully for formatting. A real time suck and distraction when you want to focus on your arguments.
    So I concur with commenter MWrando – “It is Word”.
    It today’s world, there is no reason for your main tool to require as much devotion as Mr. Henley suggests in this article. Maybe its time to reevaluate WordPerfect?

  15. Avatar Jim Slaton says:

    No, it’s Word’s fault. It couldn’t be anymore counter-intuitive. I am convinced that it’s adherents never actually used a real wordprocessor before starting with Word.

  16. Avatar elgarak says:

    It is Word. Word is a bloated, buggy mess full of legacy problems, developed over time with little regard to what it should actually do. Even if you’re an expert, you will run into problems at some point, and it will require more of your time to fix said problems than it should be. Just consider your “Fact 1”: If you need to plan ahead, and require to learn how to format and organize your document before you even start Word (and yes, this is something you NEED to do), the program has already failed as computer based tool, which should you allow to change and adjust as you go – because that’s why we want to use computer based word processing in the first place.

    To get more specific, just stay with the scenario you make: 1) One should use styles. 2) You need to exchange the Word files with others.

    These two factors already throw you in hot water, no matter what YOU do, because Word doesn’t do things well. Why? Well, where are the styles saved? With your document? Or somewhere else? Maybe in the infamous “”? Or in another .dot-file? Will they be send to the other person? Will YOUR set of styles change all the documents of another person? Or will the other person’s Word overwrite your carefully crafted styles? All these things can, and do happen. You can control them – if you delve deeply into the settings, and even for an expert it is an enormous challenge to not overlook the single setting that could throw everything into chaos. And if you have learned the philosophy of the styles, Microsoft can go ahead and completely turn it around with the next version – they have done so multiple times.

    It doesn’t need to be so complicated. There are word processing programs with a similar user interface to Word that don’t have these problems.

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