Google Docs versus Microsoft Word: Attorneys blame 'technical incompatibilities' for late filing

In a high-profile election-related lawsuit in a U.S. District Court, the plaintiffs' legal team filed a motion begging for an extension, blaming “numerous technical incompatibilities" between Google Docs and Microsoft Word. They made three rookie mistakes.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor
mistake concepts, with oops message on keyboard.

the google docs ate my homework 

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The American legal system runs on deadlines. As one practicing attorney wrote in an official publication for the American Bar Association, "[M]issing any filing deadline is a lawyer's worst nightmare."

That's especially true if you're representing the plaintiffs in an "Emergency Complaint For Expedited Declaratory And Emergency Injunctive Relief" involving the United States Presidential election before a Federal District Court. For those keeping score at home, that's two Emergencies and one Expedited in a single motion.

All of which makes this weekend's filing from the plaintiffs' legal team in Gohmert v. Pence particularly eye-catching:

Plaintiffs' Unopposed Motion to File Responsive Brief Late

Come now the Plaintiffs, U.S. Rep. 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, by and through their undersigned counsel, and request that this Court allow Plaintiffs to file their responsive brief one hour late. In support thereof, Plaintiffs state:

Plaintiffs have employed a team of lawyers to prepare their responsive brief. During the course of preparation, Plaintiffs' counsel have encountered numerous technical incompatibilities in the software versions between Google Docs and Microsoft Word resulting in editing difficulties and text problems.

WHEREFORE, Plaintiffs request an extension of one hour of the deadline for filing their responsive brief.

[emphasis added]

I read that and had to rub my eyes and reread it about five more times to make sure I was really seeing a Federal court filing in which the attorneys for a sitting member of the United States Congress, suing the Vice President of the United States, told a Federal District Court that they needed a one-hour extension because they were having trouble getting Google Docs and Microsoft Word to play nicely together.

The most startling thing was finding a lawyer who even acknowledged using Google Docs. For those in the legal community, Microsoft Word is not just a de facto standard; in many cases it's the de jure standard as well. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, for example, notes on its Attorney Info page that it is "a Microsoft Word only court." (The page helpfully includes Word document templates in different fonts, none of which is Comic Sans, as well as instructions for saving WordPerfect documents in Word format.)

On Twitter, I conducted an informal survey of lawyers, and the results were decisive. Out of 69 responses, 57 (83%) said they and their law firms use Word exclusively. This comment, from a New Jersey-based lawyer, was representative: "I have never used Google Docs in law school or as an attorney. We always use Word. No court or firm for which I've worked uses Google Docs."

A Pennsylvania-based attorney added: "I find Google Docs unusable for legal work, it's too difficult to get the final formatting to work, especially if you're working with other lawyers. Maybe I could fix this by investing hours understanding it, but, well, I'm not going to. So Word it is."

Another five respondents said they use the previous legal standard, WordPerfect. Five lawyers said they use both Microsoft Word and Google Docs. This comment was typical of the both-platforms contingent: "Google Docs 95% of the time (G Suite is what we run our office with). We use Word for documents like appellate briefs that need more sophisticated formatting."

Anyway, in the current case it sounds like the problem is that the document file was being corrupted during multiple conversions from Google Docs to Word and back again as it passed from hand to hand, probably as a series of email attachments. The conversion process can handle most basic document formatting, but you're likely to run into problems when you add complicated formatting like footnotes, endnotes, and a table of authorities.

So where did the learned counsel for the plaintiffs go wrong, and how can you avoid making similar mistakes the next time your widely scattered team is collaborating on a Very Important Project with a Very Tight Deadline?

I have three recommendations:

Choose one editing platform for the project. Period. Full stop. If you start editing in Google Docs, stay in Google Docs. If you start in Microsoft Word, stay in Word. Any time you convert a document to another format, you run the risk of munging your document in subtle ways that you might not notice until it's too late. Doing multiple roundtrip conversions is a recipe for mayhem.

Use cloud-based storage for real-time collaboration. We're well into the 21st Century, and anyone who's trying to manage a group editing project with email attachments needs to catch up. If you're using Microsoft Word, you can share your documents using OneDrive for Business, or Dropbox, or Box, all of which have add-ins that allow you to open and save files directly from Word. (Hint: Google has detailed instructions on how to store Office documents in Google Drive and use Word to edit them.)

Don't cross the streams. If one team member (or an outside contributor) insists on using their preferred platform rather than the standard you've settled on, quarantine their contributions. Make them turn on Track Changes mode and then designate another team member to transfer their changes to the master document.

In the case of Gohmert v. Pence, the plaintiffs' legal team got their one-hour extension, but it did them little good, as the court denied their motion in less time than it takes to convert a Google Doc to Word format.

Maybe they should have also turned on spell-check. It probably didn't help their cause that the header, in BOLD CAPS at the top of the first page, misspelled the name of the District Court. Oops.

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