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Notes from the Technology Trenches - hdFind-IT: A Diamond in the Rough - Maximizing Access to Your Stored Documents

By Cindy Curling, Published on April 15, 2002

Cindy Curling is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson in Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.

It's spring here in Washington, D.C. The flowers are blooming, the tourists are standing on the wrong side of the Metro escalators, and it's the traditional time to clean around the house. I love the flowers, and the tourists are mostly harmless, but I hate cleaning. Frankly, I'm not a very good housekeeper. Considering that I work with information all day and seem relatively well organized at work, this always come as a shock in the spring when I actually make a concerted effort to do something about the piles of stuff around my house. 

Somehow, when I no longer moved for school and got settled in my job, my home organizational system broke down. My office isn't so bad, but home has pretty much gotten out of hand. Ok, maybe work a little too. You may have noticed that I write pretty frequently about organizational tools - it's a hazard of librarianship. One of the first things they teach you in information science is that no matter how valuable a piece of information seems, unless you can get at it to use it, its worthless. A corollary to that rule that I've learned in the law firm environment is that just getting at it isn't good enough. You have to get at it fast because in the legal world time and money are very close to equivalent. That's all clear to me intellectually, but it's still a challenge for me personally.

That may be why I'm always on the look-out for technology tools that not only make it easier to find information, but also to get it quickly, This month, I heard about a promising new piece of software that may help. It's a bit of a diamond in the rough, but it's worth knowing about.

hdFind-IT

One of the easiest ways to involuntarily waste time (and therefore money) doing legal work is to assume you already know enough about how things should be done. This is the, "I've always done it this way, so it must be right," school of thought. The Internet has taught many of us not to take some of those assumptions for granted any longer. If you know what you're doing, and that's a big if, using the Internet to retrieve specific information can be a big timesaver over traditional methods. Still, there are plenty of aspects of our jobs which, technologically, are like the proverbial forest that can't be seen for the trees.

Legal writing is full of these instances, for the novice and even more so for the experienced specialists who may frequently use much of the same information over and over again as they work. They know the resources to use and where to find them, but as Jerome Wahlert, the creative force behind the hdFind-IT Licensing Co., puts it:

"The thing that amazes me, even now, is that attorneys continue to use word processing programs and PCs like expensive typewriters...Experienced attorneys work within particular areas of law and know more about the leading authorities in their chosen areas than in other areas...They write memos and briefs and cite the same leading authorities that they have cited before. It is a repetitive process that frequently does not add additional insight or analysis...When they cite authorities in this way, they could have produced the same results by using a typewriter."

In order to make that repetitive process more efficient, Wahlert came up with a software program, hdFind-IT, that uses Word for Windows capabilities coupled with some additional programming to make frequently used files on your hard drive more accessible. I e-mailed back and forth a little with Mr. Wahlert about this software, and he supplied me with his background and with some information about how and why the program was created.

Wahlert was once an electronics technician in the Bay Area and following that, started his career in law as an assistant law librarian at the San Francisco County Law Library. Since then, he has worked steadily in the law environment but maintained a continuing interest in electronics and the development of software. He worked as an editor at CCH for 14 years and as an editor at West for five years. You can see some of his writing on Westlaw, in fact, if you search for his name in the Mertens database. As a legal researcher and writer, he noticed the repetitive aspects of his work and began looking for a better way:

"After Microsoft released Word 97, I discovered that I could be more prolific and provide fresh insights into the law by using Microsoft's built-in hyperlink function to switch between full-text documents. This enabled me to work with full-text documents in a more convenient way.

I found that I could provide a better analysis of the law by having a way to access the full-text language of the authorities with my own notes, yellow-highlighting, and bookmarks.

Finding primary authority was not the problem. It is available from the web and elsewhere. The problem that I was trying to solve was based on a question: How can I type an analysis of the law and access the primary authority (and my own notes) without disrupting the flow of the work? The creation of the algorithms which allowed me to automatically add the hyperlinks as I typed solved this problem."

Those algorithms, combined with newer versions of Word, grew into his own personal software short-cut suite. Eventually, as he typed up an analysis and used the name of a leading case, it allowed him to automatically insert a hyperlink to the full-text opinion which he'd already stored on his hard drive. That, in turn, let him quickly review the text of the opinion when needed, both to refresh his memory or to gain fresh insight. 

He recently formed a company to develop and distribute the software, called hdFind-IT (hd stands for hard drive). Details about the software are available at http://www.hdfind-it.net. As I mentioned above, it's a bit of a diamond in the rough. I almost think of it as a beta release, but it in addition to the linking function mentioned above, it includes some other nifty abilities most researching writers will find useful that definitely make it worth a look.

Function Overview

The software is designed for legal researchers who write memos, briefs, and articles. It currently works only with Word 97 and  Word 2000 for Windows. Plans for a program compatible with Word XP are in the works, but it isn't yet ready for release. According to the Web site, the software has 10 basic functions. Here's my spin on that description along with some comments on each feature's ups and downs:

1.   It can automatically add hyperlinks when you type the names or citations of court opinions or other files that you have downloaded to your hard drive so that you can retrieve them whenever you want. Of course, like many other pieces of software meant to help automate organization, it depends on you to designate which files on your hard drive are relevant. If you can be disciplined enough to identify them that first time, it will recognize them from that point forward.

2.    It lets you create a Word document that lists all the Word, html, text, or .pdf files in a subdirectory on your hard drive and automatically add hyperlinks so that you can retrieve files as you work without having to access the folder directories. This strikes me as being of mixed usefulness. It could be great if you're the kind of researcher who keeps documents on your PC and uses extensive annotation to add your own notes. If you're not, maybe having the software would encourage you to do so. However, it's a matter of discipline again, and if you don't have the commitment to compile and re-use frequently accessed resources, it may not be worth while.

3.  One of the files downloaded with the software is a hyperlinked list of Internet resources. Another Word document, it lets you quickly retrieve free court opinions, law reviews, and other law-related data. This saves you opening a browser and accessing favorites or bookmarks. More importantly, it saves you from searching the Web generally to find what you need. While the list is fairly basic, it could definitely be handy if you are not already an Internet-oriented researcher. If you are, you can add your own Internet resources to the list and remove those you don't find useful. To me, that seems like more trouble than it's worth if your bookmarks or favorites are already in good shape unless you want the word processing flexibility to annotate your resources more than is possible through your browser.

4.    The software "increase your ability to instantly access to your most important files by adding hyperlinked menu items to Word for Windows." Again, it saves some steps to have the files available from a drop down menu as you are in a document, but you have to create a hyperlinked table of the documents and then make the table available in a Word menu. Whether it really saves you time depends on your work habits.

5.  You can "reduce time when locating issues and judicial reasoning within your court opinions". This is done by using one of two button commands to highlight certain standard terms and phrases in the document commonly used by the courts that often indicate that a legal issue or judicial reasoning will follow. It's obviously not foolproof since it keys on words like "whether", "issue", "question", "because", since" and "for the reason that" which might also appear in other contexts, but could be useful.

6.  The software lets you "preserve your access to your significant [court] observations while reviewing court opinions by adding hyperlinked bookmarks." This is a feature that I can see using since it helps automate the process of returning to a particular section of an existing document. Finding the documents themselves isn't necessarily difficult to begin with, but finding a section of text when you only vaguely remember it is definitely a challenge. The trick, of course, is identifying it the first time you realize it's significant so that you can return to it later.

7.  You can "add hyperlinks to Word documents leading to particular passages in other important documents on your hard drive by using a copy-and-paste hyperlink function." This is similar to the bookmark feature, but allows users not only to view the pertinent section, but also to quickly link to it from within a Word document.

8.  Here's the big time saver: "Add hyperlinks to cites contained within downloaded documents to link to the court opinions on your hard drive without typing the case names or cites." This sounds very much like function one, but is more powerful. Instead of linking to a single site by name or citation, it looks for all cites in the document which you've previously designated as linkable and adds a hyperlink for each one. As with the first feature, this requires that you indicate where on your hard drive the appropriate documents are stored before it can work, but you only have to make those identifications once.

9.  The software provides a search function that searches for paragraphs containing your terms. It then opens a new Word file and copies those paragraphs into it with hyperlinks back to where the original paragraph text can be found in context. Basically, this lets you get a key word overview of your documents that includes a paragraph of text for each occurrence of you term, and lets you easily see the surrounding text as needed. This seems like a great feature, especially if you frequently work with lengthy documents.

10.  The document-assembly hypertext function seems a little complicated, but potentially worthwhile. It's intended for creating documents such as memos, briefs, contracts, wills and the like - all documents that differ greatly in detail, but that, as a class, follow a similar format. This assembly function isn't like most document assembly programs that are based on generating set responses to data entered in fields. Instead, it gives you a little more flexibility by allowing you to quote or paraphrase text from one or several source documents and then arrange them as you like using a Microsoft outline format. This function alone could probably be the topic of an entire review, but rather than go into greater detail I recommend a visit to the company Web site for a more comprehensive description of this feature. Again, it could be a great tool, but it requires some up-front investment of effort to really make it pay off.

Negatives

Reading back over those ten points, it may seem that my overall assessment of hdFind-IT is negative overall, but I actually found it quite useful. The main drawback to using the software is that it requires such up-front effort, but that's as much a product of the state of technology today and our disinclination to be organized as it is anything else. As Wahlert noted in our e-mail exchange, "The utility doesn't add the notes or provide the data. It simply provides a more useful way to access the data with hyperlinks while working within Word." At least legal materials are among those that tend to be available online and lend themselves to the kinds of linking and annotation of which hdFind-IT takes best advantage. 

That said, there were some definite problems. Most stem from the fact that this is a brand new product offered by a very small company. Happily, the functions themselves seem to work fine as described, but the descriptions leave much to be desired. 

The Web site is one area that could use improvement. While it focuses on the software's capabilities, it unfortunately leaves out some important points. The instructions for downloading are, well, nonexistent. True, it's a very simple process, but with software downloads being what they are today, I'm more comfortable being told step by step what to expect. A few points here need attention:

  • As you download it tells you it's best to close all open programs, but you have to keep you Internet browser open to complete the process. 
  • It doesn't state that once you've downloaded the software it will be available as a toolbar within Word. You can certainly gather that from reading the additional materials available on the site, but it's never stated explicitly. If you're so taken by the software description on the first page that you immediately click to download, you're going to be at a loss for a bit.
  • Also, nowhere does it explain where the password you request enters into the matter. It turns out that once you've downloaded the program, you will be prompted to activate it when you opt to use a restricted feature. Again, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out, but it's easier on the user to know things like that in advance.

In addition, the Web site consists of three main areas: an overview, downloading and licensing information, and expanded descriptions of each of the ten features. Those ten descriptions are also the only help available within the program itself. As helps go, this isn't too bad, but it definitely takes some trial and error by actually using the software to fully understand what's described. I found the descriptions accurate, but not explicit enough.

The company, hdFind-IT Licensing Co., is very small - if it isn't a one man operation, it's pretty close as far as I have been able to determine. My guess is that there are only a few people involved in the project, and they are all already steeped in the software's capabilities, so they take for granted that much of what they describe will be evident to the user. It is to them, of course, they already know it, but a little extra explanation could go a long way for those of us who are new to the product. 

Speaking of company descriptions, basic background and contact information on the company, including how big is is, how old it is and where to e-mail with questions and complaints, should definitely be a feature of the site. There is a mail address for the company in with the licensing materials, but in this day and age, not having your e-mail address prominently displayed on the front page is tantamount to telling your potential users that you'd rather not hear from them. 

One last caution: since the product descriptions are so oriented toward facilitating communications between Word and a hard drive, I'd definitely contact the company before trying to use it in any networked environment. 

Positives

Overall, I like the software. The program really can provide you with faster access to your hard drive data by automatically hyperlinking to specified files. That does give you better control over your hard drive in that documents are not as likely to be overlooked, and saves you time and money by eliminating the need to do redundant searching. 

Many features of the product seemed familiar to me. Lexis and West, for instance, have both been marketing utilities which recognized legal citations within Word documents and then automatically add hyperlinks to the full text documents available from their services. Premise also offered some of the bookmarking, annotation and highlighting features hdFind-IT takes advantage of. The difference, of course, is that this Word add-on recognizes citations in your own Word documents and automates the process for adding hyperlinks to the documents you download to your own system. 

Though the documentation about installation could use improvement, downloading is a quick, relatively easy process. Also, while it's true that some self-discipline is required to make the connections that allow you to fully utilize the software's features, the process of making the links is very easy. Once you find the documents you want to use, linking them is a piece of cake. 

Really, this software offers quite a variety of convenience tools for accessing your stored data, and it's remarkably inexpensive. In fact, law librarians and law professors can download the software for free, and send a request for an individual password so that their software will never time out without ever having to pay a cent. There are a few strings attached to this free use, but they are minimal: 

  • Each request should be made on letterhead so that it is clear that the person making the request is a law librarian or law professor.
  • Requests should be sent by June 1, 2002 to:  hdFind-IT Licensing Co.; P.O. Box 644; Mundelein, IL 60060 
  • Requestors should include their name and email address so that an individual password can be sent electronically.

Some functions of the software never time out whether you pay for them or not, and are available to anyone in the legal profession who wants to use them. Those functions are covered in the descriptions numbered 3, 4, 6, and 7 above and on the Web site and mainly regard links and bookmarks you've already established, plus access to the list of Internet resources. Other functions are provided to students and practitioners free for 30 days. At the end of that period, a payment of $39.95 will give users permanent access.

If you use the software, let me know, and I'd also love to hear from you about any technical glitches or inconveniences that are driving you into the Technology Trenches.