(Archived July 1, 1999)
Computer-literate attorneys are always on the lookout for tools which can bring more brainpower and more muscle to the ever-present tasks of researching the law and keeping current on cases, statutes, and legal developments. Since much of our information now comes to us via the Internet, tools which can help to tame that multi-headed beast will always be counted among the most potent weapons in our arsenal.
Zoot, offered by Zoot Software is a text management program which has been available for about four years. In 1996, I wrote a detailed review of "Free-form information managers", covering both Zoot and InfoSelect. That review is still accessible on the Web (see links below) and should be reviewed if you would like to see a detailed description of its features. The following, though, is a brief sketch of the many things that Zoot can do.
Zoot is a text collection and management program, which was originally designed for journalists and researchers, but which can be used for anyone who reviews and collects text in the course of his work, including lawyers and paralegals. If you want a package to keep track of your appointments and your contacts, then other programs are more tailored to your needs. If your primary need is to archive and retrieve text collected from numerous sources, Zoot will fit the bill better than anything else.
- The basic item of information under Zoot is the "note", which may be a couple of words or a lengthy document of any size. The practical size limit for a note is about 26KB or 4,500 words. Longer text items will be divided into several notes of that maximum length.
- Each note has a title. Zoot can automatically assign a title based on the first few words, or based on a delimiter such as the word "Subject:" in an e-mail message. A title can also be manually created.
- Notes are gathered in "folders". A note may be assigned to one or to many folders. The notes can be sorted by name, by date, or by type within the folders.
- Folders are collected in "libraries". Libraries can be grouped within "projects".
- Text is collected using two tools: file imports (Zoot will import text and HTML files, as well as text contained in some but not all binary files) and the Auto-clip tool. Auto-clip can be set to gather into Zoot everything which is copied to the Windows clipboard, and will include URLs of web pages clipped from Netscape or MS Internet Explorer.
- Text is disgorged by use of the Zooter, which will grab the contents of a note and "Zoot" it to another Windows application or elsewhere within Zoot. Text can also be exported to a text file or printed.
- A single Zoot library can be searched using a Quick Search box, with instant display of the number of "hits". On choosing Enter, the matching notes are displayed in a separate Search Results folder for review by the user.
- Multiple Zoot libraries can be searched in the same fashion, using the Libarary Search tool, which supports Boolean as well as plain text searches.
- Zoot includes a complex script language, under which the user can instruct the program to assign the notes to folders or transfer them to other libraries based on defined criteria, most notably text matching. For example, any note containing the words "Gwyneth Paltrow" can be assigned to a particular folder, using scripts.
- Zoot automatically collects URLs and e-mail addresses as it finds them, working in the background. If you visited a site last week and now want to find it again, chances are that the URL is found in Zoot's web links library if Zoot was running when you visited that site.
Tom Davis, the self-styled Alpha Geek of Zoot Software, has been at work for the past year on version 4 of Zoot, which promises to provide new features, including hypertext linking of notes between Zoot databases. In the meantime, he has released an interim version 3.5, which seems to be about halfway to the goal. Virtually all of the features of version 3.1 have been retained, and a number of new ones have been added. The changes and innovations, in some order of significance, are:
- The addition of a "spreadsheet view" to display values in categories attached to notes. Now, in addition to a subject and a date, a note can include columns based on either yes/no criteria or selections from a pop-up list. The lists can be immediately sorted by clicking on the column head, as can be done under Windows Explorer (when using the Details view) and several other programs. The values can also be drawn from "delimiters" in the text.
- The quick search box now provides two options. As with the earlier version of Zoot, the notes which match a specified text string can be collected in a Search Results folder, which can be kept indefinitely. In addition, Zoot will now display the titles of matching notes dynamically, as the user types letters into the search box, and if he finds what he is looking for, he can go directly to the desired note, bypassing the creation of a new folder.
- The Zooter and Auto-clip have now been combined into a single Zooter tool, which sits atop any active Windows window, much like Ecco's Shooter does. Unlike the Shooter, however, the Zooter is a two-way tool. The Zooter can grab a note from a Zoot database for insertion in a current word processing document, for instance, even if that database is not currently open, and without the need to switch to Zoot to find and copy the note.
- Improved automatic processing of notes, with the Scripts replaced by Rules (used to assign notes to specific folders) and Actions (used for processing the notes after they are assigned) both according to user-defined criteria. The note lists can also be filtered by date or by category.
- Collections of notes are now called "databases" rather than "libraries".
- Zoot can be closely integrated with Microsoft Outlook, so that the user can create notes within Zoot and transfer them seamlessly to Outlook in the background.
- The user interface is much more like Microsoft's, with buttons and menu items which are similar to those used under MSIE and Outlook.
- Zoot includes a number of "system databases", such as Tools, Mail, Journal, Reference, etc. These are kept in a separate directory.
- Databases which comprise a project are now kept together in a directory under the project's name.
Zoot can enhance the user's productivity in a number of different ways.
Zoot can help to tame a daily morass of e-mail messages, whether received as individual messages or in digest form.
The key to using Zoot to manage e-mail messages is the use of the Import Delimited File command. This command will break down a file into discrete parts, based on text delimiters, and create a separate note for each part. The key is to choose a delimiter which separates individual messages. This will depend on the e-mail client which is used, and whether the user's subscription is based on receiving messages individually or in a digest. The following will describe the use of Zoot when Eudora is used as the e-mail client.
For messages received individually, Zoot allows the user to import messages directly from Eudora mailboxes, using "From ???@???" as a delimiter. Since each message begins with that line (for reasons known only to Eudora's developers), using this delimiter reliably carves the mailbox file into separate notes, one for each message.
Messages delivered in a digest format can be imported using another delimiter, such as "From:" or "Date:", or a delimiter used by the digesting program to separate individual notes. It is helpful to look into the .MBX file, using Windows Notepad or the Edit command in a DOS window, to see how the digest file is structured.
In either case, Zoot allows the user to use a delimiter to create note titles. For just about all messages, this delimiter will be the word "Subject:". When the import is completed, Zoot will display a new folder containing each note individually, titled according to the subject of the message. With the new spreadsheet view, "delimited columns" can be created to include the name of the sender and the date of the message next to the title of each note.
The titles can be cleaned up as needed. With a series of subfolders, each containing one Rule and one Action (see description above), Zoot 3.5 can be set up to automatically remove undesired extraneous text strings, such as "Re:", from each new imported note, as if by magic, as soon as it appears. A series of these folders can be defined, and all of the undesirable text strings will be removed automatically. Under version 3.1, by contrast, each string had to be separately run through a "Find and Replace in titles" menu choice.
A menu option will combine notes with the same subject line into single "thread" notes. Another menu choice will strip out internet headers, leaving only the From, To, Date, and Subject lines.
The Zoot window, which provides folders, note titles, and note text in one three-pane display, is an ideal place to review a long series of e-mail messages, quickly looking for items of interest and discarding the rest.
Rules and Actions can be used to quickly archive notes that the user wants to save. Under Zoot, the notes are assigned to one of several Types, such Note, Journal, Task, etc. Imported notes are initially assigned to the File Import type. With one mouse click, the user can reassign a particular note to a "Safebox" type. A folder can be defined to include a Rule and Action combination which serves to grab all Safebox notes and move them to the Safebox database, in about a second. At that point, the note has disappeared from its original location, and is safely tucked away in the Safebox separate database for long-term storage. The Safebox database originally stores all moved files in a separate folder by date of transfer, although the notes can then be moved and/or assigned to other folders for categorization purposes. (The "Safebox" type and database is only one approach; this can be done with any combination the user desires.)
Version 3.5 includes a number of "system databases", including such commonly-used categories as Contacts, Mail, Web links, etc.
The Web Surfer's Pal
Another common way to use Zoot is to assist with web searches, particularly when searching case law. The Zooter can be used to grab text from any Windows program, including web browsers. The user has the choice of running the Zooter in "Clipboard mode", so that any text, from a small selection to a whole page can be archived within Zoot simply by copying it to the Clipboard, or using a small menu to clip the current page or selected text from the current page. The clippings appear in a Quick Clip folder, titled with the date and time of the first clipping, which can then be renamed based on the nature of the research done. Each clipping carries with it an automatically-stamped URL, so that the user knows where to return to retrieve the original page at any time in the future.
Unlike some other programs, Zoot does not collect text in Rich Text Format. Zoot is limited to plain text, but this is often a benefit rather than a drawback. Web pages are so heavily formatted that the formatting presents a barrier to reading the text when it is being archived for research purposes. To have a program which will filter out the text and discard the formatting is often a definite plus.
Zoot offers a menu option to "flow note text" -- i.e., reformat the text of the note to remove extraneous line breaks and stops, to break the text into its natural paragraphs for ease of reference and reading.
The Lawyers' Tool
The most significant use of Zoot in my practice is just the same under version 3.5 as it has been for the last several years using earlier versions. I keep a series of libairies (now called "databases") on topics of interest to my legal practice, and anything that I come across via focused research or by chance is archived in those libraries. Over a period of time, through a process similar to geologic sedimentation, I have gathered a good amount of useful information in these databases, and they are always at hand to use for my own reference or to answer a question posed by a client or by a colleague. These databases might include copies of articles, URLs for useful web sites, copies of pertinent web pages, links to PDF files containing additional articles, the verbatim text of statutes and regulations, etc. Anything that is in text format can be contained within Zoot, and anything else which resides in a separate file can be linked, for ease of finding. The biggest challenge is to organize the libraries in a way that makes sense and that makes it possible to find what I am looking for in a short time.
Zoot is particularly useful for organizing collections of full-text statutes or regulations. A sample database that I created, providing the full text of the Americans with Disabilities Act, has been posted at the Zoot Software web site. Other users' contributions available at that site include a comprehensive collection of everything that you ever wanted to know about Frank Zappa, as well as a database on "Making Babies" for couples trying to conceive. Presumably the first piece of advice the latter provides is,
"Turn the computer off."
Links to Other Reviews of Zoot
Free-form information managers - 1996 review at the Chorus site
Zoot! - Article by Jim Fallows in the August 1997 Atlantic Magazine
Put a little Zoot in your day - Review by Bill Machrone of PC Magazine, November 4, 1997 issue
From Agenda to Zoot - article in Salon Magazine, March 1999