"Spreadsheets in the Law Office"

An edited version of this article was originally published in Computer Counselor column of the December 1990 issue of the Los Angeles Lawyer Magazine.

Comments are generalizations and may not apply to every situation. It is advisable to consult with a competent professional before relying on any written commentary. Paul D. Supnik is a member of the State Bar of California and not of any other state or country. The material set forth herein is not for the purpose of soliciting any engagements where to do so would be to offend or violate the professional standards of any other state, country or bar. This web page Copyright 1990, 1996 by Paul D. Supnik

By: Paul D. Supnik

The article reviews spreadsheets and how they can be used in the law office. Reviewed are four spreadsheets, Lotus 1-2-3 version 2.2, Lucid 3-D, Quattro Pro and SuperCalc 5.0.


Of the three major types of programs that caused personal computers usage to flourish, only one has had an overwhelming presence in the law office -- the word processing program. Database and spreadsheet programs were also responsible for developing the personal computer market though that source of computer market growth was not significantly influenced by the legal community. The spreadsheet program does have a place in the law office.

Spreadsheet programs began with a program called VisCalc for Apple computers and in 1984, Lotus 1-2-3 came on the market for the IBM PC. Lotus 1-2-3's claim to fame was that it could perform spreadsheet analysis, manage data and display graphics all in one program. The spreadsheet program is an ideal program for those who like to examine "what if." For example, if legal fees were raised ten percent, what would be net profits of the law office? If it were necessary to defend five additional depositions before the lawsuit could be settled -- how would that affect the ultimate costs of litigation? If the defendant were able to prove that elements of company overhead should be used to reduce damages complained of, how would that affect the damage calculation presented to the jury?

To understand how one can calculate "what if" on a spreadsheet, it is necessary to understand spreadsheet basics. A spreadsheet might be thought of as a checkerboard worksheet on the screen. Each square of the checkerboard representing what is known as a "cell." Numbers can be placed in each cell. Also words can be placed in each cell. A cell can also represent arithmetic or mathematical formula describing various combinations of other cells. The checkerboard worksheet is numbered so that the columns beginning at the left hand side of the checkerboard are represented by letters and the rows of the checkerboard beginning at the upper left side are represented by numbers. Any cell can be defined or identified by the combination of a letter or number so that the cell in the upper left hand corner is referred to as A1 while the cell in the third row, second column is referred to as B3. A formula might be the sum of the preceding three cells. Thus, the formula which appears in cell D4 might be 10% x (A1 + A2 + A3). 10% of the sum of those three numbers then appears in cell D4. If one wanted to change the numbers in one or more cells, simply typing in the desired number when the cursor is positioned on a particular cell and pressing the enter key would result in the new sum or changed sum in cell D4. Thus, the key feature of a spreadsheet is that you can change one or more of the values or numbers in a cell, and the rest of the spreadsheet is automatically recalculated. All spreadsheets work in essentially the same basic manner. The operations on the numbers in the different cells can be complex with substantial involved formulas. Formulas are present in most programs for calculating interest functions, present values and other financial information. It is even possible to have dates entered in cells and calculate the number of days between the current date and a fixed date. That resulting number can be used in another formula for further calculations. The spreadsheet is designed for simplifying repetitive tasks, so that it is not necessary to rewrite similar formulas in each column. Instead, the formulas can be replicated as desired. Spreadsheet programs also generally have the ability to create "macros" which permit virtually any repetitive tasks or keystrokes to be readily automated.

There are several obvious uses of spreadsheets for lawyers. Others uses are likely to come to mind in specific situations after you already have used a spreadsheet program and understand its capabilities. For the litigator, the spreadsheet can be used in evaluating a case and in developing graphical aids for a lawsuit. For the transactional lawyer, a spreadsheet may be used to analyze the true value of a contract, and what moneys will result from a contract upon specific events. For the lawyer involved in the management of his or her firm, or for the lawyer in a smaller firm, the spreadsheet is a good way to analyze the effects of potential changes in the size or business of the firm on the law firms income.

In the litigation context, there are usually a number of components involved in damage calculations. In infringement actions, lost profits attributable to the wrongdoing may be based on sales less expenses over a period of time. Twelve columns might be used to represent the months of a year of sales. A first group of rows might represent sources of income for each of the particular months which can then be totaled. A second group of rows might represent various types of expenses. A separate row might then show profits (income less expenses) for each row. What if there are conflicting document and testimony concerning the amount of expenditures? The plaintiff can plug in the figures from its perspective, obtain a printout of the spreadsheet and use it as a basis for preparing for trial. The plaintiff can then easily modify the spreadsheet by using some or all of the defendants figures, and see what happens as varies figures are changed.

To analyze a licensing agreement, a spreadsheet can be modeled on a potential contract. A set of assumed values of sales can be plugged into the contract model. The spreadsheet can be modified by percentages and other contingencies in the contract to better understand how the contract would work in the real world.

Spreadsheet programs have limited database or "data management" capabilities. It is possible to take the information appearing in each column as of a spreadsheet representing a "field" of a database and consider each row of a spreadsheet as if it were a "record" in a database. The spreadsheet programs have the ability to sort the records and fields based on different criteria, and to print and display the information similar to the manner in which database information may be displayed.

One way of becoming more familiar with how to use a spreadsheet program is to obtain help from a "user group". The American Bar Association Law Office Management Section has a user group that deals specifically with the use of spreadsheets and spreadsheet programs. They are in the process of developing templates for use in various areas of law practice. The current chairs of the committee are Daniel Evans in Philadelphia and Charles Morgan in Texarkana.

Lotus 1-2-3, Version 2.2, from Lotus Development Corporation, $495.

Lotus, in updating their spreadsheet program, has taken a divergent approach based on the premise that not all computers in use are of sufficiently high capability so as to be able to take advantage of some of its newer features. As a result, it came out with three versions of its spreadsheet programs recently. Version 3.0 which is not reviewed here and requires considerably more memory and probably a faster computer to make use of its abilities, Version 2.2 which will run on an ordinary XT type computer as well as newer and faster computers with larger memories. A third version 1-2-3/G uses a approach and is not reviewed here. While Version 2.2 does not have all the features of Version 3.0, it generally has what is most needed, particularly for the lawyer who only occasionally uses a spreadsheet, and still has considerable features for the lawyer who uses a spreadsheet more frequently. What is missing from Version 2.2 is the ability to directly create and view three dimensional spreadsheets, that is, spreadsheets in which one particular cell refers to an entirely separate spreadsheet so that, for example, a number of spreadsheets can be directly linked together.

One feature important for lawyers interested in purchasing spreadsheets is some compatibility with Lotus 1-2-3. The reason for this is that since the spreadsheet was the first major spreadsheet on the IBM PC, it is the spreadsheet which has been distributed most widely, and has had the greatest number users, at least in the past. This is important because it is more likely that a lawyer will receive a spreadsheet from a client or colleague in a Lotus 1-2-3 format than any other spreadsheet format. Also most other programs which receive input from spreadsheets, such as accounting programs, will accept data from Lotus 1-2-3 compatible formats. That problem, however, is not as significant now as it once was as now most other spreadsheet programs attempt to have some degree of Lotus 1-2-3 compatibility. For example, Lotus spreadsheets will read Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets and will often export to Lotus 1-2-3. However, often times when another spreadsheet is exported to Lotus 1-2-3, some of its macros and other features might be eliminated.

Another advantage of using Lotus 1-2-3 is that being the leader in the spreadsheet market, various add-on programs have been developed specifically for Lotus 1-2-3. One of the reasons that programs were developed was to fulfill features which were missing from the original program, such as graphics features, "publishing" features, annotation programs and others. Some but not all of those features now appear in the Lotus program, but new improvements made both by Lotus and 3rd party developers continue to appear. It remains to be seen as to the extent to which add on programs will continue to be published for Lotus 1-2-3, but it is still likely that the name will carry the product for a lengthy period of time.

Quattro Pro from Borland International, $495.

This spreadsheet is a fully featured spreadsheet which can run on an XT and a monochrome monitor, however, preferably requires at least an AT and preferably a 386 type machine with a fast hard drive and color monitor to fully take advantage of its features. This program is characterized by its ability to generate multiple spreadsheets, to link multiple spreadsheets, to and to create visually a spreadsheet which has significant graphic impact. Graphic impact in spreadsheet publishing is a significant feature of Quattro Pro and uses considerable computer resources to do so. It is ideal if your primary interest is to create spreadsheets which will be used immediately for courtroom presentations without using separate graphics program. While Quattro Pro may be used on a monochrome monitor, it is best used on a color monitor where the impact of the visual presentations may be viewed. Most printers in lawyers offices are laser printers and the Quattro Pro works well with laser printers. However, most lawyers do not have plotters or color printers, so there is often a question as to the benefit of its output. However, it is possible to have files which are created on Quattro Pro be printed out by service companies and turned into other slides, transparencies or plotted color prints.

Quattro Pro is Lotus compatible in a number of different ways. It reads Lotus 1-2-3 files. It allows the user to select a user interface which uses the same keystrokes as Lotus 1-2-3 or alternatively the keystroke configurations specially set up by Quattro Pro. However, not all macros are converted to Quattro Pro, though some may work without changes. Considerable help is available on the screen without the necessity to resort to the user manual.

Quattro Pro is designed for use with a mouse which considerably speeds up the use of the program. A mouse, however, is not necessary to make use of the various features of the program which may be activated from the keyboard.

Lucid 3-D, $99 from Dac Easy.

Lucid 3-D is a low cost spreadsheet program with several unique features. In addition to its low price, it may be set up as a memory resident program. This means that it is possible to run Lucid 3-D over another program, such as a word processing program. Thus, if you were writing a letter on a word processing or other program, it would be theoretically possible to pop up a lucid spreadsheet on top of the program that you were working on. Then after the information that you wanted was created in the lucid 3-D spreadsheet, that information could then be pasted directly in to the screen of the word processing program. While in theory this sounds like a very useful feature, as a practical matter, the ability to use this feature of Lucid 3-D is limited because of the large memory requirements of today's word processing and other programs, which consume most of the available RAM memory available. It is possible to use small spreadsheets with software and word processing programs which do not consume significant memory, subject to significant limitations.

As the name implies, Lucid 3-D permits the use of three-dimensional spreadsheets. By the term three-dimensional, this means that a single cell of the spreadsheet can be linked to an entirely separate spreadsheet or group of spreadsheets. Also it is possible to link a range of columns and rows in a spreadsheet also to a series of additional spreadsheets which are normally hidden. Thus, assume that one cell of the spreadsheet is used to represent the profits of a corporation during a particular quarter. It is then possible to examine the spreadsheets which are linked to that particular cell. Those spreadsheets might show all items of profits and expenses to be subtracted from gross revenues in determining profits. In some situations it is desirable only to see the summary information, that is, the net profit and thus one spreadsheet. In other situations, it is desirable to view the underlying figures upon which the net profit was based and the spreadsheet showing a breakdown of the basis and items upon which the net profits are calculated.

Lucid 3-D works well with a mouse which simplifies moving back and forth from one spreadsheet to another. It is possible to create multiple spreadsheets and have those multiple spreadsheets appear tiled or overlapping on the screen. Lucid can even be displayed on a small portion of the screen, allowing part of the underlying computer screen showing perhaps, part of a from the word processing program.

SuperCalc 5.0 from Computer Associates, Inc., $495

SuperCalc is the outgrowth of a spreadsheet that has been around for many years. It was originally developed for "CP/M" personal computers which were around before the IBM PC came into existance. The significance of that is that the program has been considerably improved since its originally beginnings some eight years ago.

One of the convenient features of Supercalc 5.0 is the ability to quickly create repeating lines across the spreadsheet. Typing an apostrophe followed by a repeating character, such as an underline or equal sign will reproduce the character across the spreadsheet instantly. It is easy to visually identify the specific cell that the cursor is at, since both the borders of the column and row are brightly highlighted or blink. The significance of this is that frequently, the cell must be referred to by its specific location, e.g. C5, which is column C, row 5. SuperCalc 5.0 has a "Lotus 1-2-3 compatibility mode" in which Lotus 1-2-3 command sequences allow the use of the menu commands in Lotus 1-2-3. Thus, if one is experienced in using Lotus 1-2-3, there is less difficulty in being able to use SuperCalc 5.0 at a basic level. Specific features can be set to simulate Lotus 1-2-3. SuperCalc has a separately available "Add-in" program called Silverado for database applications.


Spreadsheet programs take time for a lawyer to get accustomed to using. However, once spreadsheet basics are learned, the applications and beneficial uses of the spreadsheet in a law office become apparent. The most typical situation where spreadsheet programs are useful to lawyers are in the day to day law practice management, analyzing clients' contracts for modifications and understanding bottom line values, and in damage analysis calculations in litigation.