Ordinarily, referring to a person as a “tool” isn’t particularly complimentary because the term describes a person whose ego exceeds his talent. That said, I don’t think that this week’s guest, Legal Writing Pro Ross Guberman will take offense because his new product, Brief Catch captures Ross’ legal writing expertise and talent and makes those human skills available desk-side in the form of a powerful editing tool. BriefCatch is especially valuable for solo and small firm lawyers who don’t always have colleagues who can offer feedback on their writing. Below, Ross describes how BriefCatch works as well as users’ reactions. Ross demo’d BriefCatch for me and you can read my review here. You can also read about other lawyer to legal tech entrepreneurs here.
Q. What is BriefCatch, when was it released commercially and what does it do?
BriefCatch is a Word add-in I developed that gives attorneys and others immediate feedback and editing suggestions at any stage of a draft.
The tool lets you scan your document for thousands of ways to streamline your prose and to tighten your analysis. It also catches errors and inconsistencies. And it offers a five-part scoring system that you can use to compete against yourself.
It’s been out for just a few months now.
Q. Tell us a little about your background, particularly your experience (if any) with technology?
For about 15 years, my main job at Legal Writing Pro has been to present live writing workshops at firms, courts, and corporations. The workshops target every facet of legal, judicial, and business writing. I have a few hundred clients and have presented more than 2,000 times. I really enjoy interacting with so many lawyers and judges around the globe.
I’ve also written several books, and I’ve created various coaching and e-learning products.
It’s a good thing I found a stellar developer for BriefCatch, because my experience with technology is limited! I did learn a lot along the way, though.
Q. What made you decide to develop BriefCatch?
The idea came from workshop attendees and the fans of my books. Over the years, people would mention how great it would be if they could catch the many style-editing triggers I would share without having to remember them all.
So that’s how it all started. Over time, I expanded the scope of what I wanted BriefCatch (back then it didn’t even have a name) to accomplish.
I also did a nationwide survey of judges that gave me many great editing ideas as well.
Q. Can you describe how BriefCatch works?
BriefCatch becomes a tab in Word. If you have a document open, you click on that tab, and then you can do one of four things: Catch (look for thousands of editing opportunities), Clear (make the suggested edits disappear), Stats (get scores on your draft), and Report (get a quick online narrative report that highlights overused words and points out strengths and weaknesses).
When you work through the Catch suggestions, editing options appear along with quick explanations. You just click on what changes you like, or ignore the ones you don’t want to make, and everything happens automatically within tracked changes.
Nothing is shared or saved. It’s all secure.
Q. Where is BriefCatch currently being used – private law firms, government or inhouse? Is it used in law schools or by law students?
Pretty much all of the above! All types of firms of all sizes. Government lawyers. In-house lawyers. Federal and state judges. Clerks. Law Students. Professors. People who aren’t lawyers at all (the edits work for nonlegal documents as well).
It’s getting a following outside North America as well. Some of the rules are designed especially for nonnative speakers.
It came out too late in the school year for law schools themselves to adopt it, but I’ve gotten inquiries about next year.
Q. Have you gathered any feedback on how the product is being used? For example, are partners using it to grade associate work or evaluate applicants’ writing samples?
One funny thing is more lawyers than I would have expected are running opposing counsel’s work through BriefCatch! And I’m also getting inquiries from in-house counsel who want to use it as a check on outside counsel’s work.
Some colleagues use the scores as a fun way to compete with one another.
Judges have told me privately that they’ve used it on briefs that seemed especially strong or especially weak.
I don’t recommend it for employment purposes, but I know that some applicants use it to finetune their resume, cover letter, and samples. And the scores do provide a quick objective look at readability.
Q. What are some of your users’ favorite BriefCatch features?
The suggestions for vivid verb to replace weak verbs and adverbs. The suggestions for varying transitions. The advanced lawyer-friendly passive-voice checker. The citation checker and the ability to spot common lawyer typos like “statue” and “trail court.” The suggestions for shortening phrases and sentences.
And the explanations that accompany the suggested changes.
Q. One of the BriefCatch features that was particularly compelling to me is the scoring capability. Can you tell us a little more about that?
I’ve always tried to make legal writing empirical. I’ve studied the work of renowned lawyers and judges to detect patterns. And I’ve long argued that you can measure many features of great writing objectively.
I also know how competitive my fellow lawyers are.
So I decided to create five scores, each of which combines different metrics: Median sentence length, average paragraph length, average word length, average syllable length, number and variety of transitional devices, percent of sentences starting with a one-syllable word, variety in sentence length and structure, frequency of legalese and wordy phrases, active voice, and so forth.
I’m the first to say that you can’t reduce writing to objective metrics alone. But the big names in legal writing (think Paul Clement, Seth Waxman, Justice Kagan, Justice Scalia, Chief Justice Roberts) all score very high indeed!
In fact, I designed the scores so that scoring in the 90s (the scores are out of 100) means that your prose style has something in common with the writing of the luminaries I just mentioned!
Q. I know that there is other software that will check a document’s style and grammar. For example, Grammerly is a non-legal specific grammar-checking app with both free and premium service, but there are also other tools designed for lawyers. What are some of BriefCatch’s unique selling points in comparison to these other s
BriefCatch offers one-stop shopping for lawyers or judges who want to improve every aspect of their drafts—from wordiness to verbs to repetition to citations—all at once.
It also has a teaching and training component. Users tell me that they learn a lot from the explanations accompanying the suggested edits.
The scores are unique. The report is unique. The style suggestions are sophisticated, with many drawn from the work of many of the greatest legal and judicial writers in history. And for many suggested changes, you get to choose from several alternative, not just one.
Q. What are your future plans for BriefCatch?
I’d like to offer a Cloud-based version for people who don’t have PCs.
I’d also like to create a separate product for non-native speakers. And perhaps one for high-school kids.
Q. Any final thoughts?
First, thanks for giving me this opportunity! And second, I’d invite people to give BriefCatch a try. You can use it for two weeks without credit card or obligation.
A good writing tech tool can make editing more active and fun.