Converting Documents to and from Word and WordPerfect

Corruption is not limited to politics, so learn what to do when your words get weird

By Daryl Teshima

Daryl Teshima is the editor-in-chief of Legal Assistant Today and Law Office Computing. He can be reached on the Internet at

Converting Documents to and from Word and WordPerfect Corruption is not limited to politics, so learn what to do when your words get weird The year 2000 problem, the Microsoft antitrust trial, the future regulation of the Internet-for most lawyers, these are all mere scenery in comparison to a much more immediate computer drama. Every day, attorneys across the country face the difficulties that come with converting documents to and from Word and WordPerfect. Whichever application one uses, converting between the two has become a fact of life and cause for more than a little actorly emoting.

Although the 1998 ABA technology survey shows that 60 percent of law firms use WordPerfect, the overwhelming majority of their clients use Microsoft Word. For many law firms, this translates into creeping Wordism. "Word Creep is 'I gotta have Word because my client uses Word,'" according to Martin Metz, manager of information services for Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison. The net effect of Word Creep is word processing schizophrenia, forcing firms to convert files frequently from Word to WordPerfect and from WordPerfect to Word. At best, it requires reformatting converted documents. At worst, the documents can corrupt and data can become lost.

Conversion does not appear at first glance to be problematic, since Word and WordPerfect do the same thing-process words. Words are just words, or so one would like to think. Although both applications can produce nearly any document a law firm needs to produce, the file format architectures for the two programs are about as compatible as cats and dogs. WordPerfect adopts a linear approach to word processing and formats text using paired codes that turn attributes on and off. Formatting is accomplished at the character level, which affords users unparalleled flexibility. WordPerfect users can format as they go.

Word takes an object-oriented approach. Whether users like it or not, Word assigns a predefined set of formatting instructions-known as a style-to each paragraph. For Word to work efficiently, formatting decisions for the document need to be created beforehand. If Word users try to format on the fly, problems can occur.

Both formatting styles have their partisans and detractors. Some praise Word for its ease of use, while others complain that Word imposes formatting decisions on users, rather than the other way around. Some find WordPerfect's formatting too user-unfriendly, but advocates praise its flexibility.

The difference between the formatting approach of the two programs does more than generate arguments among users. This difference is also the major obstacle to a perfect converter. In order for Microsoft Word to work properly, styles need to be designed before the content is added. This style creation process does not occur, however, when converting from WordPerfect. Due to the number of variables in creating documents, creating styles that will work for all documents that need to be converted is an enormous, if not impossible, task.

The Hidden Pitfall

The worst aspect of conversion is the ease with which problems can occur. The simplest way to convert WordPerfect files is to use Microsoft Word's Open command, which is found in its File menu. This command automatically triggers Word 97's built-in converter. Such an approach is easy, and initial conversion results do not look too bad. It may make users wonder what all the conversion fuss is about.

The problem with this simple approach is not due to deficiencies in Word's built-in WordPerfect converter. In fact, Microsoft's conversion filter does a good job of translating WordPerfect features to Word. The primary problem is that the converted file becomes a document without a word processor. It is no longer a native WordPerfect document, but neither is it optimized to work in Word.

WordPerfect documents converted in this fashion can have several fatal problems. For example, a DOS WordPerfect document places style definitions in the document prefix, even if the user never explicitly defined them. These styles are translated into "hidden" codes in Word and can eventually cause a variety of problems. Part of the reason is that styles in WordPerfect can include numbers, text, and fields, and such style attributes are not present in Word. Besides styles, other file architecture differences (such as WordPerfect's embedded printer definitions, paragraph numbering schemes, table of authorities, and footnotes) can trigger corruption that may render the document unusable. Microsoft has even issued an article on its online database that documents 28 known conversion incompatibilities between Word and WordPerfect. The article may be found at

Incompatibilities between Word and WordPerfect are made worse by the ill-advised practice of "roundtripping," or continually converting documents back and forth between WordPerfect and Word. Roundtripping problems escalate if firms routinely exchange and convert documents that come from clients and other firms. Users on different word processors collaborating on complex documents run a genuine risk of corrupting a critical word processing file.

"Imagine photocopying a printed page. Then copy the copy. And copy that copy. Ultimately, you won't be able to read it. Well, that's what happens with conversion," says Sherry Kappel, vice president of development for Microsystems, a Chicago-based engineering company specializing in document conversions. "The more conversions it goes through, the less reliable the file is." Conversion can be a problem; roundtripping is for the reckless.

Unfortunately, there is no test to determine if a converted document will eventually corrupt. "We assume that a document is guilty unless it is cleaned up and made innocent," says Kappel.

Curing Converted Documents

When confronted with problem word processing documents, the initial instinct for longtime WordPerfect users is to try to use WordPerfect to clean up codes. And with good reason, since WordPerfect's Show Codes feature is ideal for identifying and deleting troublesome codes.

WordPerfect's Show Codes feature is "the fundamental difference between the two programs," according to Ross L. Kodner, attorney and president of Milwaukee's MicroLaw Inc. "Word users often state that they don't need reveal codes because they have styles. Sorry, maybe they don't deal with us out in the trenches, but I've been in too many situations where a brief is due in a half hour and my margins are screwed up or my headers and footers are off. In Word, my answer is to call the judge and beg for mercy, because you're not going to fix it in time." As WordPerfect partisans are fond of pointing out, the Show Codes command and the power to search for codes allows users to reformat entire documents relatively quickly-if they know what they are doing.

The WordPerfect user who tries to "clean" or edit away codes in a Word document, however, is going to be frustrated. Even such tried-and-true methods as using the Select All command and then selecting some basic formatting codes will often not work. In fact, editing a Word document that contains conversion gremlins is the worst thing a user can do to that document. According to Kappel, users should never edit files that are possibly corrupted. Rather, if a user suspects that a document is corrupt, it is likely that the best way to save time is to start over, avoiding the Open command and using a text-only or text-and-attributes importation. "Many firms choose to ignore these warnings," she says. "Unfortunately, they plow ahead to a life of program crashes, documents that won't number or compare, and days in technical support hell."

In order to guarantee 100 percent stability for converted documents, many experts recommend going back to basics. "Sometimes the only option is to strip the document down to its shorts," says Kim Murdoch, president of Ksys consulting in Los Angeles. According to Murdoch, this means removing all proprietary formatting (and all the attendant benefits of using a powerful word processor) and saving the simplified document in a generic file format, such as ASCII.

This rather extreme solution is the only option for attorneys who rely on document comparison programs such as CompareRite. These programs perform comparisons by converting word processing files into a simplified file format such as Rich Text Format (RTF). In CompareRite, the RTF filter does not support Word 97 file formats, meaning that features such as paragraph numbering and frames get muddied in the translation. The problem becomes worse when the RTF file makes a trip back to Word. Currently, the only way to eliminate such corruption is to strip the formatting and reapply it in Word 97. Similar problems can also occur in popular document management programs such as DOCS Open by PC Docs.

Other consultants maintain that converted WordPerfect documents can be cleaned up and stabilized. Payne Consulting Group, the authors of Word 97 for Law Firms, offers a conversion add-in that is specifically designed to clean up WordPerfect files. This utility, which can be downloaded for free from Payne's Web site at, corrects more than 10 problem areas that are known to occur in converted WordPerfect documents.

Another approach is to strip out the incompatible code. Users should also avoid the easy but potentially troublesome employment of Word's Open command to open WordPerfect files. Instead, users should select the File command in the Insert menu. Doing so transfers only the content and not the hidden WordPerfect codes. A side benefit to this approach is that the binary file header, which is the place where document and template problems are stored, is also not transferred. The same result can be accomplished if users select all the text of the converted document and use the Paste Special command (Edit, Paste Special, Unformatted Text) to insert the content into a fresh new document.

For firms with thousands of legacy documents that need conversion, there are third-party consultants to expedite the process. For example, Microsystems (630-261-0111, has helped more than 80 law firms and corporate law departments convert WordPerfect documents to Word with DocXchange-a custom-tailored converter. However, this product requires extensive customization, and licensing begins at $45,000. For firms willing to outsource, however, Microsystems can perform conversions on a per-document basis at 20 cents per document.

Other consultants can be found by consulting Microsoft's Small Business Technology Consultant Page,, which will not only list consultants in a given geographic area but give users tips on finding the right consultant.

Being Aware

No matter what conversion method is employed, there is no substitute for closely examining the document for problems that occur during the conversion. For example, document attributes such as headers and footers, fonts, tabs, table borders, and so on often do not convert properly and need to be corrected. Ideally, the author of the document should be the person who examines the converted document.

Above all, the best antidote to the conversion problem is to make everyone in the law firm aware of the limitations of conversion. Scaling expectations and educating users about potential problems are the most important steps toward countering conversion issues. Recognizing that converted documents can go bad can help eliminate nasty surprises at deadline.

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