As a lawyer, you tend to pick up several power user features of Microsoft Word during all the hours spent editing long documents late into the night. However, there is a feature that is relatively unknown (even among this elite cadre of Microsoft Word users) that has the potential to considerably lower error rates and remove duplicate work.

What is this feature? It's called Combine Documents.

The problem it solves

Picture the following common scenario as a junior or mid-level transactional lawyer. You have sent out a suite of documents to all the relevant parties. Since doing so, you have updated the documents with some internal comments from your tax department and your managing partner. You then receive another party's comments on one of these documents (as a PDF comparison and a clean word version, how else?), which are mostly fine but cannot be accepted wholesale. How do you incorporate these comments in the next version of this document?

The manual approach is to (i) print out the PDF comparison you have received from the other side, (ii) mark the changes with ticks, crosses and amendments, (iii) ask a PA or junior to make those changes, and (iv) after a long wait, check those changes have been made correctly (particularly in areas there are overlapping changes between the external comments and internal updates). If you're a fast typist or short on support, you may replace step (iii) with manually typing in the acceptable changes yourself, but you'll still have to do (iv) to ensure you haven't made any typos.

The manual approach can cause delay for clients, mistakes to occur or (worse still) both. Luckily, document merging provides a better way.

Our worked example

To demonstrate the alternatives that document merging offers to this workflow, we'll use the document with Lorem Ipsum text in the lead picture of this article. After all, I don't want to receive copyright complaints for sharing pictures of a precious precedent.

The comments we have received internally (and incorporated) are:

  • Our tax department doesn't like the implications of word "lorem" and has suggested we use the word "semper" instead.
  • Our managing partner has reminded us that clause 2 isn't relevant in this type of transaction, so this has been removed.
  • Our managing partner has removed "urna lectus" from the clause that was previously numbered 3.3.3.

The comments we have received from the other party are:

  • The addition of "reasonable" and "material" in multiple places (I couldn't resist).
  • The removal of clause 3.3.3 and 3.3.4.

The quick and dirty way to use document merging

You can combine documents (in later versions of Word) by clicking the Tools menu and then Combine Documents. You will see a screen like this:

In this screen I have selected the current internal version (with the changes from our managing partner and tax department in clean) as the "Original document" and the clean word document received from the other party as the "Revised document". I have amended the labels (for ease later), but otherwise kept the default options.

When you click OK you are taken to a new document with both the internal comments and the external comments in tracks. You can now go through these comments using the review pane and accept or reject as appropriate. If you want to keep all of your internal comments without reviewing conflicts, you can deselect the external tracked changes and accept all showing changes (see screenshot below) before reviewing the external comments.

Why is this "quick and dirty"? Let's look at how this approach has handled the conflicting comments in clause 3.3:

The changes marked as internal are blue and the changes marked as external are purple. We can see that the conflicts haven't been well managed in two ways. First, the deletion of 3.3.3 and 3.3.4 looks like an Internal insertion. Second, the removal of "urna lectus" in the clause previously numbered 3.3.3 isn't shown at all.

The slightly longer approach

The conflicts haven't been well managed in the approach above because Microsoft Word hasn't been provided with the original document (before any changes were made). One approach to provide it with this information is to ensure the "Original document" and "Revised document" we give the Combine Documents tool show tracked changes from the original version circulated.

What if the comments have been provided with a comparison PDF and a clean word version, as in our example above? We can use the compare documents feature of Microsoft Word (or your favourite document comparison tool, making sure to export to track changes) to produce these documents. In Microsoft Word, this tool can be found under the Tools menu, then Track Changes, then Compare Documents.

If we use documents showing tracked changes in the Combine Documents tool, we get much better handling of conflicting changes:

Taking this approach, the worst case scenario is that we have to run two document comparisons and one document merge. Even better, this is a process task that can be delegated easily without much room for error. We are then left with a document that has all changes in track changes, ready for us to use the "accept" and "reject" buttons to incorporate the comments as appropriate (without spelling mistakes or other errors).

But my deals have more than 2 parties...

While helpful, this process would have limitations if it could only merge two documents. Luckily, this isn't the case: you can chain the process for as many documents as you want.

In our example, imagine we had a second external party that had commented to delete "arcu nec" from the clause originally numbered 3.3.1. We would chain the process by taking the merged document from the process above and merge it again with the second party's comments (making sure the comments are showing in track changes). The result is that we can see all 3 sets of comments (internal, external 1 and external 2) in different colours in track changes on the same document:

Pretty neat, huh?

**Do you know any other under used Microsoft Office features that make your work life easier? Please share them in comments and start a conversation **