It’s obvious to say that just like so many other industries, CD-ROM installed legal software like Essential Forms Judicial Council forms software have mostly given way to cloud-based design. From legal practice management to time & billing software, legal professionals are benefitting from tools that help them better take on the challenges of scaling their business in a hyper-competitive market.

There is one area that has been left behind: California Judicial Council forms software.

This public library reference to Martin Dean’s Essential Forms software published in 1997 reads like something out of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA:

Martin Dean’s Essential Forms Notes:


Updated semiannually.

“Software that creates ‘filled in’ Judicial Council Forms.”

Description: 1 computer optical disc ; 4 3/4 in. + user’s guide

But Essential Forms isn’t relegated to sit alongside the Apple Newton or the Brother Word Processor I in a museum. It’s still a widely used software tool for legal professionals. If only it were cloud-based.

At a recent conference, Al Stoll, a personal injury and employment law attorney in San Francisco, said,

“We just moved our firm’s technology stack to the cloud, but what am I supposed to do about Essential Forms?”

Good question, Al.

To answer the question – What advantages would a cloud-based CEB Essential Forms solution have for legal professionals? – we sat down with lawyers and paralegals in California and conducted more than 30 hours of interviews.

Here are five things we learned:

A cloud-based Essential Forms would work on any operating system.

In the 1990s Mac users were a pretty niche market. Designers and graphic artists? Check. Universities and educational institutions? Mac home turf. Lawyers, on the other hand, were not one of Apple’s first market segments. That’s all changed since then. Now, many lawyers prefer Mac over PC, both for its user-friendliness and in no small part due to Apple’s genius ability to swaddle us all up into an incredible ecosystem of phones, tablets, and wearables that work so nicely together.

When it comes to using a PC-based software like Essential Forms legal software, Mac users tell us it’s a full-time job just to get started. I’ll spare you the gory details, but if you haven’t set up parallel environments using third party software like VMWare Fusion, know that it’s time-consuming, frustrating and offers no guarantee that it will work as expected.

Not only is setting up the dual environments difficult, but it can still require doing a bunch of PDF gymnastics to make the forms work correctly. Many give up, deciding not to use Essential Forms at all, and end up filling PDF documents manually. Manually completing court forms is time-consuming and can increase the possibility of errors.

So, lawyers said, if they’re going to use a cloud-based Essential Forms; one of the most significant advantages would be that it would work natively on Mac.

It would let you pick up right where you left off.

Another clear benefit to a cloud-based Essential Forms legal software would be the ability to pick up exactly where you left off.

Here’s what one family lawyer from Los Angeles said about this:

“It would save time because I could pick up from anywhere and I wouldn’t have to redo the work. I think that’s the most attractive thing about a cloud-based CEB Essential Forms software.”

It’s clear from these interviews that one of the most considerable advantages of web-based software is that you can access it from any computer. If you’re anything like the California legal professionals that provided feedback from these interviews, then there’s a good chance you have more than one computer.

Many lawyers we interviewed expressed frustrations about losing work they had already started because they had to finish something pressing from their home computer or laptop, while the original project was on a desktop at work.

The risk of losing work can also apply to firms that rely on a team of people working together to handle the workload. We heard over and over how one person in the firm would often start a project and another would jump in to finish it or make changes. That’s straightforward using a cloud-based design that synchronizes edits between users. With desktop software, unless you set up server level software, it’s another story.  

Sure, you could install Essential Forms software on two separate machines, but how would you sync them so the projects you started on one matched where it was on the other? We heard problematic workarounds, such as purchasing the software for different computers and then trying to set up some tool like Dropbox to try to figure out a way to sync between devices. Many expressed that they were never able to get this to work correctly.

A cloud-based Essential Forms would not only provide legal professionals with the convenience to use the software in a way that more closely matched their on-the-go lives, but it would also avoid loss of precious time by eliminating the need to recreate projects. Additionally, it would give their entire team a platform to maximize productivity and ultimately handle a more significant workload using the same resources.

A web-based tool could improve usability through good design.

When it comes to software, good design is not just about aesthetics. Think about your favorite phone apps that you use on a daily basis in your personal life. Many of them are designed to do one thing well, and the user interface is optimized to help you do that thing in the least number of possible steps. Good design has one of the most significant impacts on usability.

As Dieter Rams, the great industrial designer explained:

“Good design is as little as possible. Less, but better, because it concentrates on the essential aspects, 
and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.”

The ability to improve usability through design has increased so much since Essential Forms was first published. The problem with software like Essential Forms is that they haven’t moved to a cloud-based platform or changed anything significant about their design to take advantage of improving their user experience through updated design.

Here’s what an attorney in Westlake Village said about a user-friendly cloud-based interface:

“By using a cloud-based Essential Forms, we could reduce our time to create forms by a lot. Partially because it could be much easier to use than the cumbersome products we’ve used in the past.

I think there are two ways we would save time – the actual construction of the form could be up to 50% faster and our accuracy would be higher. But I think we would save even more time than that in teaching other people in our firm how to use it. Even people that are afraid of keyboards could complete forms on a cloud-based platform.”

One common theme existed among legal professionals interviewed: One of the most important things about having a cloud-based Judicial Council forms software would be to have the confidence that it would be easy to implement and easy to learn.

The value for them is that software that is approachable will have the most significant impact on their practices, especially for the fact that more people will use it more often. One person in the firm that is an expert on a particular software is helpful. Finding software that the entire firm can use starting on day one is game-changing.

It wouldn’t lose the work you’ve already done.

The most important rule about using desktop software? Save often.

Some of the most painful stories legal professionals talked about during interviews, were how awful it felt to lose hours of work when desktop software crashed or they inadvertently closed it before saving. The software failures often resulted in lost time and effort.

To make matters worse, lawyers said, in practice areas like family, estate planning or probate law there are cases were tight turnarounds for emergency filings are necessary. The urgency in these types of matters leaves no room for mistakes or lost data. In those cases, software failings become more than an annoyance. They result in lost business and money.

Cloud-based tools eliminate lost data thanks to features like auto-save and online backups. They also benefit busy legal professionals because the responsibility of doing it is taken on by the talented computer programmers building the software. Cloud hosting services are so robust and redundant these days that you would have to spend a fortune to replicate that stability in your own office.

It could connect easily to other tools.

Remember Al Stoll from earlier in this post?

“We just moved our firm’s technology stack to the cloud, but what am I supposed to do about Essential Forms?”

Al’s not alone. It’s not unrealistic to expect that within the next five years all the legal software available will be cloud-based. It’s fair to say we’re almost there. And with all of those tools to store client information, capture time spent for billing purposes, and streamline billing itself; we’re going to need to make sure those systems can easily talk to each other.

Cloud-based tools often have simple interfaces called APIs that allow other online software providers to develop useful integrations with them. Clio is an excellent example of this. They have a wide range of integration partners that connect using their API to offer users access to things from marketing automation tools to smartphone usage tracking for billing purposes. The point is that combining two cloud-based technologies through an API is a tried and true practice that will only continue to improve over time.

Connecting the desktop version of Essential Forms to another online tool through an API is not doable. Because of that, tools like Essential Forms must become cloud-based to help legal professionals realize the full benefits of the rest of their online technology portfolio. When all of your client data is in a web-based CRM or online firm management software, it’s reasonable for you to expect that you won’t have to input data twice. And, unless there’s a cloud-based alternative to Essential Forms, there’s not much hope for that.

It’s a real thing.

If parts of this post resonated with you and have left you wishing there was a cloud-based Essential Forms-like tool, we have good news. After countless interviews and feedback from legal professionals, we decided to build one. If you’re still hoping to move your firm to the cloud, now you know you’ll be able to add a cloud-based California Judicial Council forms software to your technology quiver.