Technology Practice Tips Podcasts

Practical law practice technology concepts in an accessible, conversational manner with Phil Brown and David Whelan

Lawyers Working with PDFs

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Portable Document Format (PDF) is a default document format in the legal profession, whether you're downloading government documents, providing e-discovery, or just sharing with clients and counsel.  Phil and David talk about PDF tools, how to use mobile tools to capture documents and save them as PDF, and archival standards like PDF/A.
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Speaker Key:      PB Phil Brown, DW David Whelan

PB :  Hi, it's Phil Brown and I'm here with David Whelan and today we're going to talk about PDFs.

DW :  PDFs are ubiquitous in the legal world, the portable document format, which is actually kind of funny because pretty much everything is portable these days. But the portable document format is the base for a lot of information sharing. Courts and governments use it on their websites to deliver information. It's a great way to take a document that you might have created in a word processor that would change if you sent it to someone else if they opened it up in their word processor. You can fix it so that it will always look the same. And both the fonts and the pictures and the lay-out, everything will stay the same. So, it's very useful.

PB :  And it makes it a little more hard to edit. So, for instance if you sent something to a client to review, and a little word of advice you should never send a client an open Word document, or anything like that because they can clip your letter head from it and your signature block and all sorts of things and use it nefariously. Because the PDF is a locked down version of that document that you've created in a word processing program, that's the one you want to send to clients.

DW :  Right, there's a great post on the lawyerist.com site about why you should always use PDF for your final documents. And so, essentially, you can consider everything in your practice work product if it's in a Word document, not work product as evidence goes, but work product as work goes and then all your finals now are PDFs. So, when you get to the point of closing a file, you know really that you just have to go through and find all the PDFs because that's what you've been sharing with the client, that's what you've been sending to the court or to opposing counsel and now that's what you need to incorporate into your closed file.

PB :  So, it's like a snapshot, but it's not a snapshot.

DW :  Right. It can also capture a lot of information about the file so that if you put metadata into your Word documents that metadata can get transferred over into your Adobe Acrobat or your PDF files. And I just made the terrible slip that we were talking about earlier. Adobe Acrobat is almost synonymous as you can tell from the way I said it with PDF. Because Adobe developed the format and the Adobe Acrobat Reader is ubiquitous. Practically everywhere I think I've seen a reader, they use the Acrobat Reader. But they also are the creators of the Adobe Acrobat product, which is different from the reader. It costs money and allows you to edit or create PDFs. And so when you're dealing with PDFs you really have a lot of tools that you can use to work on them. And Adobe Acrobat is just one of those.

PB :  And the PDF is the cornerstone of the paperless office.

DW :  Absolutely, yes. I mean if you really want to be able to share documents, you don't have to worry about whether the person has Word or Word Perfect or what version they have and how the document will look on the other end. You can be almost 100% confident that the document they get will be something they can open.

PB :  And you mentioned metadata and metadata is created whether you want to or not with a Word document it tells when that document was created and which machine it was created on and at what time it was modified and any number of key words might be pulled from that document and incorporated in the metadata. And a lot of that is removed automatically when you convert it to PDF but you can also remove more.

DW :  Right. And so, that gives you the option then of when you create your PDFs to have as little metadata transported over from a document. So, if you're reusing a precedent you don't want to have metadata that may reflect on the other clients that you've used that precedent for. So, the PDF can help you to clear that out. And the PDF can also have information so that when you have to use it later or other people need to use it, it's easier to find it so you can add keywords or descriptions or properties in the same way you would with a Microsoft Word document.

PB :  And that is one of the beauties of the PDF is you're able to tag all sorts of unique information within it. So, if it's about forensic information, you might put in a forensic keyword or a file keyword or there's a number of things you can put in there. Maybe it's forensic and blood spatter and when you go and do your sort of global searches throughout your stored information you're going to be able to pull up these specific documents.

DW :  That's right. That's particularly useful if you have scanned in the document. And so, the document doesn't actually exist as text. You know, you have created it from a word processor, if I scan it directly in and I don't bother to do any character recognition on it, then it's really just an image. So, although I can read the words if I open up the file, the computer can't read the words because it doesn't know the words in the image mean anything. So, adding metadata particularly to scanned files that are on the images can make those PDFs very rich.

PB :  And maybe while we're talking about scanning, a number of scanners actually come with a program that's a reader or an editor as well.

DW :  Right, you can save a tonne if you find a bundle of Adobe Acrobat, the actual Acrobat editor, with a scanner you can save an awful lot on the overall licence to that software.

PB :  Now Adobe like many other companies is starting to go to a cloud model so you don't get a big box of software anymore if you were to buy the full Adobe Pro or whatever you would get a Creative Cloud license and you'd be paying by the month for that service and you get it automatic updates and things like that.

DW :  It's one of the reasons why I think the cloud's a rip-off. In the old days, you used to have a shelf full of all the old software that you either didn't implement or hadn't implemented in a long time. And now you don't get anything for your shelf.

PB :  You don't get any for your shelf, but you do get regular and automatic updates for your software, which in the old days when you paid $600 or $500 for a chunk of software, you didn't want to spend that again the next year to get your updates for the next version. And you usually didn't know what the big updates were anyway.

DW :  Right. Yeah and it's important to keep the software up to date. So, it's important to understand where you might be able to create or modify PDFs and the kinds of software that you use. Phil and I were talking about a couple of different areas and really I think it's fair to say they fall into the reader category, the writer category or the printer category, and the editor category. Do you want to talk about the reader?

PB :  Sure. So, readers, a PDF reader, there are a number of open source ones. And then of course there's the Adobe Reader and the Adobe Reader comes with just about every device out there. If you're using a laptop you probably have some version of Adobe Reader on it. Or if you're using a tablet, probably has a version of Adobe Reader. And it just enables you - a lot of browsers now come with an add-on so you can just read a PDF file or open it up on your browser and you're able to read it. You're just not able to edit any of those files necessarily with the reader versions. And as I said there's open source versions as well, not just Adobe; there's lots of other players in the game.

DW :  Yeah. Sumatra's a nice one. It's kind of ugly but it's a good open source one. I think the real benefit on the reader side because it is such a baseline, is the ability for people to be able to sign a document or PDF from within the reader. So, if you're looking at readers or whether your client has a particular reader and you're sending them a PDF to sign just be aware that in Adobe Reader you can do it, in Nitro PDF Reader there are ways to attach a digital signature, whether it's a picture of a signature or a little digital stamp or finger drawing on a tablet. That's one of the real benefits of the readers.

PB :  And the writers and editors are more robust.

DW :  Yes, the writers actually, it used to be a big deal to get a PDF writer but now it's built into the Microsoft operating system. So, that if you're ready to save your file, your PDF, and send it off to your client, you just do file save as and choose PDF format instead of .docx and it will generate a PDF file that's new and different from your .docx file, with the same contents but with all the information that you got in at that time. So, the writer really is something you can do file print as.

PB :  And they're also smaller files and take up less space.

DW :  Yes, yeah they'll be compressed over the Word doc. And they're useful too - I just misspoke, what I meant to say was file "save as" in Word. But if you have a printer installed, again I use Nitro PDF, but there are lots of them out there. Many free PDF printers when you go to a website or when you go to something else that doesn't have a "save as" capability into PDF then you just do file print and you print directly to your PDF printer and then you end up with a PDF of whatever the website is or whatever you're looking at.

PB :  And a lot of programs also have an export option as well.

DW :  Yeah.

PB :  Where you would export that document as a PDF.

DW :  Yeah, there's some really interesting tools. And we're going to talk about editors in just a second. But I think there's some other useful ones. One I wanted to mention because it's similar to, although not as powerful as the functionality in the Adobe Acrobat Editor, is something called PDF SAM. And if you Google PDF Sam, it's an open source tool that uses Java, which I'm not really thrilled about, but it allows you to split and merge, that's what the SAM is in PDF Sam. So, you can split and merge an PDF. So, if you receive a PDF you can split it into multiple pages or into parts so that if you only want to share or keep a couple of pages you can do that. Or if, for example, you're doing an expense report and you have multiple receipts from somewhere you can merge them into a single PDF. If you're closing a file, you can merge them into a single closed file for your client.

PB :  Sure. And just before you talk about editors I wanted to mention a lot of tablets and phones now you can download a program for scanning documents. And it's great for things like receipts and other documents, where you can actually just take a snapshot of it; it's immediately converted into a PDF. It's framed. Even if you did it crooked, it will be framed up nicely by the app and there's a number of apps for your phones that are a buck, two bucks, three bucks. And there's free ones as well. But you can convert something, a snapshot of something on a tablet and convert it to a PDF and export it to a client if you need to. And they can presumably sign it and send it back to you.

DW :  Yeah, it's great. I keep my office paperless that way. I use Microsoft Office Lens, which is free on Android and also Genius Scan, both of them are great. Genius Scan is actually a paid app, although I'm so cheap I think I got it free. [laughs] so, editors.

PB :  Yeah, let's talk about editors. What's the difference between an editor and a reader?

DW :  An editor will allow you to read a PDF but it will also allow you to actually make changes to it. So, say I saved a document out of Microsoft Word and I open it up in my PDF reader and I see that there's a typo, I could go back into a Microsoft Word, make the change and do the "save as" again, or now I can go into my Adobe Editor, my Adobe Acrobat Editor. And I think it's called Adobe Acrobat DC now for the latest iteration, the one that sort of quasi-cloud. And I could actually click on the word and use the tools inside it to change the letter from the typo to the correct. So, there's an awful lot of extra functionality built into it. Not just things where you're dealing with the text, but you can add forms, you can create what's called in Adobe it's, only in Adobe Acrobat, portfolios where you bring in a bunch of different PDFs or video or audio into a single PDF file. So, it allows you to do some really fantastic things within the document.

PB :  And if you're worried about a client having a PDF editor on their desktop and altering your document, you should know you can also lock down that PDF so it's a read-only version and it cannot be edited no matter what.

DW :  You can even go beyond that, you can stop cutting and pasting, you can stop printing. I will say, and I won't tell you where I heard it, but there are ways to get around those sorts of restrictions. But I don't know if there's a way to get around a password if someone has just locked down the cutting and pasting. There are ways to get around that. But it really gives you some excellent options. Another thing is the bookmarks or the index, the Table of Contents that's generated with the PDF. If you're in Microsoft Office it will often generate that for you if you're using Microsoft Office styles. But if you're in the document and say you've got 12 exhibits you've all put together into a PDF after your factum. Now you can create that Table of Contents within the PDF editor so that when someone else opens it up they have a nice Table of Contents on the side so they don't have to just page through and see what you have, they can very quickly see all if it in one little screen.

PB :  So, the last thing we can talk about is maybe a bit about archival PDFs and the differences.

DW :  Yeah, there's a long-term concern about how to hold onto these digital files. I mean we were talking on a recent podcast about the yottabyte and whether a practitioner will have all of his or her files on a single disc for his or her entire career. So, how long do you keep these files and what sort of format are you going to keep them in? If you've got old Word Perfect files you're probably already struggling to be able to open them in anything. PDFs will have a longer life and then in the PDF world there are the archivists who are worried about PDF/A and I know you're an expert on PDF/A.

PB :  Maybe not an expert. But PDF/A is something that came in, as David said, to archive documents and still be able to retrieve them a number of years later and I think the standard they were shooting for was six years. And the question is if you save something now in a particular format and you mentioned one product, WordPerfect, some of those documents you can't open now because you may have had an older version that it was created in, you don't have any version now in trying to open it in Word. You will might be able to open it but you might lose a lot of the formatting and possibly some of the content. So, the goal with PDF/A was to come up with something you could open six years from now and wouldn't lose any data. You'd still be able to read it in the form it was saved in and so on.

DW :  The funny thing is I talked to the Law Society archivist about this and he said that there's a real split of opinion over whether that's good because you do lose some of the functionality that makes the PDF useful like embedded links and things like that in order to get that longer preservation. So, even in the real nitty-gritty world they're not 100% sure about how to do it.

PB :  And that's why they've continued to work on versions, a PDF/A version 3, which has a much longer name is the latest iteration of PDF/A and you are able to embed links and things like that within it and images and all sorts of things that you weren't able to do in version one. And there was a bit of a transition through PDF/A2. And I think we'll see a fourth version and a fifth version and so on because archivists are always tweaking with the next piece. And now it's a six year standard. But more and more law firms and libraries and so on are archiving material digitally and I think you're going to look at, because of the cost of physical storage is so high now, more law firms will be struggling to convert to paperless. And they don't want their data to disappear. And they still want to be able to recover it if they have to protect themselves from a lawsuit 10 years from now.

DW :  So, if you're not using PDF, now's a great time to start using it in your practice and hopefully we'll have outlined some of the tools that you'll be able to use.

PB :  Thanks very much David.

DW :  Thanks Phil