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Google and Zoho Web-Based Tools Face Off Against Microsoft Office

Technology

Product Review

Adobe's Flashy New Conferencing Tool: Adobe Acrobat Connect

By Mark Tamminga

Adobe launches a solid new player in the online conferencing arena.

 

It's always satisfying when good software gets a lot better—and when it specifically addresses the special needs of lawyers. While lawyers are avid users of software, few mainstream products take much account of legal users as a distinct group.

Think of Microsoft's long-standing indifference to the legal market (because, in relative terms, it is small at under 5 million seats globally). That indifference contrasts markedly with companies like Corel, the maker of WordPerfect, which have treated legal professionals as a specialized market. Adobe Acrobat Professional is also a product that has specifically targeted our needs. Its new release, version 8.0, is a package that every law firm should consider purchasing.

Considering Legal-Specific Functionalities

Lawyers practice in ways in which we need to share large numbers of documents that have been generated in different ways. We need the ability to pinpoint specific references and to maintain the integrity—and often the confidentiality—of the texts. We need text to look stable and consistent when printed out for court filings. And we practice collaboratively—sometimes in teams, either with clients, colleagues or co-counsel, and sometimes sending documents to opposing counsel or adjudicators.

Fortunately, early concern about inconsistent software, or standards, has faded as the marketplace and now the courts, officially, have embraced Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) as a way of ensuring standard appearances and functionalities. These days, there can be few lawyers practicing who don't have Adobe Reader loaded on their computers.

And now Adobe has made another significant leap forward in its Acrobat Professional product, just released in version 8.0. It just got better in ways that will matter particularly to lawyers. A mainstream media criticism of the product is that it provides too rich a set of document production and document management features for most business users. Yet since legal users need just these features, we represent an ideal group to take full advantage of the innovations.

In my mind, Adobe 8.0 has seven features that would each justify purchase. Taken together, they make a compelling case for this product to be on your shopping list.

1. Conversion. We have talked for more than a decade about whether it would be possible to operate a paperless (or paper-less) law firm. One of my young colleagues, who has just joined our firm, practices in a document-intensive business specialty. With a copy of Acrobat Professional, Google's desktop search engine and a decent scanner to digitize anything that comes onto his desk in paper format, he seems set to run his practice entirely electronically.

Was this possible earlier? Certainly—but what the new Acrobat Professional offers is an ease of conversion from virtually all of the formats that we're likely to use. The software permits instant conversion of multiple files from different formats (whether documents, drawings or rich media content) into a single, polished searchable Adobe PDF package. Files can be arranged in any order regardless of file type, dimensions or orientation with the original security settings and digital signatures of each component.

I particularly like the Acrobat PDFMaker, which permits me to archive my Outlook messages (with attachments in native format) into single continuous searchable files. I gather it also works for Lotus Notes, though apparently not for GroupWise.

2. Usability. The user interface (the Adobe desktop) in version 8.0 has been made cleaner and easier to customize. At the same time, users can still employ some of the easy shortcuts—such as, for example, Control-L, which makes any Adobe document occupy the full screen.

3. Security. Adobe has significantly enhanced security with a greater facility to protect confidential information using 128-bit encryption, passwords and permissions. Security, of course, is a major concern for all lawyers, so it's nice to know that Acrobat Professional lets you digitally sign and certify documents to ensure they came from a source that's trusted.

But the new release provides other security tools, too. In recent years we've become sensitized to the need to remove metadata and other hidden information from our documents. The new version permits easy inspection of PDFs for metadata, annotations, attachments and hidden data, and it also gives you the tools to sanitize the information. Compared to the previous release, the new version overall has more sophisticated tools to control access to documents, assign digital rights, and maintain document integrity. This includes the ability to set document policies that control who can print, save, copy or modify a given file.

4. Bates numbering. For litigators, one of the strengths of the new release is that it has built-in Bates numbering for easy identification and retrieval. We now have a general program that recognizes how to apply standard (or customized with alphanumeric prefixes or suffixes) identifying labels to a batch of related documents, within headers or footers on each page of each PDF in the batch. To me, this feature is invaluable.

Note, though, that you will need to track the names and locations of the files to which you've applied Bates numbering, since you can only tell that a PDF has had Bates numbers added by opening the PDF and looking at the headers and footers.

5. Web capture. Capturing Web pages has been one of Adobe's strengths for the past few releases. As lawyers increasingly use HTML and XML files, it becomes increasingly important to be able to deploy hypertext. Acrobat Professional's extensibility means that you can embed hypertext links to Internet or local Web pages—including Flash-enabled objects.

6. Collaboration. We've long needed effective collaboration tools—after all, lawyers work in teams, within our firms, with co-counsel and especially with clients. Professional 8.0 permits anyone who has the free release of Adobe Reader 7.0 or 8.0 to add comments or corrections directly onto the document using sticky notes, stamps, highlighters, pencils, strikethroughs, call-outs and clouds. Plus, anyone with the Adobe Reader software can now also complete electronic forms offline—and digitally sign documents, too.

You're able to merge the entire team's feedback into a single PDF file to reconcile revisions. And because Adobe PDF files can be saved as Microsoft Word documents, with layout, fonts, formatting and tables retained, you can overcome Word's limitations as a collaboration tool.

7. Web conferencing. Adobe is also enabling collaboration in much more innovative ways. You can now share your desktop by Web conference and conduct a real-time review of PDF documents using a service called Adobe Acrobat Connect. Your colleagues join in by logging on to a Web-based meeting space from their own computers. The service uses Flash and a personal meeting room space for screen sharing, audio and videoconferencing, and the inevitable whiteboarding. Note that all attendees will need an Acrobat Connect account to start and attend meetings. (See page 27 for more information.)

While big firms have had their deal rooms and virtual workspaces for some time, this Adobe innovation is a democratization of the technology—and for a much more modest investment than the big firm tools. But the big firms aren't neglected either, since there's the option for using Microsoft Office SharePoint.

Bottom-Line Recommendations

So does your firm need Adobe Acrobat 8 Professional? If you've got version 7, I think that the improvements in the new version are clearly worth it for the upgrade price, especially for litigators. And if your firm has simply installed the free Adobe Reader, then I would strongly recommend that, at a minimum, you acquire a copy or two of the new Professional and give them to the litigator or paralegal in your firm whose practice requires these sorts of tools.

You can find current pricing, purchase options and system requirements at www.adobe.com.

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