Working with Acrobat®
in a Law Practice

By Anne Steele

In contemporary legal practice, most documents aren’t produced in paper form until all revisions and comments have been resolved. This means that we have to store, secure, transmit, revise, and mark up documents in an electronic format before we send them to the printer to produce paper, which then can be signed with a pen and filed in the appropriate location. Many practitioners still produce paper at every step, probably due to inertia if nothing else, even though they realize that there is a real inefficiency in such practice. To emphasize that feeling, even that final paper step soon may be going away for many practitioners, with the development of electronic signatures, electronic notarizations, and electronic filing.

In this new world of electronic documents, lawyers have many concerns. We worry about attorney-client confidentiality, accuracy, filing deadlines and statutes of limitations, locating a specific document when it is needed, file retention, and the effective implementation of the new media (sound, video, Internet, etc.). These are real concerns, with real implications for our practices.

Into this developing environment comes a program that most people are already using, at least passively: Adobe Acrobat. An Acrobat Reader is included in virtually all operating systems. The latest version is freely downloadable from numerous websites. Many people use it without even knowing what program is being utilized. More and more websites are using .pdf documents for download. For example, cases, briefs, and calendar information from the U.S. Supreme Court website come out in .pdf format.

Acrobat is the default image format in Mac OS X. The former competitors to Acrobat have all but disappeared. The basic format is becoming, and may even now be, ubiquitous. However, the Acrobat program is so much more than a passive “reader” that its use on a much more extensive scale should be seriously investigated by all lawyers.

Now available in version 6.02, Acrobat® is sold in both Standard and Professional versions. Both versions allow you to do the following (italicized items especially important for lawyers):

One-button Adobe PDF file creation from Microsoft® Office applications
128-bit encryption and password protection for increased document security
3 .
Review management and commenting tools
4 .

Ability to combine document types from various applications into one Adobe PDF file

The Professional version allows the following additional functions:

One-button Adobe PDF file creation from AutoCAD®, Microsoft Visio, and Microsoft Project (Windows® only)
Electronic forms creation
3 .
Support for document layers in technical drawings
4 .
Enhanced tools for printing, viewing, and navigating of large-format documents
Built-in preflighting tools for print production

In addition, you can output documents from a scanner directly into Acrobat format, to appear exactly (or as close to exact as your scanner will allow) as the original, without changing the document’s appearance.

Because our practices can vary in how we use documents, I’ll give some examples of how Acrobat can be used. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but only uses that I have personally explored and utilized.

In one example, a lawyer drafts a document in Microsoft Word. He then wants to send it to another lawyer or a client for review and comment. Instead of sending the Word document, he creates and transmits an Acrobat version. The recipient cannot change the basic document, but he can insert comments, which can consist of notes, text selections, crossed out text, even voice comments, and then he can return it to the sender. In fact, this Acrobat document could go to several people, with each person’s comments individually identified. When everyone is finished, the original document remains with everyone’s comments now included. The lawyer can then use these comments to create the final version. At this stage it could be printed out. However, today this document could be sent out for electronic signatures, and Acrobat versions of the final signed document could then be stored on the appropriate computers.

In litigation, an attorney receiving a large number of documents as a result of discovery offers a good example. Formerly, they would be stamped or otherwise coded for purposes of retrieval. After that, someone in the office would have to create some sort of index to find specific documents. With Acrobat, the documents would all be scanned into Acrobat files. They would then be processed to create ASCII. If there is time or the personnel, Acrobat allows manual “bookmarking” of text or pages and linking of appropriate text, picture, audio, or video for quicker retrieval. In trial preparation, the lawyer could “comment” in any way that might be helpful. Acrobat can even create a comment report, which could be used as a guide to locating specific documents for specific issues.

At deposition or trial, the lawyer can search all documents for a specific word or phrase. Unfortunately, Acrobat doesn’t allow Boolean searches as yet. The search function in Acrobat allows the location of Acrobat documents within personally defined limits. The search could be in just one file, or it could be anywhere on any hard drive connected to the computer, though this will take longer. The search is limited to Acrobat files, but it will find ASCII within those documents if they have been processed to create the ASCII.

Another use for Acrobat is as a substitute for Microsoft PowerPoint. It isn’t as complicated, and doesn’t have all of the features, but one can combine a variety of documents, order them, imbed audio or video files if needed, all in a very short time.

Another use I have found for Acrobat is to preserve “perfect” documents in my file. When I prepare a document, which will be printed exactly as created in the word processing program and won’t have any writing on it, I will save the page or pages in Acrobat format. This eliminates any “corruption” caused by paper, scanner, or copier, in short, in “perfect” condition, in case it needs to be printed out again in the future. This also eliminates the need to scan and create ASCII files from my work product.

For those who get interested in Acrobat, the current question is should it be Standard or Professional. For most lawyers, the deciding issue is whether they will need to create forms. You really don’t need either one to fill in already created forms, which are becoming more plentiful. However, if you have a form you create, or one, which you use, but no one else has developed, you will need to use Professional. The current version forms tools make forms creation quite efficient, and even allow some basic mathematical functions to be incorporated. Also, I have found errors in some already created Acrobat forms. With Acrobat Professional I am able to use the forms tool to recreate the forms so that they work properly.

Another interesting and useful feature in the current version is the ease with which Acrobat documents can be downloaded onto a Palm device. I personally use this to keep up on recent appellate cases. They come in through a web page. I print the web page to Acrobat. Then I push the “Send to Palm” button on the Acrobat toolbar. The next time I sync the Palm, the case is downloaded to the Palm so that I can read them whenever I have time.

I have been using Acrobat for about 10 years, and have seen it develop from one of several imaging options now to become the most used program in my computer. There is almost nothing that doesn’t call out for the use of Acrobat. It is just so much easier to transmit a document in Acrobat, than in any other format. In addition, I now keep all archival documents in Acrobat format, secure in the knowledge that they will be accessible for many years into the future.

Anne Steele is a practicing lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area concentrating in the areas of estate planning, probate, and trust law.

Editor's note: The ABA has just published The Lawyer's Guide to Adobe Acrobat, by David Masters. For more information, please visit the ABA Store


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