General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

A service of the ABA General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Technology eReport

American Bar Association - Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice

SEP 2009

Vol. 8, No. 3



Primping Your PDFs

If you practice law today, you must be proficient with PDFs.

The Portable Document Format has decisively emerged as the standard for electronic court filing, scanning, and the digital distribution of documents. And while most people know how to create and open a PDF, the majority of legal professionals never go beyond those two tasks.

That’s a shame, because the PDF file format offers so much more for those who are willing to click into rarely visited menus. In this column, I explore a few of the easiest and most useful features that anyone can use when working with PDF files.

Creating and Viewing PDFs

Most people associate PDF with the Adobe Acrobat application, but that’s not always a necessary marriage. Adobe did indeed create the PDF file format in 1993, but they wisely and freely licensed the format so that many other applications could create and view PDF files.

To create a PDF, you can pay the premium price for a “ full version” of Acrobat, as opposed to the free Adobe Reader, which is only a viewer.

One of my favorite third-party PDF creators has always been pdfFactory from FinePrint Software. Another option is the free CutePDF Writer, which many people recommend. And lastly, there are many free online services (such as Adobe’s own that will let you upload a document and download the converted PDF. The free online services are handy when you need a PDF and you’re sitting at a computer that’s not your own.

The beauty of the portable document format is that anyone can view it. The Adobe Reader is free for anyone to download, but you can find more streamlined alternatives such as the free Foxit Reader.

Many of the tips that I address in this column are based on the functionality found in Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro, the latest version of Acrobat on the market (please also refer to my review of Acrobat 9 and my earlier review of Acrobat 8). Many of these tips can be accomplished in other versions of Acrobat as well as third-party applications, but you’ll just need to consult with the accompanying help file to see how the feature and function is different.

Archiving Websites

Most legal professionals limit their PDF creation skills to Microsoft Word or WordPerfect documents (both applications now also have built-in methods for saving files as PDFs). But a PDF can be created from any application that uses the “Print” dialog.

For example, I constantly convert websites and web pages to PDF that I want to archive and save. In many cases, the web page looks perfect and all of the links are preserved (i.e., they are “clickable” within the PDF).

Converting a web page to a PDF is a wonderful way to get a “snapshot” of the site before changes are made, or a great way to preserve a story for later reading.

Combining Multiple PDFs

The Document menu within Acrobat 9 offers a wealth of helpful options. This menu allows you to insert, replace, extract, delete, crop, and rotate pages in your PDF files.

The Insert Pages menu item is indispensable when I need to digitally glue several files together to send via email. It just seems much more efficient to send a single PDF rather than multiple files.

Bookmarking Your PDF

When I stitch multiple PDF files together, I add bookmarks on the left side to denote the beginning of each file. Not only that, but the bookmarks also serve as a clickable table of contents for my collection of files. This is an essential navigation addition in my opinion, and makes the PDF experience so much more interactive.

Bookmarks can be plain, bolded, or colored to draw attention to appropriate sections. You can also drag and drop to reorder bookmarks, as well as indent for subbookmarks.

Bookmarks can do a lot more than just take you to another page. They can open files or click to a website. Bookmarks also save the magnification or “zoom level” of a page when they are created, so they can be a nice way to call attention to a specific paragraph or table within the PDF.

All of this bookmarking goodness would be wasted if the recipient of my PDF file couldn’t see the Bookmarks panel. So to make sure the panel appears when they open the PDF, I go into the Document Properties (under the File menu), click the Initial View tab, and select the dropdown option that forces the Bookmarks panel to appear when the PDF is opened. (The Bookmarks panel can be easily hidden when necessary.)

Thumbnails Instead

If you’re not a fan of textual bookmarks, you can elect to view tiny thumbnails of each page of your PDF. That may not sound very appealing, until you realize that you can drag and drop pages to reorder them.

Links in the PDF

Links aren’t just for the Web—you can create links inside your PDF that go to a different place in the PDF, open a file, or jump to a site on the Internet. (Recall that when you PDF a website, the hyperlinks on the site remain clickable in the PDF.)

The Link Tool is found under the Tools > Advanced Editing menu in Acrobat 9. When the tool is activated, you simply draw a box around anything—text, picture, etc.—and select options from the dialog box that pops up.

The link can be indicated by a colored underline or a “visible rectangle,” depending on how much attention you want to draw to the link. You then determine whether the link jumps to another page, opens a file, or launches a website. It’s that simple.

If you have a long PDF file, such as a brief or research paper, the Link Tool allows you to link to supporting case law or online resources. If you make a reference to an appendix at the end of the PDF, for example, you can have a link that allows the reader to jump right to that section. It’s such an easy tool to use, and it’s a shame that more people don’t put it to good use.

Headers and Footers

Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect are “word processors” where you compose and edit documents. A PDF is a finished, “published” document that is not intended to be modified once it has been converted to PDF. That’s why you’re not allowed to change text easily in Adobe Acrobat.

With that said, however, it is possible to make some small changes to PDF files within Acrobat. For instance, you can easily add headers and/or footers to a PDF in Acrobat. You simply click on the Document > Header & Footer menu item and you can add a limited number of items to the top or bottom of your PDF file. (Note that this is the same tool used to apply Bates Numbers to PDF files.)

I use the header and footer tool to add page numbers to my PDF when I’ve combined several files together. You definitely have more options for adding headers and footers in Word and WordPerfect, but Acrobat’s tool is simple and easy to use when necessary.

Typewriter Tool

Again, PDFs are not meant to be edited once they’re in Acrobat, but since version 7.05 of the software, Adobe has provided an invaluable feature called the Typewriter Tool that lets you type text anywhere on a PDF file.

While you’ve always been able to create a Text Box on PDF files, it was a little bulky to use. In comparison, the Typewriter Tool lets you click anywhere to get a blinking cursor, and you just start typing.

I use the Typewriter Tool all the time when I need to fill out PDF forms sent to me. Rick Borstein from Acrobat has a great blog post describing the Typewriter Tool in a bit more detail.

Resources for Learning More

Speaking of Rick Borstein, his Acrobat for Legal Professionals blog should be mandatory reading for any legal professional that has to deal with PDF files (and that’s everyone!). Rick is a business development manager at Adobe that is solely focused on the legal market. That means his blog is dedicated to providing expert tips and information about using PDFs effectively in the practice of law.

Another fantastic resource for learning about PDFs is the PDF for Lawyers blog authored by Ernest Svenson. Ernie does a fantastic job of providing practical tips for getting the most out of the PDF file format in a law practice.

As you can see, the portable document format has a tremendous amount of functionality built into it, and willing users can easily create functional, practical documents rather than just static files. No one has time to sit and train on the more advanced options, but with just a few additional clicks, everyone can easily add a little more pizzazz to their PDF proficiency.

Brett Burney is Principal of Burney Consultants LLC ( where he focuses his time on bridging the gap between the legal and technical frontiers of electronic discovery. You can e-mail Brett at and visit his blog at

© Copyright 2009, American Bar Association.