How to Build Electronic Briefs

By Brett Burney

You can put an “e” in front of just about anything today and label it a revolution. Consider what e-mail has done for client communication. Look at how e-discovery has transformed litigation practices. So why not create an “e-brief”—an electronic brief?

The concept may sound a bit intimidating at first. After all, we’re comfortable with the process of creating a brief where the end product is a half-inch stack of paper. A hefty pile of paper is a satisfying showcase of valuable hours and hard work.

An e-brief, however, offers many advantages over its physical counterpart. For starters, the e-brief can save a lot of paper. While a thick stack of paper may provide a sense of accomplishment, it won’t necessarily endear you to the court clerk or judge.

E-briefs also make use of navigational aids that allow you to jump to specific sections as easily as you click around a website. This can include clickable links from the body of the brief that immediately jump to the text of a citation or reference in a transcript. This means the clerk or judge who’s reading your brief has more time to focus on your argument because there’s no need to stop and pull up a case or hunt for the transcript attached to the back of your brief.

Creating an e-brief, however, does take a little extra work and planning—not so much because of the technology involved, but because of an unfamiliarity with using the technology properly.

PDF Power
Fortunately, most lawyers already have the basic tools needed to create a simple but effective e-brief. The file format that makes an e-brief possible is the Portable Document Format (PDF)—the same file format that many of us use to send documents via e-mail or electronically file documents in courts.

This article will focus on creating a basic e-brief. The PDF file format is so flexible and powerful that it can even include pictures, video, and audio in addition to text. And although including a video clip from a deposition in an e-brief is an excellent idea, it takes a little more coverage than could be provided in this article. When you’re ready to do that kind of work, you should probably enlist the services of a professional. This article will concentrate on creating an e-brief with the tools you already have.

Converting Your Documents to PDF
The first tool you should have is a full version of Adobe Acrobat (, preferably the Professional version rather than the Standard (although either will work for this exercise). There are other tools on the market that can create e-briefs, but Acrobat will be the focus here.

The full version of Acrobat allows you to create PDF files from Microsoft Word or practically any other application on your computer. Because you’ll probably be using Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect to type your brief, you’ll need to “print” that document to a PDF file.

Case law can be downloaded as a PDF file from virtually any legal research service—either via a built-in tool or by printing the case to PDF. Deposition transcripts or other text files can be converted to PDF files through the same print function.

I recommend putting all your PDF files in a single folder with short file names, preferably without any spaces or punctuation. You might even consider naming the files as 01…, 02…, 03…, etc., so that you can see at a glance the order in which the files should be combined later.

PDF files that are created digitally through the print function in a software application are going to look much, much better than scanned paper documents. A Microsoft Word document that is printed to PDF will also be full-text searchable.

A paper document that is scanned to PDF can certainly be used in an e-brief, but the file size will be much bigger, its appearance will be slightly marred, and you will have to run the document through an optical character recognition (OCR) engine to make it searchable. You may also need to experiment with different scanning resolutions and color settings in order to get a scanned document to look its best and OCR accurately. (For more on formatting, file size reduction, OCR, and other options when scanning documents to PDF, see the article “Acrobat: The Solo and Small Firm Litigation Tool” .)

If you plan to create a PDF digitally but find that one page requires a handwritten signature, consider printing, signing, and scanning only that single page. Convert the rest of the document to PDF digitally.

Some people will argue that it’s much easier to print everything out, put everything in the proper order, and then have it all scanned in toto. And while I do see the advantages of keeping everything in order, the advantages of having digitally created PDFs outweigh them.

Combining PDFs
The next step in creating an e-brief is to combine the PDFs that you’ve collected in your folder. There are several ways to do this. Advanced users can create a PDF Portfolio in Acrobat version 9 (formerly called a PDF Package in Acrobat version 8). A less-complex solution (which is perfectly acceptable) is to digitally glue all of the PDF documents together to create one large file. If your brief gets too big or unwieldy, you might consider keeping the PDFs as individual files and asking for some help.

If you open your first PDF in Acrobat, you can click Document > Insert Pages, which will allow you to select another PDF file and insert it after the last page of your current document. You can continue this process until all of the documents have been added.

An easier method was recently described by Rick Borstein in his excellent blog, “Acrobat for Legal Professionals” ( Borstein walks you through the process of clicking File > Create PDF > Merge Files. That command will bring up a dialog box that allows you to organize the PDF files before creating the single PDF to hold all of those files.

Bookmarking Your E-Brief
An under-used feature in Adobe Acrobat is the bookmark, which can be thought of as a table of contents or a tabbed index that appears on the left side of a PDF file. A PDF bookmark is a type of link that lets you click directly to a specific section in the PDF file, much like a tab lets someone jump to a specific section in a paper notebook.

To see the Bookmark Panel, click View > Navigation Panels > Bookmarks. The panel will be blank if there are no existing Bookmarks in the PDF.

If you combined your assorted PDFs using the method described by Borstein in his blog, above, a bookmark will automatically be created for each separate PDF that you added to your list. Also, if you used certain “styles” when typing your brief in Microsoft Word, Acrobat will automatically create bookmarks from those styles, which can be very helpful.

If you combined your assorted PDFs by using the Document > Insert Pages command, you’ll need to manually create bookmarks for each PDF file.

Creating a bookmark in Adobe Acrobat is a simple process. The first step is to navigate to the page or section that you want to be the destination of the bookmark. For example, you can navigate to the first page of a document that you added and then hit Ctrl-B (or click the Option button in the Bookmarks Panel); this will create a new, blank bookmark entry in the left panel where you can type in the text for the name of the bookmark. Now if you scroll away from that page, you can jump right back to it simply by clicking the bookmark in the left panel.

You can create as many bookmarks as you need. You can even nest bookmarks under a major topic, which can further enable easy navigation of your e-brief.

You can change the name and color of each bookmark by right-clicking on the bookmark and going to Properties.

To ensure that your recipients will see the bookmark panel by default when they open your PDF, go to File > Properties > Initial View. Under the Navigation Tab, you’ll need to click the drop-down box and select “Bookmarks Panel and Page” to make sure the Bookmarks Panel appears by default whenever the PDF is opened. Think of it as making sure your paper notebooks are complete with tabs sticking out from the edge.

Bookmarks are fantastic and in my opinion should be used for every PDF that has multiple documents—they’re the best way to provide a table of contents for your PDF files.

But if you want to take another step toward making your e-brief truly interactive, you can embed links into your PDF. Links are very similar to bookmarks in that they can jump you to another section of text, but instead of showing up on the left panel, links are embedded into the PDF similar to hyperlinks that appear on the Internet.

Links are used to jump to another section of the PDF, such as a specific paragraph in supporting case law or a question-and-answer pair in a deposition transcript. If you create links in your e-brief, your reader can click directly to the citation instead of having to stop and look it up manually.

If you created your PDF by digitally converting it from Microsoft Word, you can simply scroll and highlight the text in your PDF where you want to create a link (scanned documents will need to be OCR’d before you can select any text). As Borstein outlines in his blog, you can right-click the text you’ve highlighted and then select “Create Link” from the pop-up menu.

The next step is to dictate the appearance of the link. Borstein recommends making the “Link Type = Visible” with the “Line Style = Underline.” You can experiment to find the most appropriate appearance settings for your e-brief. Borstein also points out that the appearance settings are “sticky,” meaning that you won’t have to choose these settings again for every link—they will appear by default.

The last step is to navigate around your e-brief until you find the section that you want to be the destination of the link. When you’re there, select “Set Link” to establish the destination.

Because creating all of these links requires a little time and effort, you might assign the task to a staff member or hire someone on a temporary basis to create the links.

To make changes to the links you’ve created, you can right-click on the links, although you might need to activate the Link Tool accessible from Tools > Advanced Editing menu.

You may never have considered filing an e-brief, but more and more courts are accepting such creatures, and a few select courts are starting to insist on their use. Trial Brief Pro, a company that creates e-briefs, provides a very helpful page with a list of courts that accept e-briefs and their individual requirements:

It is very important to test out your e-brief before you send it to the court. And test it on a “fresh” computer, meaning a computer that has not been used to create the original e-brief. Creating an e-brief may require several attempts before it can be considered “finalized.”

Lastly, if you’re interested in submitting an e-brief but not interested in taking the time to create it yourself, you can inquire with a few of these select vendors that provide an e-brief service:

The e-brief is the e-volution of the brief. Don’t get left behind.
  • Brett Burney is principal of Burney Consultants LLC ( and focuses his time on bridging the chasm between the legal and technology frontiers of e-discovery. He also provides skilled trial technology support to a wide range of clients. He may be reached at

Copyright 2010

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