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Product Review | Adobe Acrobat 7.0: A Collaboration Powerhouse

When courts speak, lawyers listen. This time, it was an announcement by the U.S. Judiciary’s Case Management/Electronic Case Files project signaling the way to a document standard for the profession.

FROM: April / May 2005, PAGE 22 BY: Simon Chester

In February, the U.S. Judiciary project ruled that e-filing, operational in 70 district courts and more than 100 bankruptcy courts, would require the use of Portable Document Format (PDF). The announcement served to definitively confirm that a standard has now emerged for permanent documents. At the center of the activity is Adobe, a company whose free Adobe Reader has been downloaded more than half a billion times and is a standard tool on virtually every lawyer’s desk.

Now Adobe has released a new version of its main Adobe Acrobat software (at www.adobe.com) with features that make it even more attractive to the legal market. Don’t think of it just as a tool to convert Microsoft Word and WordPerfect files to a neutral and stable format—there are smaller and cheaper tools to do that. For law firms, the strength of Adobe lies in its powerful enabling of client collaboration.

Here Adobe Acrobat 7.0 marks a major leap forward. In prior releases, Acrobat was a pretty good collaboration tool—but only if everyone involved had a full version of the program installed. At hundreds of dollars a license, that was a hefty ticket for most firms. And with previous releases, deep discounts started at 1,000 user seats—a threshold that excluded 99 percent of law firms.

But now Adobe has taken steps that make Acrobat collaboration feasible for every firm, in terms of both multiuser pricing and team-friendly functionality.

An Invitation to Real Teamwork

Firstly, provided that the document’s originator launches a collaborative review of an Adobe PDF file from the full version of the software, anyone—whether colleague, client or co-counsel—who has downloaded the free Adobe Reader 7.0 can participate in the review. Once they’re invited to join, reviewers have access to a commenting toolbar that permits them to edit the document and provide feedback—which can be in the form of comments, notes or highlights placed directly on the document’s text or layout. The toolbar includes a button for submitting comments back to the originator via e-mail.

Then, when the originator receives the comments, Acrobat merges the changes and comments back into the original PDF document. The real power comes when multiple reviewers each comment on a draft, and the drafter can then see everyone’s comments clearly labeled on the screen. The comments can also be exported back into Word and other types of text files.

The new Adobe has a flexible interface, with a palette of tools that make it easy to figure out the various features.

More Power to You

Although other tools like WinPDF or RoboPDF can do basic PDF conversions, the versatility of Adobe’s ways of converting files is compelling. It can suck an entire Web site onto a hard drive, or just go down a few levels, if that’s what you need. You can also mark multiple files—from completely different formats—and Adobe will batch convert them into a single PDF. I had a couple of thousand e-mails cluttering up my Outlook archive—and in 15 minutes, Adobe converted them into a fully searchable single file, from which I can extract pages as I need to in future.

One novel feature, an Organizer, helps you manage and view PDF files created over the past year. You can scroll through the files in a preview window to locate the ones you need, and then build “collections,” which are links to multiple PDF files anywhere on your hard drive or network.

You can also open, print, bookmark, combine or e-mail files directly from the Organizer. Adobe’s search engine has become much faster and can search through an entire folder with ease. As an archive manager, this feature has real potential.

Another useful development, especially from a transaction lawyer’s perspective, is that the security and access settings have been improved. Now one can grant access to comment on or even just read a document for a limited duration. This could be very valuable if proprietary material has to be exchanged in the context of a business transaction.

Can You Afford to Go Without It?

Obtaining all the tools in the full version of Acrobat 7.0 Professional will cost you $449. An upgrade from Acrobat 4.0 or higher costs $159.

The slimmed down Acrobat 7.0 Standard costs $299, or $99 for an upgrade. It’s fine for individuals or smaller firms, though it lacks production management tools (the big deal for most users).

But perhaps the best news is that Adobe has reduced the entry-level threshold for a volume license for its Elements version of basic tools, to a point that’s realistic for the legal market. By reducing the entry level to 100 seats, starting at $39 per user, volume licensing is an option for larger firms.

At the end of the day, it will be firms’ needs that shape how many copies of Adobe Acrobat they choose to order. But for all firms, at least one copy is an essential weapon in the software armory. And if simply to empower document collaboration, installing the free Adobe Reader 7.0 on every desktop is a no-brainer.

Simon Chester ( schester@heenan.ca) is a partner in the litigation and business law groups at Heenan Blaikie, in Canada, with special emphasis on knowledge management, research and legal opinions.