Legal Research the Digital Way: How to Copy Text from PDFs (Pain-Free)

Can a “paperless office” really be achieved?  Maybe not.  But the digital office is very possible.  For me, it’s been a reality for more than five years.  Every element of my legal practice is digital–I even save my legal research in PDF.  When I posted about the reasons that I prefer to download legal research to PDF, I got a lot of interesting feedback and lots of questions about how to implement a digital office. 

One comment in particular caught my attention because (1) it raised a great point about a particular annoyance when downloading research; and (2) the annoyance is really easy to fix. Ernie Svenson, who writes two great blogs, Ernie the Attorney and PDF for Lawyers, agreed that PDF is the way to go when downloading research.  But he did have one reservation.  Here’s Ernie’s comment:

I COMPLETELY agree! First, I agree that Ray Ward is a wonderful writer and a very thoughtful person. But, I had the same reaction to his suggestion of saving research in .doc or .wpd format.

Why would anyone save research in an editable format? The only valid concern I’ve heard is the idea that it’s a little trick to copy text when the case is in dual column format. My practice is to tweak the output settings when the PDF is created; so I pick ‘print in single column’ format when I have LEXIS or Westlaw output to PDF. That makes it easier to read, and easier to copy text.

The point Ernie makes is an excellent one.  If you haven’t yet begun saving your research to PDF from online databases, such as Lexis or WestLaw, you may not have had this experience.  For those of us who have, it’s more than a little annoying. 

From the PDF version of the case, you can copy text and paste it into a Word document to save the hassle of retyping it.  (This is one of the reasons why some lawyers favor the Word version over the PDF–so they can copy and paste the text.)  Truth be told, you can copy and paste it from Word, too.  But, if you just select text (the blue text in Figure 1, below has been selected using the Select tool), and paste it into a word-processing application, such as MS Word, you’ll get the result shown in Figure 2.

clip_image002Figure 1




image Figure 2

When you copy and paste text from the PDF, it retains all of the line breaks as manual paragraph returns.  So, unless you can place the copied text in the same format, column width and all, as the original document, you’ll have to go through and manually delete all of the hard returns.  (Or use the Find and Replace feature in Word, which still requires some effort). 

So Ernie’s solution is to download the case in single-column format–as opposed to dual column like I did above–and avoid a lot of this headache.  But there’s another, even better solution.  (Better only because it’s more flexible–it works even with a case you already have that is in dual-column format). 

Here’s the alternative.

In the PDF, from the main toolbar, select Advanced, Accessibility, and Add Tags to Document.  (Shown in Figure 3).  “Accessibility” has to do with how individuals with disabilities are able to access electronic content with assistive devices.  That’s not the function that we use it for here but it gives us great results.

imageFigure 3


A process will run and, when it’s finished, a panel will open containing a “Recognition Report.”  (Shown in Figure 4).  You don’t need to do anything with the Report, so you can close the panel with the left-pointing arrow. 

image Figure 4



Now, when you copy and paste the text, the “tags” you just added to the document will “know” where the actual line and paragraph breaks are and, like magic, the pasted text will reflow automatically!


For the original post, see

Making the Switch to Digital: Legal Research
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