Making the Switch to Digital: Legal Research

Lawyers still don’t seem to appreciate the power of PDF.  I’ve posted some thoughts on the benefits of moving towards a digital office, using Adobe Acrobat.  Even if you aren’t [yet] committed to making the switch to almost-paperless, there are ways that you can (and should) be implementing Acrobat and the PDF format into your everyday legal practice. 

I was reminded of this by Raymond P. Ward, at the (new) legal writer in his post, Owning Your Downloaded Legal Authorities.  Mr. Ward made my list of the Top 30 Writing Blogs and for good reason–his blog is a valuable resource for legal writers.  As highly as I regard Mr. Ward and his normally sage advice, I must disagree with him a little on the argument he made in his post.  But just a little.

Ward advises readers to take a few extra steps when conducting online research to save time and effort later.  Agreed.  Next, he advises that, when downloading a case from LexisNexis, Westlaw, or other online legal database, attorneys should save the case “in a word-processing format (Word or WordPerfect), not PDF.” 

He explains that, by downloading the case before printing or saving it, you are able to reformat the document, cleaning it up for easier reading, and annotate the case for later reference.  All excellent ideas.  But these ideas can be better executed in Acrobat PDF, rather than Microsoft Word or WordPerfect. 

Here are some of the reasons Ward urges readers to save research in a word-processing format:

  1. If you find the case difficult to read, re-format it. Change the type face or enlarge the font size.
  2. Delete all the headnotes having nothing to do with why you downloaded the case, saving only the pertinent headnotes. This simple tip not only saves you the trouble of wading through dozens of useless headnotes; it also saves paper when you print a hard copy.
  3. While you’re at it, delete the lawyers’ names. Every little bit of clutter-elimination helps. And nobody will mind except the lawyers’ mothers.
  4. Use Word or WordPerfect to highlight the parts that are most important.
  5. Instead of writing in the margins of a hard copy, use Word or WordPerfect to insert comments. That way, your comments will be saved on your electronic copy.
  6. Edit the document header to add all information needed to cite the case. This will later save you the trouble of printing an entire 24-page case when you only need one page with one juicy quotation.

Each of these objectives can be accomplished in Acrobat with ease and, in many cases, with more functionality.   The most obvious way to accomplish any of the cited features is to save the document to Adobe PDF and then, if you later find you want to edit the document in MS Word, simply export the PDF to Word, an easy trick when using Acrobat 9.  But let’s go through how you can accomplish Ward’s suggestions without converting PDF to Word.

1.  Change the Typeface

Instead of changing the typeface after you’ve saved the document, why not just save it in a font that works for you from the beginning?  In Lexis, for example, you can change the default font type and size when you download the document.

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2 & 3.  Delete Unwanted Headnotes and Other Unnecessary Text

Ward suggests that, once the document is in Word format, you should delete the headnotes that are not pertinent to your research, the lawyer’s names, and other unwanted clutter.  I concur!  I do the same, more for the purpose of reducing the number of pages that I’ll need to print than for visual ease in reading. 

One tip here is to remember that you don’t need to print the headnotes at all. 

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In the picture, above, you see that you can elect to print the headnotes but you can also elect to not print them.  Save yourself the headache of deleting them and just don’t print them at all. 

What about other unnecessary text?  As mentioned above, if you really want to delete the text, you can convert to Word and delete away.  Then convert to PDF to take advantage of the features of Acrobat.

But there are other options.  For one, why not redact the unnecessary text, such as the lawyers’ names or procedural history.  In Acrobat 9, set the redaction “fill” to “None.”  A blank space fills the redacted area.  You won’t reduce the number of pages to print but you will give your eyes a break by eliminating unneeded text.

4.  Highlight Text

You can do even better.  For one, you can use the highlighter tool in Acrobat instead of the redaction feature to “clean up” unnecessary text, as described above.  If you don’t have Acrobat 9 Pro, you can get the same effect by highlighting the text in white.  This, of course, is not the same as redacting the text.  Redaction is the equivalent of cutting the text with a pair of scissors.  Highlighting is more like White-Out. 

But don’t stop there.  There’s other ways to use the highlighter tool.   When opposing counsel files a brief to which I need to respond, I use a modified version of Ward’s suggestion.   As I read the brief, I use the highlighter tool in Acrobat to mark up the document. 

I highlight in black all of the text that I feel is irrelevant to my response. Any posturing or puffery gets highlighted in black, which is the equivalent of using a black marker to cross out the text.

With the “junk” gone from the document, I turn to the meat of it.  I may highlight in light blue any points that counsel made that I’m unsure of or need to check on.  I may highlight in yellow all of the cases that are cited in the brief that I want to pull and review.

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After the whole document has been marked up, I can print it with or without the highlights by selecting “Document” instead of “Document With Comments” in the Print dialog box.  If I had used the highlighting feature in Word, I’m stuck with the highlights but, in Adobe, I can print a clean copy or print a copy with my highlights and other comments.

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5.  Instead of Making Notes in Margins, Use the Comment Feature

There are more commenting features in Acrobat than I could possibly address in a single blog post.  But, suffice it to say, they are extensive.  Use the sticky-note comment in Acrobat to make notes about pertinent parts of the case for later reference. 

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Now, if you really want to get fancy, here’s a way to make it happen.  Create a custom

6.  Edit the header to add important case information

Again, an excellent idea.  And you can accomplish this in Adobe Acrobat.  Just select Document > Header & Footer > Add. . .   Then enter any custom text you’d like in the header or the footer of the document.  If you later want to change the text, just select “Update” instead of “Add” and make the change. 

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Even better, though, skip the header and just use the Typewriter tool.  (Select Tools > Typewriter).  If you don’t know about this amazing feature, you’re about to be enlightened.  Using the Typewriter tool, you can type text anywhere in a PDF–just like you would in a word-processing document.  You can even change the typeface, the font size, and change plain text to bold, italic, or underline.  Like magic! 

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Using the Typewriter tool, you can type your comments, a case summary, or other descriptive text right onto the top of the front page, above the case name, so you easily recall the holding or other important information from the research.  Save yourself from reading and re-reading the same material over and over again by summarizing the key information right at the top of the page.

There are a number of additional ways to improve your legal research using Adobe Acrobat.  But I’ll save those for another post.  For now, though, I’ll just say that “going digital” with your legal research will save you time and effort, make you more efficient, and potentially cut down on the cost of printing and reprinting cases, as well as the cost of conducting paid searches in Lexis or WestLaw for the same cases over and over. 

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5 responses to “Making the Switch to Digital: Legal Research”

  1. Charlene says:

    Yes, but many of these tips require you to own the full Acrobat, something that isn’t really necessary with newer versions of Word or WordPerfect since they now publish to PDF format. As a solo, I don’t see much need for spending a few extra hundred dollars to buy the full Acrobat, when Word will suffice.

  2. Helen Tomkins says:

    Can anyway tell how to use the highlight text function on a black background in acrobat 9?

  3. 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.

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