Another Top-10 List (12 actually) - Evaluating Your Next PDF Content Solution

ILTA will convene a panel discussion on PDF Content Solutions at this years annual ILTA conference - which affirms the importance PDF content solutions in the legal market.  Clearly the PDF content space for legal practice has evolved to include a number of credible solutions.  I hope the next step for ILTA is to develop a Requirements Assessment Tool for those who want help sorting through the feature-sets and methods that are now available among several PDF content solutions. 

In my September 17th 2010, blog I discussed the pros-and-cons of free PDF tools and those you pay form (Free or Full Featured) and promised that "In my next post I'll drill into the areas of Convert-to-PDF, filling-out-forms, creating-PDF-binders, and advanced editing tools and what to look for.".  The ILTA announcement prompts me to fulfill this overdue promise so this post drills into the Top-12-Things-to-Evaluate when selecting your next PDF content solution. 

In working with dozens of law firms over the past 5 years, I have seen a number of firms choose their next PDF content solution based on how similar it was to their current solution – typically by heavily weighting user preference in the selection process.  This approach assures quick user adoption, but firms may be missing the opportunity for significant productivity improvements at cost of additional user training. If you hope to duplicate your current solution at lower cost – skip this post.  If you are prepared to consider additional training and help desk support for improvements in efficiency – read on.

There are literally hundreds of features across Adobe Acrobat, pdfDocs Desktop, Nuance eCopy - pdfConverter, and Workshare PDF Professional.  When you multiply these features by the possible workflows they represent – you have a monumental task in figuring out what fits user requirements best and meets your current requirements.

Add new requirements like PDF/A files (new Federal Court requirement) or bundling tools used to deliver transaction and litigation document sets to receiving parties.  Add the competing desires of the stakeholders involved.   IT wants a single PDF content solution on the desktop.  Training wants a solution that matches the range of requirements among users – from litigation support to the filing clerk.   Users want a solution that is intuitive, simple, powerful, full-featured, easy to use, and makes their work effortless. 

Can you get by with Scan-to-PDF (probably not – how do you handle creating PDF/A files) or do you need to invest in a copy of Adobe Professional for all of your users.   Perhaps – or somewhere in the middle is the perfect solution that will make users more efficient with real bottom line benefits.

Where to Start
When you consider the feature-sets, ways to implement, and possible workflows – the permutations can be overwhelming.    How do you start sifting through this feature / function universe?  Perhaps start with a user survey to determine which features users need, which they want, which they like and which features they find frustrating.  As a starting point, this will help you rank the features you are evaluating but I consider this data a starting point, not the final set of criteria.

The Top-12 Things to Evaluate
While PDF is an ISO standard (International Standards Organization 32000) , the variety of PDF content solutions available today for legal practice demonstrates that creative approaches within the same product category can make a solution more or less efficient depending on how your users do things.  The differences can have a big impact on workflows and efficiencies.   Here are 12 areas that are important to consider:

1) Creating PDF Files
It should be simple enough and usually it is, but since we don’t just create PDF files for fun, look at what happens after file creation.  Is the user creating a PDF to email it?  Save it to the document management system?  Combine it with other PDF files?   The number of steps in the workflow can vary between PDF content solutions so know your common workflows.

Consider where your users work most often (MS-Word or Outlook or your document management system) and then determine whether the user can easily create PDF content from within their typical “workspace”.   Do your users need a really simple method like “drag-and-drop” to create PDF files?   Will File-Print or Save-as-PDF get you there?

2) PDF/A Format
PDF/A is an ISO Standard which defines a PDF format for long-term archival (see ).  As PDF/A becomes a format commonly required by the courts, carefully examine the steps required of a user creating a PDF/A file.  There can be substantial variation depending on the solution you’re evaluating.

3) Application Integration
One of the biggest information governance issues with PDF content solutions is the “save-anywhere” issue.  It always amazes me when a user (a) accesses a highly confidential document safely secured in the DMS and (b) converts it to PDF format only to (c) save it to My-Documents so they can email it / combine it / edit it / or otherwise manipulate it in their PDF content solution.  Well designed application integration can assure that users always “manage” PDF content with the same rigor as any other document – and that PDF files which are truly “temporary” (created just for the instance of mailing / combining / saving-to-DMS) are then properly deleted from temp-folders or My-Documents locations (as 2 examples).

4) Document Management Integration
If your organization relies heavily on a document management system, then carefully evaluate the integration points between your DMS and the PDF content solution.  Can users easily save a new PDF file INTO the document management system?  Can users easily access documents in the DMS and edit PDF files or convert native files to PDF format?  While in the DMS, can users easily select source files and convert them to PDF format?    The way DMS integration is implemented can be a real time saver (direct-save for example) or a real frustration (save-to-MyDocuments / import to DMS for example).

5) Binders and Portfolios (Bundling)
Binders and Portfolios are becoming the standard way to deliver bundles of PDF or embedded-native files to co-counsel, opposing counsel and clients.  There are important differences between the bundling tools on the market.  Look carefully at DMS integration if that is where your source files are.  Determine whether the resulting Bundle can be printed if that’s a requirement. 

6) Redaction
If used properly, any redaction tool should produce permanent deletions of content in a PDF file and give you the option to mark the deletion in a variety of ways.  But the steps to accomplish this will vary and should be carefully reviewed against your desired redaction workflow.  As an example some tools Apply-on-Demand and some tools Apply-When-Saved.  Some tools permit batch-redaction while some only work against one PDF file at a time.

7) Editor Functions
I define PDF editing as ‘changing the displayable content in a PDF file”.  Not all PDF content solutions provide the same set of editing tools.  The ideal solution will present tools your users need and omit or give you a way to hide tools they never use.  The result is a more concise user interface which should be easier for the user.

I would suggest taking an inventory of the editing tools your users currently use – with details about how often they use them.  Balance this against the inventory of editing tools in the solution you’re evaluating to assure there is a comparable tool or a suitable workaround.

8) File Manipulation
If your practice demands that you combine PDF files, extract pages, merge pages, or split PDF files then carefully evaluate the workflow required to accomplish these functions.  There are significant differences between PDF content solutions that will please users who do these things often (Click-and-Combine) or frustrate them because of extra steps (Select-and-Merge).

9) OCR Integration
Sooner or later, users will want to (a) convert a PDF file to MS-Word format or (b) convert an Image-PDF file to Searchable-PDF.  Each of these workflows will require an OCR solution so evaluate thoroughly the steps required to accomplish each. 

Also consider whether you need OCR functions integrated into your document management application which can save time if this is where PDF content is commonly stored.  Also know that some providers offer OCR implemented on a Server (a great solution when users are operating in Citrix or Terminal Server) and some providers implement OCR within the PDF application (needed when operating “off the network”). 

10) Scan Capture
Going Paperless?  Handling litigation scanning in-house?  Your current and desired paper-to-PDF workflows may help define your PDF content solution.  Do you want to “scan-to-DMS” with a coversheet?  Do you want to deskew / despeckle from within the PDF content solution? 

11) Forms
Many users need to fill out forms in PDF format – and some users need to create forms in PDF format.  PDF form filling has become easier these days with the advent of Rights-Enabled forms.  Forms-Creation capabilities (read-and-create / create manual with simple tools / create manual with complex tools) will vary between PDF content solutions so, evaluate thoroughly if form building is a requirement.

12) Adobe Reader Support:
In some organizations there is a desire to use alternatives to Adobe Reader.  While this is laudable and may make sense for IT strategy, it has the potential to create workflow problems.  Many websites assume that Adobe Reader (or Acrobat) is present on the workstation and won’t perform as expected with other PDF applications.    

Evaluate whether your PDF content solution will co-exist with Adobe Reader in the event that you must keep Adobe Reader for access to certain websites.

In Summary
No square pegs in round holes.  Focus on key requirements, future needs, user adoption, and these key areas and you will find a solution that meets your needs and delivers new levels of efficiencies.  Consider training users on new tools and methods if the benefits are there – we all can handle learning a new tool if we’re showing the benefits and are supported with training and help desk. 

PDF content management is now a key applications area in legal practice - and can deliver remarkable new efficiencies and benefits to your firm.

Questions on assessing your next PDF content solution?  Write me!