Bundles. Blasted bundles.

As I may have mentioned, I can’t say I’m upset at the demise (at least for the moment) of the paper bundle, and the normalisation of delivering a soft one. But what if you’re instead faced with all kinds of disparate files, and you’re the one who needs to sort it?

I’ll try to keep this quick. I’m going to assume that you know how to turn documents into PDFs (because we already covered that). And that you’ve got them all sitting named in some kind of sensible order in a folder somewhere that you want to combine. And – the big one – that you’re using PDF Expert.

Because if you are, putting the documents together for yourself or the Court is child’s play.

The easiest way is this:

  1. Open PDF Expert.
  2. Choose “Merge Files…” from the File menu at the top of the screen.
  3. Navigate to whichever folder you’ve got your stuff in.
  4. Hold down the Command key (the one immediately next to the Space bar, with the funny little four-leaf clover symbol on it) and click once on each file you want to join together into your bundle. (NB: this is where it’s critical to have your files in a sensible naming scheme, because Merge will combine them in alphabetical order.)
  5. Click the “Merge” button.
  6. Choose “Save As…” from the File menu to save the new, combined file somewhere sensible.
  7. And you’re good.

There are other ways of doing this – dragging and dropping, for instance – but this is the easiest way to start.

What if you need to add something later? Well, you could do this again – but remember the alphabetical order point. Your new file might have the wrong name. Sure, rename it if you like. But there’s an alternative:

  1. In your open PDF document, click the Thumbnails button on your toolbar: it’s the one that looks like a 2×2 grid of little squares. You’ll see little versions of all the pages in that open document.
  2. On the toolbar you’ll see an option labelled “Append file”. It’s the second one from the left. Click it.
  3. Now choose the file you want to add to the end of your bundle, and click “Add”.
  4. And that’s it. Save, and you’re good. (And click “Close” to get back to looking at the pages themselves. Don’t forget that.)

I recognise this isn’t everything you need to do. You’ll need a table of contents. An index. Page numbers. Highlighting. And some way of replacing all those post-it notes your lever-arch bundles were festooned with.

It’s all doable. More to come. And in the meantime, these two techniques will give you everything in the same place, in the right order. A good start.

So you’ve turned everything into a PDF. What next?

There are far too many PDF apps out there. Pick one, learn it inside and out, and make it work for you. Although I do have my preference. And it’s not Adobe Acrobat. This is in essence a shameless plug for the app that, more than anything else, made my paperless life possible.

OK. Well done. You’ve spent a boring 10 minutes or so turning everything into PDFs. What are you going to use to do anything with them?

This is a tricky one. For Apple users, there are a huge number of options. I’ve only tried a few, and I’m not going to attempt a comparative review. No point. (And I’m sorry – I’ve used PCs all my working life, but mostly corporate locked-down ones, so no experimenting to find apps I like. This is one of those areas where this is gonna get really aggravating for Windows users. Again – apologies.)

Instead, this simply covers three options:

  1. A specialised PDF app;
  2. A dedicated legal bundle-handling app or website; or
  3. Adobe Acrobat Pro.

Me? I go for option 1, and in my case a lovely app called PDF Expert:

  • It does highlighting, annotation, tables of contents and bookmarking really well, which are the core things we need (and it allows you easily to view or extract just your highlights and annotations, which makes it easy to dump them into skeletons etc).
  • It’s child’s play to combine PDFs, mess about with page order, rotate pages, and so on. It works just about identically on Mac and iPad.
  • All the table-stakes PDF stuff like form-filling and signing is pretty much entirely pain-free.
  • And for those of us who keep all our stuff in some form of secure cloud storage, it’s great at syncing it all between offline iPad storage and the cloud.

Seriously – if there’s one app which made it possible for me to go paperless and stay there, it’s this one.

Now, there are loads of others. Just off the top of my head: PDFPen and PDF Element (for both Mac and iOS). iAnnotate and GoodReader for iPad. Even Preview, which comes installed as standard on Macs. Seriously: there are shedloads. And none of them are less than good (well, except Preview – that’s just OK). You won’t go wrong. Just so happens that PDF Expert solves for my pain points and (to my mind) does so better than the alternatives, if sometimes not by much. Particularly on the critical combine-files-together thing, which (on the Mac) you can do by dragging and dropping. Multiple files. All those ones you PDFed and carefully named. In one go. Bliss.

Now, I have to admit there’s one serious fly in the PDF Expert ointment. It doesn’t do OCR – optical character recognition, also known as “turning a scan into something searchable and highlightable”. PDFPen does, for instance. As does Adobe Pro (see below). That’s a big downside. So I have a separate OCR app. Again, there are several – but ReadIris has worked well for me so far.

And then there’s price. PDF Expert isn’t cheap – nor are PDFpen and PDF Element. If price is a real issue, you should definitely look at GoodReader, which (I think) costs about a fiver.

(Update, later in the day: I feel slightly dirty. I’ve just advised a non-geek colleague to go for PDFPen because it does OCR etc all in one. I still think PDF Expert is the better app usability-wise. But there you go: perhaps for people who need OCR, the all-in-one solution wins out…)

So how about option 2? I have to admit I don’t know much about these. I’ve dabbled, no more, in three of them – Casedo, Bundledocs and Hyperlaw – so take my comments with a sizeable pinch of salt. But they’re not for me. Yes, they make bundling a doddle, and in Casedo’s case have some nifty ways of highlighting and linking between parts of different documents. But while Hyperlaw solves one big pain point – you can dump an email full of various attachments into it and it turns them all magically into PDF (yay!) – it’s also browser-based, and despite claims to the contrary, is simply substandard on an iPad. Bundledocs is also browser-only, and only really handles bundle generation, not all the other PDF-handling we need. So that’s a no. And Casedo is app-based – but the app is Mac/PC only. Again, no. I can’t do this without my iPad. Sue me. (Don’t.)

OK. Elephant time. Why not option 3? Why don’t we simply go for Adobe Acrobat Pro? After all, Adobe invented PDFs. Surely they know what they’re doing?

Yes. They do. It’s excellent software. Again, fully cross-platform, and a single subscription covers everything. Including OCR built in.

But there’s part of the rub. That subscription is £15 a month – if you sign up for a whole year. If you want to keep your options open, it’s £25 a month on a month-by-month basis. Ouch. I have to say, I also find its highlighting/bookmarking/annotating simply less good than most of the competition. That may be simply me backing what I’m used to, but it’s still a hard pass.

As with everything, your mileage may vary. What’s critical is you find something that works. Something you feel comfortable with.

And then there’s option 4. The one I didn’t mention. The apps that do it completely differently.

Two in particular stand out: LiquidText (iOS only) and MarginNote (iOS and Mac). Both allow you to take one or more PDFs, drag bits of text or pictures (or whatever) out onto a scratchpad to one side, and connect and arrange those bits in any way you please, adding commentary and comparing different bits of documents side by side. I’ve tried both, and I absolutely love the concept. Just haven’t quite managed to make it work for me. But people for whom it does absolutely swear by it. Give it a go. Might be your idea of perfection.

The joy of PDF

Format-wise, PDF is a no-brainer. Getting stuff into PDF format isn’t too much of a pain, either.

Some might well wonder why I’m even discussing the pros and cons of PDF as a standard file format for papers and such. After all, it’s pretty much the standard. Has been for years.

Admittedly I’m old enough to remember arguments within GeekWorld about whether Adobe should really be allowed to define such a fundamental standard, but the market spoke. And those days are long gone.

So why am I bothering to write this?

Because, as we all know, PDFs aren’t all we get. For any given case, you’re likely also to get one or more of:

  • Word documents
  • Excel spreadsheets (depending on subject matter)
  • RTFs sometimes (for the uninitiated, it’s a non-Microsoft text document format, which can open in Word – but will usually open in Notepad (Windows) or TextEdit (Mac) unless you tell the machine to do otherwise
  • Pictures, of one format or another, and
  • Curse them, Outlook emails as attachments to other emails.

I’ll admit it – for many people, this last one isn’t so bad. They open fine in Mail or Outlook on a Mac. But I don’t use either as a rule, other than as a means of opening precisely these messages. And in any case, digging through the nested attachments is a nightmare.

As for laying hold of them when you’re madly cramming for a case, or (worse still) half way through one: forget it.

The only sensible solution, I’d say, is to save everything into a single case folder. I keep everything in OneDrive for Business – which costs me about £45 a year for a terabyte of storage space, encrypted at rest and thus GDPR-happy, and can easily be accessed from any device I happen to be using. (Cloud storage is something we’ll keep for another day, so I’ll say no more.)

And here’s where we get back to PDFs. Sure, I keep Word documents and so on in their original form, stored in the case folder. But I convert EVERYTHING which isn’t already a PDF – emails, pleadings, spreadsheets, pix, authorities, you name it – into one. That way, I can mark everything up the same way, index and scribble on it, and generally stop thinking about the tech and get on with the case.

How to turn things into PDFs?

On a Mac, this is pretty simple. Simply hit Print (from the File menu, from Command-P, or from a button onscreen) and you’ll see a wee drop-down menu labelled “PDF” in the bottom left hand corner. Click on that, choose “Save to PDF”, and you’re away. Give the file a nice helpful name – I start with the date on the document in yyyymmdd format, because that means everything’s naturally in chronological order, and then add a few descriptive words. So you end up with something like “20200325 email from sol re limitation.pdf”. Perfect. Some apps will also let you save or export to PDF, but this way always works.

On iOS, the most consistent way is to go to Print, at which point you’ll get a preview of your document. “Spread” it with two fingers so it expands to fill the screen, then hit the “Share” button (the one that usually looks like a box with an arrow coming out the top) and save it wherever you like. Straight into your PDF app, or into cloud storage, probably. (If you’re clever, you can set up a shortcut to convert-and-save all in one. I haven’t bothered – I probably should…)

On a PC, most “Save As…” dialogues will have a drop-down menu for “Format” or “Save as type”. These will usually have a PDF option. Choose it, and you’re golden.

And then I bung everything into a single PDF file – and there’s my bundle.

Others will do it differently. Which is fine – everyone has their own workflow. But if you’re new to this, I urge you to give the all-PDF, all-the-time method a whirl.

Next time: now you’ve got your PDFs. What are you going to use to read them?

A world without lever-arch files?

The idea of surviving without back-breaking bundles of paper fills many barristers with an existential dread. Not me…

I’ve still got a picture of the day my first red-tape-tied bundle arrived. I was grinning like an idiot. I’m sure most of us remember that.

Somehow we get misty-eyed about the rolling suitcases they necessitated as well. About the panic and despair as a wheel breaks at the wrong moment. The frustration as we try to squeeze the second volume of the White Book in alongside the wig tin and blue pad.

And who among us hasn’t wanted to take a sneaky look at how other people tab up their stuff? Whether they have a careful system – or whether the post-it notes are just multi-coloured because their floor in Chambers ran out of the pink ones?

We’re going to have to learn to do without. We were going to have to anyway, given the horrific amount of trees we all murder. But now, working remotely, getting a bundle couriered is going to be a luxury.

Not to mention a potential bug transmission vector…

So the next few posts will probably deal with how to survive and thrive with what some people call “e-bundles”. I loathe the term (the “e-” feels as bad as adding “cyber-” to the front of something. Ouch). I’ll stick to calling it all “the papers”. After all, oldies like me still occasionally call the act of audio recording “taping” something, and even the youthful who’ve never seen a cassette or a VHS know what we’re talking about. I hope they do, anyway.

So over the next couple of days we’ll start looking at

First things in a paperless world

There’s lots to think about, if you want to survive in this new remote, bundle-less Bar. These are just a few physical preliminaries.

Some readers of these musings may already have a way of working paperlessly, and remotely, that suits them. Although everyone can learn from everyone else’s experience (with the usual YMMV caveat, of course), this short post is really addressed at those who are staring at their laptop in horror and wondering: how on earth can I function like this?

There are lots of things to think about and do. But step one is to work out what you REALLY need, and what you don’t.

I’d suggest the following are the physical essentials. We’ll cover the software and services next time. For anything not covered here (scanners, inkjet printers, mice, and so on) – my first port of call for reviews and recommendations is usually The Wirecutter. But there are plenty of others.

  • A workspace that won’t drive you mad, and allows you to think and communicate. If you’re in a small shared space, that’s going to be difficult. But there’s lots of advice out there. Rather than a list of other sites, I’d simply recommend a short and free ebook, Take Control of Working from Home Temporarily. It’s published by people who’ve written literally dozens of tech guides for normal humans. They’re great. (In fact, I recommend the series as a whole.) And remember: you’re likely to need a space from which you can video-conference without looking too disorganised or unprofessional. So take the time to set things up with care.
  • A computer you’re used to. No point – in these times of urgency and short funds – in buying something that expensive anew unless you absolutely have to. You don’t want to be re-learning right now. Doesn’t matter if it’s a Mac, a PC, a Chromebook, an iPad, a Surface or what. If you’re comfortable with it, stick with it.
  • If you can, a cheap headset. You’re going to spend a lot more time than usual on the phone, and possibly for lengthy periods. You DON’T want to last through a two-hour hearing with the phone wedged under your chin. I prefer Bluetooth (then I can pair it with phone or computer without worrying about which variety of USB/Lightning/whatever plug it happens to have), but it’s your call. I have a fairly rubbish one, but a better one (I hope) is arriving tomorrow. I’ll add a link if it works. Wired or wireless mobile headsets can do it, but you may sound pretty echoey. In a long remote hearing, probably a no-no.
  • A decent chair. Seriously. They’re not expensive. Get it done, if you don’t want your back to hate you. This one’s mine.
  • Not compulsory, but useful if you do print stuff sometimes (or have papers sent to you) – a shredder. Normally I hate the things, but they’re a necessary evil given the duty of confidentiality we work under. Again, this is mine – reasonably cheap, takes more than a sheet or two, can cope with staples. Doesn’t go wrong too much.
  • Also not obligatory, but I’d argue a really phenomenal idea if you’re using a laptop: a separate screen and keyboard. 4k screens are great, but dear – a 1900×1200 one is relatively lo-res, but reliable, responsive and easily good enough for having your papers side by side with whatever document you’re working on. And only about £100. As for keyboards – I use a Microsoft Sculpt to avoid RSI, with a Logitech K380 on the road (switches between laptop and iPad at the push of a button – nice).
  • Which leads to what you do with the laptop itself. I have mine on a platform. A friend of mine uses one of these on circuit when he can’t rely on having a lectern box. But this one does two things in the WFH environment. First it makes for extra precious desk space – I have a stand for papers underneath mine. Second, it raises your laptop’s camera so that it’s the perfect height for video-conferencing. No more giving people an up close and personal view up your nostrils…

You’ll notice I haven’t included a webcam. Frankly, the one on most modern laptops etc is good enough. And particularly if you’ve got a platform like mine, then you don’t really need one.

I also haven’t said anything about printers. This is cheeky. I may be mostly paperless, but I’ve a decent (and cheap) laser printer – an HP M254dw. (I’m not including a link because Amazon now sells it for twice as much as the £150 I paid, but there are plenty of decent ones around for that kind of money.) Because sometimes someone else is going to need something on paper. It’s how it is.

So that’s the basics. Next stop: the intangibles…

Staying sane

Lots of people know more than I do about this. This is just what’s keeping me going.

I’m lucky.

I’ve always worked remotely. So while this situation imposes stresses, they’re not entirely the shock of the new. And some might say that at the Bar we’re a rather solitary trade anyway.

But life’s changed nonetheless. Our whole family, including our 13-year-old daughter, are all stuck in here together. We’re going to annoy each other.

And while I might not have stuck my head round someone’s door in Chambers every day, knowing that now I can’t is something that hurts.

All told: we’re all going to need ways of keeping our heads on straight. Particularly given that there’s no clear end-date in sight.

I’ll leave the ways of keeping in professional contact for another day, and for the purposes of this post stick to a few things that I think work for me. Again, everyone’s mileage varies. I’m not a psychiatrist, a therapist, a counsellor or anyone else with the slightest right to talk about anyone’s mental health than my own. But it might give you an idea or two.

  • Firstly, don’t just sit. If – like me – you have a laptop on a platform, for heaven’s sake push your chair back and stand up to work at it once in a while. Your back will love you. If you’re flash enough to have a standing desk, then you’re well ahead of me. Good on you.
  • Further on that – goodness knows we’re a profession that can tend to swivel-chair spread. And if you usually commuted by public transport, you’ve probably lost several thousand steps a day by staying at home. So get up, and get out. Until – and god forbid it comes to that – there’s a genuine lockdown, going for a walk, a run, a ride, a whatever, will work wonders both for health and sanity. In fact, there’ll probably be fewer vehicles moving about – so the air will be cleaner and the roads safer. Make the most of it.
  • Better yet, find some form of exercise you can do. I play capoeira, a Brazilian martial art which is just about the most full-body form of exercise imaginable. (I play it badly. But I still love it.) My school, Brazilarte, has had to close its doors like other gyms and suchlike – but it’s running online training. For £20 a month, this is nothing short of a bargain. Find yourself something similar.
  • From the physical to the life of the mind and the soul… As a profession, we can tend towards the obsessive. So this is the perfect time to find something you can practise and perfect – or at least try to. Fallen behind on Duolingo, Drops or Memrise? Take a break from work (ad hoc or on a schedule – whichever works for you) and learn a language. For me it’s Portuguese. Or Korean. (Although I try to avoid the K-drama fest on Netflix. That’s a rabbit hole you’ll never get out of.) Or Gaelic. (Actually, Netflix can help with this – once you’ve downed tools of an evening, there’s a Google Chrome extension which allows you to pause, repeat and play back subtitles. Excellent. Again, watch out for the rabbit hole though…)
  • If you’re a musician, this is the perfect time to practise. I play the piano. Sort of. Ish. But I’m now practising more. If jazz is your thing (as it is mine), then there’s a wonderful guy in the US called Willie Myette. His site, Jazzedge, isn’t cheap – $349 a year or $39 a month – but it’s full of truly eye-opening video lessons and tuition. I gave it to myself as a birthday present late last year, and it’s been worth every cent several times over already. If you’re a beginner, Willie has just made the starter course on his beginning piano lesson site – Home School Piano – free till 1 September. Just sign up and go. Lovely man. I’m sure there are equivalents, and free resources, elsewhere for both the piano and other instruments. Go for it. But remember the neighbours if you decide to take the violin or trumpet up from scratch…

Finally, one more thing. We spend our lives immersed in the written word, and we might want to escape it when we step away from our desks. But novels are freedom for the heart and mind. Doesn’t matter if they’re deep or trashy, literary or genre. (Or all the above at the same time.) If you’re not already into ebooks, start now. You don’t need a Kindle, a Kobo or whatever. There’ll be an app for your phone or tablet. Go for it. Don’t starve your soul, people. Let it fly.