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?