Using Adobe Acrobat for Your Legal Research

Although many, if not most, attorneys conduct legal research online, that does not mean that they are leveraging the full power of electronic research. Most attorneys doing research online still select the cases they want, print them out, and then analyze them on the printed page. In reality, these attorneys are treating these cases no differently than cases copied from bound volumes.

By resisting the urge to print the cases to paper, however, you can leverage technology to make your research more user-friendly and accessible. An easy way to do this is to add Adobe Acrobat (or another similar product, such as Nitro PDF) to your legal research portfolio.

Instead of printing a case on a printer, you can simply print it to PDF. Once you have converted the case to PDF, you can analyze your case from within Adobe Acrobat. For example, you can use Acrobat’s highlighter tool to highlight your case, just as you would if you had printed the case to paper.

Additionally, you can easily change the color of the highlight text tool. At first blush, it seems as though this just means that you can highlight in different colors, just as though you had multiple highlighters. In reality, however, this means that you can enhance the reading of your case by employing a few simple tricks. For example, with the portions of the case that are not relevant to your case, you can change the highlighter color to white. Then, when you highlight the irrelevant text, it disappears.

Unlike a traditional highlighter, however, these highlights are not permanent. You can select the highlights that you have made and delete the highlights or change their color. Additionally, if you want to print the case, in your print options you can choose to print the document with or without the markups. Thus, you can have your case fully annotated, and when you need a copy for the judge, you simply print it without the annotations. There is no need to retrieve the case again. In addition to highlighting text, you can also add comments. For example, Acrobat allows you to add a sticky note to your document. You can also easily add bookmarks, allowing you to navigate directly to the relevant portions. Another handy tool is the typewriter tool, which allows you to add text directly onto the page, just as though you were using a typewriter.

In addition to the enhanced commenting and markup functions described above, keeping your research in an electronic form allows you to easily copy text and paste that text into your brief. Also, the electronic text remains completely searchable. This makes it easy to find terms in your case. Further, if you have several cases relating to a particular subject, you can use Acrobat to build an index that allows you to search all of your cases at once. Another benefit to keeping your research electronically is that it is always easily available to you. How many times have you searched for a copy of a case, could not find it, and opted to download a new copy? This means, of course, that you had to annotate the case again.

By keeping your case electronically, however, you not only are able to easily find it, but you also never have to worry about annotating the case a second time because all of the annotations are still present on the electronic document. One consideration to keep in mind that that the terms of service of some research providers require you to store your saved file on a local rather than network drive.

The biggest objection raised to integrating Acrobat into a research system is that many people claim that they cannot read documents on a screen. Certainly, learning to read documents on a screen is a slightly different skill from reading them on a piece of paper. However, this argument is not much different from the ones made just a decade ago when attorneys claimed that they could only research cases in books and not on the computer screen. Further, given the variety of inexpensive large-screen displays that are now available, you can easily adjust your screen to display documents in a way that allows you to effectively read your documents.

Handling your research electronically make seem difficult at first. However, it offers a multitude of rewards that allow you to leverage technology to practice law more effectively and efficiently.

Bryan Sims

Bryan Sims of Thompson, Rosenthal & Watts, LLP.

About the author: Bryan Sims is a partner at Thompson, Rosenthal & Watts, LLP., where he concentrates his practice in the areas of commercial litigation and civil appeals. He blogs about legal technology issues at theconnectedlawyer.comand is an active member of the Illinois State Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Legal Technology. Visit his blog at

~ by CDLB on June 9, 2009.

2 Responses to “Using Adobe Acrobat for Your Legal Research”

  1. I frequently print my research to pdf files but have rarely even thought about using the highlight feature. This is a great tip. Thanks.

  2. […] of these arguments could be addressed in turn (for my thoughts about legal research see this article). However, I think the larger issue to be addressed is one of mindset. Going to a paperless office […]

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