How to Edit PDFs for Litigation [An Attorney's Guide]

17 May 2022 by Ross eDiscovery PDFs litigation

Takeaway: For basic PDF editing, you can use software like Adobe Acrobat Pro, NitroPDF, or PDFExpert. But as a long-term investment, consider using eDiscovery software for litigation-oriented PDF review. It’ll let you create ‘true’ PDFs, search for keywords across all file types, redact privileged information, Bates stamp batches of PDFs, and protect vital metadata. And if you’re looking for the right eDiscovery software for your firm, try out GoldFynch’s easy-to-use eDiscovery subscription service.

The portable digital format (PDF) was a milestone creation in the ’90s by Adobe – a forward-thinking software company. And PDFs are still the holy grail of document sharing because their layout and formatting stay the same, regardless of which operating system or device you’re using. (Contrast this with a Microsoft Word document, where all your careful formatting can become unrecognizable when you send it to the rest of your team.) Crucially, PDFs are ideal for legal documents because any changes you make will leave an easily traceable electronic trail for courts to track. But unfortunately, this same feature that makes PDFs secure also makes them such a pain to edit. And it can be difficult to find a workaround.

If you’re not an attorney, your best solution is to pay for PDF editing software.

There are a host of paid editing applications for non-attorneys looking only to edit the text of a PDF. Adobe Acrobat Pro – Adobe’s flagship software – would be the most secure and easy-to-use solution, but there are third-party options. For instance, there’s NitroPDF for Windows, PDFExpert for macOS, and ABBYY FineReader, compatible with both Windows and macOS. (You could also use free software like LibreOffice, Sejda, PDFescape, and Small PDF – but these have limited editing options. And you could even export your PDF into Microsoft Word and make your changes there – but this is the most complicated and least effective solution.)

If you’re an attorney, though, you’ll want to think long-term. And here, eDiscovery applications significantly outperform PDF editors.

As an attorney, you’ll likely want to do much more with PDFs than edit them, especially if you want to use them for eDiscovery and deeply engage with their content. Here’s where eDiscovery subscription services can help. You won’t be able to use them to alter a PDF’s text, but they offer you an array of other essential tools – making them a vital complement to whatever PDF editor you use. For instance, you can do the following six crucial litigation-oriented tasks with the right eDiscovery software.

1. You can create ‘true’ PDFs from scanned documents.

There’s more than one type of PDF. The type we all think of – the ‘true’ PDF – is created when you convert a word processing document (e.g., a Microsoft Word document) into a PDF. But there’s another type created when you scan paper documents. Although these scans are technically PDFs, they’re really just a photograph of the original document. So your computer can’t yet ‘read’ the text, which limits your review options. eDiscovery applications can solve the problem, though, using inbuilt optical character recognition (OCR) software to convert these ‘photographs’ into ‘true’ PDFs for you to explore. Learn more about OCR.

2. You can search for keywords across file types.

PDF editors often have a mini-search engine to pull up documents with particular keywords. But they can search only PDFs. In contrast, eDiscovery applications have powerful search engines to find keywords across all file types. So, if you’re looking for the phrase ‘Pfizer patent,’ your eDiscovery software will search emails, spreadsheets, Word documents, PDFs, and more – really, anything you upload to your case. And this universal search feature is essential for eDiscovery, where you’re dealing with caches of data collected from multiple custodians. Further, eDiscovery search engines are often quite advanced, letting you search for keyword combinations. So, you’ll be able to give your software a complex command like, “Find all files created by Jennifer Parker or Martin McFly that mention the Pfizer patent. And also, only the ones they emailed before 2015.Learn more about advanced searches.

3. You can redact privileged information.

eDiscovery applications use specialized techniques to redact privileged information (it’s more than just drawing a black box over text). You’ll be able to redact words, sentences, whole pages, or entire page ranges. And you’ll have multiple modes – one for editing, where the redaction boxes will be translucent, and one for ‘produced’ documents, where the boxes turn opaque. Plus, a ‘redaction manager’ tool will let you jump from redaction to redaction without scrolling through the intervening pages. Learn more about redactions.

4. You can edit the layout of multiple PDF layers.

PDFs come with multiple layers – e.g., a base layer (with all the main text), an annotations layer (with comments and notes), and an authentication layer (with signatures, stamps, etc.). So, if you change a PDF’s layout – for instance, rotating someone’s signature – your software needs to make corresponding changes to all the other layers. Otherwise, some layers will rotate while others won’t, leading to a messy, inaccurate final document. The best eDiscovery applications handle these sorts of edits automatically, whereas a PDF editor will likely struggle.

5. You can Bates-stamp batches of PDFs.

In the final stage of eDiscovery, you’ll be producing your edited PDFs – either keeping their format the same or converting them into TIFF files. Productions are a great way to organize multiple PDFs in a linear order and stamp each page with a Bates-number sequence. Bates stamps are great because you can use a cohesive number sequence across hundreds or thousands of files – a workaround for when regular page numbers restart with each new document. (Learn more about Bates stamps.)

6. You can protect PDF metadata.

PDF editors let you quickly modify PDF data. But from a legal perspective, this is a drawback because it means you can easily tamper with evidence. In contrast, eDiscovery applications leave a clear trail of any changes they make. Equally important, they protect PDF metadata from being modified. (Think of metadata as a digital footprint that tracks the history of a document. It tells you things like who created the document, when they created it, when it was last opened, etc. And you can use metadata to piece together key storylines in your case.) Learn more about metadata.

So, while PDF editors are a great first step, you’ll likely need an eDiscovery application in the long run.

You may still want a PDF editor for day-to-day PDF tasks. But eDiscovery software is a much-needed long-term investment for most small and midsize firms. For instance, GoldFynch is an online eDiscovery service offering all the essential eDiscovery review tools you’ll need via a simple, user-friendly interface. And here are some other things first-timers love about GoldFynch:

  • It costs just $25 a month for a 3 GB case: That’s significantly less than most comparable software. With GoldFynch, you know what you’re paying for exactly – its pricing is simple and readily available on the website.
  • It’s easy to budget for. GoldFynch charges only for storage (processing files is free). So, choose from a range of plans (3 GB to 150+ GB) and know up-front how much you’ll be paying. You can upload and cull as much data as you want, as long as you stay below your storage limit. And even if you do cross the limit, you can upgrade your plan with just a few clicks. Also, billing is prorated – so you’ll pay only for the time you spend on any given plan. With legacy software, pricing is much less predictable.
  • It takes just minutes to get going. GoldFynch runs in the cloud, so you use it through your web browser (Google Chrome recommended). No installation. No sales calls or emails. Plus, you get a free trial case (0.5 GB of data and a processing cap of 1 GB) without adding a credit card.
  • It’s simple to use. Many eDiscovery applications take hours to master. GoldFynch takes minutes. It handles a lot of complex processing in the background, but what you see is minimal and intuitive. Just drag-and-drop your files into GoldFynch, and you’re good to go. Plus, you get prompt and reliable tech support.
  • Access it from anywhere, and 24/7. All your files are backed up and secure in the cloud.

Want to find out more about GoldFynch?