Opinions and Legal Insights

[Sponsor] PDF Expert by Readdle — manage and annotate your documents

PDFExI could not be more pleased to welcome Readdle as a new sponsor of iPhone J.D.  I have been using their iPhone and iPad apps for as long as I can remember, and they have created and improved some of the very best productivity apps.  For example, I can count on one hand the apps that I consider essential to my law practice, and PDF Expert is unquestionably on that list.  Every lawyer works with PDF files, and PDF Expert is a fantastic tool for working with PDF files in a law practice.  The app itself is free, plus you can access advanced features if you purchase a $50/year subscription — which I consider a no-brainer for any attorney looking to be more productive with their iPad.  The app works great on an iPhone too, but I’m going to focus on the iPad today because the larger screen is infinitely better for working with PDF documents.

Viewing documents

PDF Expert does an excellent job of displaying PDF files.  Indeed, especially for large files, I find that PDF Expert on my iPad Pro is faster and better than even the PDF software that I use on the PC in my office. 

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Pages load quickly and it is fast to go back and forth between pages.  Swipe a finger up and down to read a document in the default Vertical Scroll mode.  You can tap the thumbnail icon at the top left to see an overview of all of the pages, making it quick to find your way through a very long document

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Normally, a menu bar appears at the top of the screen, but you can tap of the middle of the screen to make the menu bar disappear, which means that the entire screen is devoted to your document.  An indicator at the bottom right shows you what page number you are viewing in the document, although you can turn that off in the app settings or choose to have it appear and disappear automatically.

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If you tap the view settings icon at the top right, you can switch to a Horizontal Scroll mode.  I find this mode useful when I am reviewing the final draft of a document before I file it with a court.  It lets me focus on each page, one at a time, to make sure that everything looks right.  The Two Pages mode is also a great way to quickly look through the entire document at a higher level.

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There is also a Crop mode switch that you can use on documents that have been OCR’d, letting you hide the margins so that it is easier to make the text part of the document bigger and easier to read.

To quickly scroll through a document, you can grab the small tab on the right side and move up and down.  In an earlier version of PDF Expert, the app used a tiny gray rectangle that was harder to grab, but in the current version it is easy to use.

I often need to find the part of a document that mentions a specific word.  If you tap the magnifying glass icon at the top right, you can enter words to search for, or you can see your recent searches and tap one of them to do the same search again.  This is fast and works very well.

Every time that you open a PDF file, it opens in a new tab.  That way, you can work with multiple PDF files at once, and just tap another tab to jump back and forth between different documents.  PDF Expert also has full support for multitasking if you want to run two apps side-by-side.

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When I am working with longer documents — such a volume of a record for an appeal — I find that it is useful to use the bookmark feature, accessed by tapping the Bookmarks icon at the top right.  For example, I will place bookmarks to note the first page of the most significant documents in the record so that I can quickly jump to those specific parts of the volume in the future.

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Tapping the Bookmarks icon gives you access to two other useful functions.  First, there is the Outlines tab.  Although you can add your own Outlines to a document if you want, the primary way that I find this feature valuable is to take advantage of an outline that is already contained in a document.  For example, when federal district courts create the appeal record in a case, each volume of the record contains an outline that corresponds to the document number.  So if I know from the index that I want to jump to Document 172, I can just access the outline and jump straight there.

The other function accessed in this area is the Annotations tab, but before I discuss that tab, let’s talk about annotating documents.

Annotating documents

At the top middle of the toolbar, there are tabs that you can tap to see different annotation tools.  For example, the first tab called “Annotate” includes tools for highlighting, underlining, writing, drawing shapes, adding comments, etc.

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Tap on a specific tool to use it.  If you have an Apple Pencil 2, you can double-tap the Pencil to turn a specific tool on and off, making it quick and easy to switch between browsing through a document and then highlighting a sentence or adding some other annotation.

After you have made an annotation, and when you don’t have any specific tool turned on, you can tap on the annotation to change it.  For example, you can change the ink color of something that you wrote, make the pen ink thicker, change the opacity, delete the annotation, etc. 

Let’s return to the Annotations tab on the right side that I mentioned above.  This view shows you on the right every single annotation that you have a document, making it quick to jump to a specific part of the document that you annotated.  For some annotations, like highlighting or underlining text, you can see the actual words to which you applied the annotation, which is helpful.  If you handwrote something, you only see a pen icon to show you that you did so on a specific page.

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In 2019, Readdle updated PDF Expert to add a feature that vastly improves the experience of annotating a document:  the ability to customize the toolbar.  You need to pay for a subscription to use this feature, but I would do so even if this was the one and only feature included with a subscription.  Creating a custom toolbar means that you can select the specific tools that you enjoy using the most, and place them in an order that makes the most sense to you, to maximize your productivity when annotating documents.

I currently have my tools set up so that the first three tools are fine point pens (black, blue, red) with a 1 point thickness. Then, as a separator, I have the highlight tool — which may be the tool that I use the most. Next, I have five medium point pens with a 1.5 point thickness for when I want my annotation to be a little bit bolder, and I have five different colors: black, blue, red, green, and purple.  Toolbars in other PDF apps typically only give you two or three colors by default; to access more colors, you have to dig into sub-menus, which requires extra steps so I normally just skip it.  But because I could create my own Favorites tap with the tools that I selected, all five pen colors are just a tap away, so I can use more easily use different colors to mean different things in my documents, making my annotations more valuable to me.

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When you share a file, you have a choice of sharing the original document (with annotations that can be further edited) or a flattened copy (which means that the annotations cannot easily be edited by someone else, and the annotations are virtually guaranteed to be seen no matter what PDF program someone else is using to view the document).

Managing files

While viewing and editing documents is critical, the file management feature is also an important reason that PDF Expert so useful for my law practice.  I carry around thousands of documents on my iPad so that everything that I might possibly need is there.

A Sidebar Menu on the left side lists sources of documents on your iPad, such as folders that are synced or local documents.  Files that you accessed recently are just a tap away.  A list of Connections provides access to cloud sources such as Apple’s built-in Files app, Dropbox, Box, and Google Drive. 

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At the bottom part of the Sidebar Menu, you can show folders or files that you have marked as favorites.  When there is a matter that I am actively and extensively working on — such as an appeal that I will be working in for the next few months – I will typically make the folder associated with that project a favorite so that I can get to my work more quickly.

In the main part of the screen on the right, you see a list of folders and files.  Tap on the three dots at the end of a row to see a menu of options such as move, rename, duplicate, zip, etc.  You can apply a color to a folder if you want it to stand out more.

If you hold down your finger on a file name for a second, you can then drag-and-drop that file to another location.  Whether you are using drag-and-drop or just browsing through your folders, you can long press on the Back button at the top left to see all previous subfolders, making it faster to jump to the specific folder that you want.

Etc.

Although these are the most useful parts of the app for me, there are lots of other features.  You can zip and unzip files.  You can view file types other than PDF files, although you cannot annotate other file types such as Microsoft Word files.  You can fill out PDF forms.  I mentioned above that you can search within a document, but you can also search the contents or filenames across all of your documents. 

Pricing

The app itself is free, and for many attorneys, the free version will provide you with everything that you need.  But if you upgrade to a PRO subscription, which costs $50/year, you get much more.  I’ve already mentioned the custom toolbar feature, which I use every single day.  That feature alone makes the experience of using this app much better.  Additionally, a subscription also gives you the option to:

  • Sign documents
  • Merge PDF files
  • Add, delete, and extract pages from PDF files
  • Password-protect PDF files
  • Redact text in a PDF file (either with black bars or to make the text disappear)
  • Edit PDF text
  • Edit PDF images
  • Add links to PDFs
  • Convert Word files, Excel files, and images into PDF files
  • Reduce PDF file size by selecting one of four different document quality settings

All of these can be useful, but I find the options to merge PDF files and add/delete/extract pages from PDF files are particularly useful in my law practice.  For example, I will extract pages to create exhibits.  The reduce file size option can be useful when a file would otherwise be too large to attach to an email, although how well it works depends upon the specifics of the file that you are working with.  I don’t use the other features very much, but it is nice that they are there.  For example, when I need to convert a Microsoft Word file to PDF, I usually just use Word itself to do so.

Conclusion

Although I’ve written about PDF Expert several times in the past (such as 2/21/19, 8/27/19, 11/21/19), I appreciate Readdle sponsoring iPhone J.D. this month to give me an excuse to talk about this essential app again including some of the latest improvements.  If you use an iPad, there is no excuse for not having the free version of this app on your iPad.  Start using it in your law practice and see what you think.  If you find the app as invaluable as I do, you will likely want to subscribe to the PRO version, like I did last year, to take advantage of all that the app has to offer.

Click here to get PDF Expert by Readdle (free):  app