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On-screen document annotation is great, if you know how

When asked the last time he annotated a paper document, Don Cameron paused. “Let me think about that,” he said. “Probably years.”

“I don’t like the permanency of it,” continued the partner at Bereskin & Parr LLP. “I prefer to annotate, then come back and change my annotation once I get the answer to a question in an annotation. The document evolves instead of becoming an ungodly mess.”

To avoid this ungodly mess, Cameron reviews documents, an everyday task in the lives of most lawyers, on a screen using PDF Annotator. This habit is gaining traction in the field.

Sam Spivack, a U.K.-based practice consultant for Kira Systems, noted an advantage: “You don’t miss a page. You don’t lose it in the papers on your desk,” he said.

In some law firms, there’s no choice. “When the firm moved to electronic documents in the early 2000s, everybody was on board with it,” said Rikin Morzaria, a partner at the Primafact-using McLeish Orlando LLP.

Resistance to annotation

Advantages aside, not all lawyers are willing to review documents on-screen. Reasons for this vary. Consider comments and Track Changes in Microsoft Office. Cameron said out loud what many Word users think: “I find Track Changes make your eyes go crossed after a while.”

Preparing to annotate documents on-screen

Lawyers typically receive documents as PDFs, so Cameron designed his review workflow around that reality. “I make them OCR (optical character recognition) readable so I can search them if need be,” he said. “I then use the PDF to mark things up.”

On-screen review capabilities

Digital annotation tools enable common features like:

  • A variety of shapes;
  • lines of varying widths;
  • signatures;
  • highlighting;
  • text;
  • notes and stickies. (Stuart Rudner, of Rudner Law, avoids these. “If you insert text, everybody sees it,” said the founder of Rudner Law. “If you insert a note or a comment that people have to click to expand, they don’t always realize there’s something there to read.”);
  • strikethrough;
  • stamps that say things like “sign here” or approved” with your name and date;
  • underlining;
  • free-form drawing. Morzaria does not use this capability to write notes. “Our annotations are all sortable and searchable,” he explained.

Warning: annotation and redaction don’t mix

Don’t use annotation tools to redact documents. Other people who obtain your document can simply copy redacted bits and paste them into a text editor to see what’s under your digital redaction marks. Use software like Adobe Acrobat that offers proper digital redaction tools.

Choosing an annotation tool

Several free tools offer the above list of annotation features. These include Adobe Reader and Apple Preview (Mac only). Some (like Preview) enable annotation of document types other than PDFs.

Both Cameron and Rudner warn against using more than one annotation tool in a law department. Annotations created by one application can’t necessarily be read or edited using another.

Also, lawyers increasingly use both computers and tablets to review documents. If you want to do so, pick an application that works on all your work devices. “If I read a PDF on my iPad, I mark it up using GoodReader,” said Cameron, noting that there’s no iPad version for PDF Annotator. “But that’s just to highlight or circle things. Having an iPad version of PDF Annotator would be lovely. It’s a lot less fun to haul out a laptop than an iPad.”

Advanced annotation tasks

Pen on paper does not enable more advanced tasks like:

  • taking screen shots and pasting them (or other graphics) into documents;
  • attaching files like you would to an e-mail;
  • erasing previous annotations.

Annotation as organization

Morzaria codes issues using Primafact’s annotation tools. “You can create a list of issues and subissues, or categories and subcategories,” he said. “Then you can create sorted tables of these. You can export these tables to Excel or Word and create a chart you can sort whatever way you want.”

“You can click a document name in the annotation table and it will take you to the document,” he added. “You know exactly where your source document is.”

“We started using bookmarks and hyperlinks to move quickly within a document or to another document,” Rudner said. “It’s easy to move within documents to follow a train of thought.”

Annotation in collaboration

Dan Hauck, founder of knowledge management platform ThreadKM and now VP of user experience at NetDocuments, mixes annotation with online collaboration. “The annotations feature helps professionals review a document together without worrying about who has ‘checked out’ the document,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Our annotations let professionals securely share documents. …. Instead of sending an attachment, lawyers can share links with clients and others without allowing document downloads or forcing external users to download and edit the document.”

“It’s easier to have everything on the same document for everybody who works on it,” Spivack agreed.

This article originally appeared on The Lawyer’s Daily website, published by LexisNexis Canada Inc.