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What tricks can free PDF software do?

By Jeffrey Schoenberger, Affinity Consulting 

As a legal professional, you have encountered your fair share of PDF files and assumably created more than a few. Even in our personal lives, PDFs are ubiquitous: appliance instruction manuals, new car brochures, bank statements, etc. The PDF format’s great attraction is that it reproduces electronically exactly what a printed document looks like. And it does so across any device – smartphone, iPad, computer, TV, etc. 

The primary reason for PDF’s ubiquity in our lives comes from two business decisions Adobe, PDF’s creator, made 15-25 years ago. The first decision was made in the mid-to-late 1990s, at the start of the internet boom. Adobe decided to charge a bundle for the PDF creation software (Adobe Acrobat) and give away the software to read, but not edit, the files (Acrobat Reader). At the time, this was revolutionary. We’re accustomed now to opening Microsoft Word documents, for example, on devices that don’t have Word installed so you can read, but not edit, the file. That was hardly the case when Adobe took that innovative step. 

Similarly, Adobe had a version of Acrobat Reader for all platforms, not just Microsoft Windows, another major difference in the late 1990s when Apple macOS were a tiny, shrinking market and Linux was unheard of outside of nerd circles. Today, when we do so much computing through websites and phone applications, this move seems obvious. It was not at the time. 

Adobe’s second major strategic move came in 2008 when it took its PDF specifications and made them open source. With the specifications free to all, any developer could create software to create or read PDFs without running afoul of Adobe’s copyrights. And developers did. Now there are tons of PDF creation software packages at different price points. Adobe’s Acrobat Pro is still the gold standard and requires a subscription, but there are great alternative options, including free ones. 

What can free do for you? - Creating PDFs  

Ten or more years ago, if you wanted to create a PDF out of a document, you purchased software from Adobe or one of its newly minted competitors. If you’re running recent versions of macOS, Windows, or Microsoft Office, you don’t have to buy anything to create a PDF document of another electronic file. 

macOS users have had PDF creation ability since 2001. PDF creation is a system-level feature accessible through the print dialog box. Select “File” and “Print” (or “CMD” + “P” for keyboard fans), and “save as PDF” is located at the bottom center of the print dialog. Click here for details.  

Windows users have a similar capability in Windows 10. Select “File” and “Print” (or “CTRL” + “P” on your keyboard), select the “Microsoft Print to PDF” printer, and click “Print.” A dialog box will appear asking you to name the file and select a place to save it. Windows can also print multiple PDF files to a single combined PDF file. Just select the PDFs you want to combine in File Explorer, right-click, and select “Print.” The limitation here is the PDFs are combined in whatever order they appear in File Explorer; there’s no re-ordering. 

Microsoft Office, both for Windows and Mac, offers the ability to save most files as PDF, including Word files. 

For iOS users, you have the same ability, but it’s just more hidden. Tap the “Share Sheet” icon in the app and then tap “Print.” When the print preview for the document opens, do a “pinch and zoom” gesture to expand the document. The document will enlarge on the screen. It’s not obvious, but that enlarged document is a PDF. Tap the “Share Sheet” icon in the top right-hand corner and select the app or place you want to save or send the PDF. 

For Android users, the steps are similar to iOS, except instead of a “pinch and zoom” gesture there is a “Save to PDF” option to select from a dropdown menu. 

What can free do for you? - Editing for free 

Besides creating PDFs, you may want to edit, comment on, or otherwise mark them up. Free PDF software has you covered there, too. 

Acrobat Reader – Windows and Mac 

Acrobat Reader allows a user to comment on a document (such as sticky notes, annotations, highlights, etc.) and sign forms. You cannot do any editing for free, unlike Foxit Reader below. However, if you are willing to pay Adobe either $2/month ($24/year) or $10/month ($120/year), you can add either Adobe Export PDF or Adobe PDF Pack features to Reader. Export PDF adds the ability to turn PDF files into native Word, Excel, or RTF files. PDF Pack includes those features plus the ability to convert PDFs to PowerPoints or image files, create PDFs from files less than 100MB, and combine multiple PDFs into a single file. 

Foxit Reader – Windows and Mac 

Foxit Reader published a full manual on what their free Windows and Mac readers can do. With these free packages, you can get a PDF word count, sign and “stamp” documents, comment and annotate documents, fill out form documents, and even add bookmarks, links, and images to the PDF (assuming the PDF is not protected). 

Preview – Mac 

Mac users get a free, decently capable app with macOS. Its Preview app lets users annotate PDFsfill out and sign forms, and add, delete, or move pages. This covers most of what you would generally want to do with PDFs. 

Generally speaking, you can generate a PDF and comment on it all without paying a dime. 

What costs money 

A couple of power features that legal professionals may need are not available for free anywhere. Those two features are redaction and Bates numbering. This may matter depending on your practice area. If you are not in litigation, neither may matter. But, particularly with redaction, do not tolerate shortcuts. Do not draw black boxes assuming that’s “good enough,” because nationally reported examples, such as the Broward County School Board case show us what happens when you redact improperly. 

Comment 6 to the Supreme Court of Missouri’s Rules of Professional Conduct 4-1.1 admonishes lawyers to “keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice.” This includes having the proper technology, knowing how to use it, and making sure supporting lawyers and non-lawyer staff have access and know how to use it. 

Fortunately, thanks to Adobe’s open sourcing of the PDF specifications, capable PDF software that redacts and Bates numbers doesn’t have to cost the $15/month (or $180/year) for Acrobat Pro DC (Acrobat Standard DC lacks redaction and Bates numbering). While Adobe’s offering includes access to its e-signature platform, which could be valuable during the pandemic, if you just need to redact and Bates number, $15/month could be considered high. Here are some lower-cost options: 

For more information, refer to the PDF software comparison chart in our practice management resources. If you have questions or want information from experts who have implemented these solutions for law practices and legal organizations, members can ask an expert their questions for free via email or during a virtual visit.