The PDF is pervasive in legal information. It’s over-used by people who prioritize format over usability on the web, but it’s a necessity for law libraries. The tools for working with PDFs have changed just as law library collections have. Where we once bought a license and owned software, PDF tools are increasingly provided by subscription. When I was quoted $2,000 for our team’s annual Adobe license, I knew it was time to look at alternatives.

I have a pretty poor opinion of Adobe and its subscriptions, in light of their inability to protect client information. Add to that the premium they charge for working on the format they developed but that is now an open file format, and using Adobe makes little sense for a law library that has to keep an eye on its bottom line.

Also, $2000 is a lot of money each year to spend on a utility. That’s a lot of reference hours, or part of a database, or professional development for staff. If I’m going to spend that amount on a software utility, I’m going to want to make sure we need it.

Like most information groups, people on our teams require a wide range of PDF tools. We’re undertaking a needs analysis to break down the workflow that staff use when they’re engaging with PDFs. For those who with complicated PDF needs, we’ll need to purchase software. But for the rest, a lot of what we do can be done with free tools.


The PDF reader is a dime a dozen. There are still web sites that point to the Adobe Acrobat Reader but there’s no reason to use that. In fact, the most recent versions of Adobe Acrobat Reader DC seem primarily as an upsell vehicle. Each time you try to access one of the tools (take a snapshot, sign a PDF, add a comment), it is unclear whether you need to have a paid Adobe subscription or not.

The reader is my primary tool. Since most web browsers will load a PDF natively, I often don’t use a PDF tool outside the web browser. If I need to read an internal document or add things to a PDF, then I fall back on a PDF reader.

Despite PDF being a standard format, not all PDFs will appear the same in every viewer. It’s a good idea to keep a standalone reader for those times when a PDF renders weirdly in-browser.

I use NitroPDF’s free reader, which is actually its basic Pro product after you complete a 14 day trial. The interface remains simpler than Acrobat Reader, with a toolbar rather than a Tools menu that shows upsell options that are unavailable. It means those tools I use for markup (text, comments, highlighting) and for signing are easier to see.

In the past, I’ve tried Foxit, Sumatra, and others to compare functionality. If you’re looking for alternatives to Adobe Acrobat Reader, there are plenty of choices. My preference for NitroPDF is as much that I’m comfortable with it, rather than that it’s best at any given function.

One feature I particularly like on NitroPDF’s reader is the Quicksign that requires a signature. If you save a signature, you can force it to require a password before it places the signature. On Acrobat Reader, it allows any user of your PC to sign.

In our needs analysis, everyone needs a reader level of support, although viewing is the primary function. A reader gives us the ability to:

  • view PDFs
  • markup PDFs with notes, comments, and highlights
  • sign PDFs received from other people (visual or digital signature options)

We do not have mobile users, although I occasionally sign a PDF with a tablet stylus as an alternative to other signatures. In that case, I can use markup tools to access a pen and sign. This is pretty basic stuff.

Bottomline: PDF readers are somewhat fungible and are free.

Create PDFs

One of our primary workflows is document delivery. We deliver thousands of pages a year from our electronic and print subscriptions. They are nearly always sent as PDFs.

In the not to distant past, a PDF printer was required. There are as many of these as readers – my go to was always CutePDF Writer – but anyone on a Windows computer can create PDFs within the operating system. Windows 10 users have “Microsoft Print to PDF” as a default printer. If I was looking for a third-party printer, I’d take a look at PDF Forge’s PDFCreator as well as CutePDF. It has a number of nice-to-have functions, like PDF compression.

The law practice world is so heavily oriented to Microsoft Office that creating PDFs from native documents is also built-in. Since recent versions of Microsoft Office have a Save As PDF option in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc., there is no need to print to create a PDF.

One nice thing about having a PDF printer is that you occasionally get a PDF that you can’t save, for whatever reason. Mine tend to come from our Finance team and I’m not sure what they are doing to the PDF. But I can make my markup or signature and then print the PDF to get around whatever is blocking my Save As.

Some PDF creator tools allow you to add functionality – like hyperlink words in the PDF that weren’t highlighted in the original document – but if you are generating a PDF from a native document yourself, you can probably create all of those enhancements in the original document.

From a workflow perspective, our information teams are all on Windows 10. We need to be able to create PDFs for document delivery and communication. The built-in PDF printer is sufficient for that need.

Bottomline: creating PDFs is free.

PDF Manipulation

Another workflow we have involves our digital repository. We receive large PDF documents that need to be segmented into smaller chunks. The large PDF is a CLE program and we display each session from the program as an individual PDF.

The split and merge options – perhaps also called extraction – are useful for this workflow. Someone can identify the page breaks in a reader but most readers do not provide extraction tools for free.

These functions are also useful if you are combining documents. My most common use case is corporate expense reimbursements. I have a bunch of PDF documents that include receipts, meeting registrations, credit card statement, and so on. Once I have completed my PDF reimbursement form, I can merge in all the other documents to create a single PDF packet.

This is a decision point. You can pay for these tools or you can get them free. For many years, I’ve used the open source PDFSam tool to split and merge. It’s free and I am only doing this function once a month, tops.

If your team uses split and merge functionality more often, then you will need to determine whether it’s easier for them to have one tool to do both viewing and extraction, or if they can get by with two tools.

Bottomline: you may need to license a tool that includes PDF handling depending on how heavy your workflow is. Most PDF tools offer split, merge, extraction on their basic product. For example, Adobe Acrobat Standard has these tools, as does NitroPDF. PDFArchitect 7 Free also has these functions.

The Whole Ball of Wax

Then there are the information professionals who do so much with PDFs that they need the full PDF editor product. We are still working on our needs assessment but we appear to have the normal 80-20 distribution on this. A literal handful of staff need a PDF editor; everyone else can use either a reader or a reader plus a splitter.

There is still some nuance here, though. Let’s say that someone needs to OCR incoming PDFs to convert them to usable text. You can upload a PDF to Google Docs and it will OCR it, and it can handle multiple languages. If OCR isn’t a huge task, you might still be able to skip a license and use a special tool on an ad hoc basis.

Similarly, if you have a PDF editor to change text in a document or to add bookmarks and other enhancements, you might see if those can be added before the PDF is created. A Microsoft Word document using styles for headings can auto-generate PDF bookmarks. Similarly, hyperlinks that leave the document or hyperlinks that jump to other parts of a document can be created in the native document. If your team creates the content before it’s a PDF, there’s less need for a full on PDF editor.

This is where you get into the license world. The reason we have a $2,000 annual Adobe subscription to consider is because our IT licensing team wants everyone to use the same option. In this case, it is the most expensive product from Adobe’s PDF tools.

There’s a bit of bulk pricing in there but it works out to about $150 for every license, every year. My hope is that we will be able to trim that number down based on our needs analysis and finding a new reader that meets more of our needs for free, and only upgrading those who need it to a basic PDF editor for splitting and merging.

More importantly, I’m interested in finding something for my 5 or 6 must-have PDF editor folks that we can buy once and own. The subscription PDF editor is an unnecessary ongoing cost. It gets particularly hairy when you’re dealing with staff who work on an information desk, like a reference desk.

Some licensed products require you to license each computer that person works on, so Adobe and PDF Forge both offer 3-seat licenses for each individual, to allow them to work on multiple devices. When you’re looking at licensing, if your reference librarians are using the product on multiple devices, you’ll want to make sure the license covers that.

If your law library has greater technology chops, there are far more PDF tools available. Most law libraries are part of a law firm or government entity that provides IT and licensing and so this can mean there are limits on what’s possible. A PDF server or integrated PDF tools could be quite powerful, given workflows that need them and a technology environment that can support them.

For now, I’ll be curious to see staff identify their needs for PDF use. Once we have that list of needs, I’ll start to try to match it up with products that are out there. I’ve asked our archivist to reach out to his network to see what people are already doing, and we’ll take that feedback into account.

The hardest part may be to find a slow period where we can have staff test out some of these products – most have a 14 day trial – to see if they’re suitable alternatives. One aspect of that discussion will be whether unsuitability is feature-oriented or comfort-oriented. Hopefully, by the time our need to license again comes up, we’ll have a better, cheaper answer for our information teams.