What is a PDF? (And What ISN’T It?)

Throughout my career in the legal industry, I’ve spoken with people who have the impression that PDF documents are “secure.” When I ask them what they think this means, I often hear they believe it is difficult to change the document. Sadly, this isn’t true. Worse: When attorneys believe this common myth, they can put sensitive client data at risk.

Today, I thought I’d write about PDFs and why they are really good for some tasks, really bad for others, and how you can assure that you’re using them properly.

What is a PDF?

The beauty of a PDF (“portable document format”) is that, no matter who opens it and no matter what kind of device they’re using, they will see it exactly as you intended because the PDF file itself contains all of the fonts, formatting and design elements. In contrast, if you share a Word document with a client who doesn’t use the same app or doesn’t have the same fonts installed, they will likely see a very messy version of the document you intended them to see. This can lead to frustration and, worse, mistakes.

PDF documents are fantastic for sharing work for review, print projects (most printers require a pdf format and won’t print from a Word doc), and interactivity (think of all those forms you download and fill out online).

The trouble is that many people think PDF documents are inherently “secure,” or that no one can tinker with a PDF, which isn’t true. Read on…

Security is In the Eye of the Beholder

If you’re using PDF documents to share your work because you believe PDFs are “secure,” let’s examine what you mean by secure:

  • It’s Secret: I’m not sure why some people believe that PDFs are somehow secret and not easily shared, but this is 100% false. PDFs can be forwarded to the universe just like any file on your computer. And once you send it to someone else, they can save it to their computer and resend it to their entire contact list. There are some programs that can limit and track who has access to a PDF but a mere screen-shot of a PDF on a computer ends up being a shareable image of that document. PDFs are not secret.
  • It’s Unchangeable/Locked Down: Also 100% false. There are many PDF editing tools available today that make it easy to change PDFs.
  • The Password-Protected Documents Are Impenetrable: Also 100% false. Again, the internet is rife with apps that will remove passwords, extract the data and steal images.

And now, thanks to research conducted and published last week by Assaf Baharav, a security researcher with Check Point, we now know that PDF files can be turned into spies against us. In essence, when you receive one of these malicious PDF files and open it, within about 15 seconds, it could be accessing and sharing your Windows credentials, such as usernames, passwords and addresses. (Note: this is yet another good reason to offer security awareness training at your firm. If people know enough not to click on PDFs that they don’t expect to receive, then they won’t unleash this malicious attack.)

So, Why Use PDFs at All?!

If you were using PDFs because you thought they were secure, you’re probably thinking that you should stop using them altogether. But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water! I recommend that you just shift your thinking a bit: PDFs are a fantastic way to share your work in a format that remains consistent across platforms, which is highly important for legal documents and presentations.

Further, PDFs are perfect for all of the functions I mentioned earlier (printing, reviewing, interactive forms). The key in using PDFs properly is in understanding your specific PDF software so that you can use it to its ultimate strengths.

Which PDF Provider Should I Use and How Can I Make Sure I’m Using my PDF Software Properly?

Adobe used to be the only game in town when it came to PDF creation and manipulation, but there are now many companies that offer PDF services. I’ll name a few below:

  • Adobe Acrobat: As I mentioned above, you’ve probably used the free version of this PDF reader on one of your devices. The Pro version enables you to create, sign, read, edit, comment, restrict print and share PDFs in an environment that your team may already be familiar with.
  • Nuance Power PDF: This platform was recently named “Best PDF Editor” by PC Advisor. It lets you create, edit, annotate and share PDF documents easily. The advanced version of the software enables your firm to collaborate on documents anywhere, anytime using your network or the cloud. You can convert Word to PDF documents (and back again) easily. There are also tools that teams can use to collaborate. (Nice feature for firms: you can redact sensitive information.)
  • PDFdocs by DocsCorp: This robust PDF platform enables you to edit, enhance and mark-up content; improve navigation by adding bookmarks and links; modify the document by adding or removing pages or documents from a collated set; split the PDF to comply with email or court filing requirements; redact private or confidential information; and convert the PDF to a Word or image file. With pdfDocs you can also edit text and images. This saves you from having to make minor changes to the original document and converting to PDF again.
  • Foxit: Foxit has several great PDF solutions that enable editing, collaboration, document tracking, signatures, annotations, encryption and even limited access features (for enhanced security). It’s cloud-based and reasonably priced.

So, as you can see, you have many PDF provider options. However, once you select a PDF editor, the real key is being able to use it properly. In order to do that, you need to train the people in your firm. Otherwise, it’s like giving a brand, new car to a baby: he may honk the horn and splash wiper fluid on the windshield, but he can’t drive it! Teach your employees to drive the new PDF application like they own it!

Here are several training options that I recommend:

  • Launch trainings: Before you launch the PDF application into your firm, make sure that your trainer or LMS provider has training materials and learning paths specific to your new PDF platform ready to go. (A robust LMS provider should have all of these “in the can,” making your training process turnkey.)
  • On-demand trainings: With an LMS, you can direct new users to trainings and quick reference guides that answer their specific questions.
  • New-hire orientation trainings: Make sure all your new hires understand the firm’s PDF protocols by incorporating a PDF learning path into their orientation.
  • Quarterly tips and tricks: As your PDF provider launches updates to their program, your LMS provider should simultaneously roll out new training materials to help you keep your firm’s skills up to date.

If you’d like help selecting a PDF platform or training your team to use the system you already have, contact me today! Jay@SavvyTraining.com or 303-800-4568.


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