Lawyers, photos, and PDFs

In a recent episode of Mac Power Users, David and Katie spoke with Ernie Svenson, an attorney who—in addition to his practice—teaches other lawyers how to use PDFs effectively. David and Katie are themselves attorneys and, as you might expect from David’s Paperless book and their frequent Fujitsu sponsorship, they’re both big users of PDFs. Everything they said in the show made sense, but it’s what they didn’t say that inspired me to write this post. The lawyers I work with have already adopted an all-PDF document management system, and it is the bane of my existence.

When I’m hired by an attorney, its usually because some structure or piece of equipment has failed, and the lawyer needs an engineering explanation of how and why it failed. I get sent lots of documents related (and unrelated) to the failure, and I work my way through them to pull out the facts and put together a failure scenario. In the old days, the documents were on paper and came in boxes; now they’re electronic and come in on disk or by email. There’s no question I need fewer file cabinets now than I used to, so I’m a big fan of electronic documents.

But I’m not a fan of the new tendency to turn every document into a PDF, because information is getting lost in the process. I’ll start with a silly example and then move on to a real concern.

I have the sense that many lawyers and their administrative assistants think “PDF” means “scanned document.” So when they have a document that’s already in electronic form, they’ll turn it into a PDF by printing it to paper and then scanning the paper. This is funny, I know, but believe me, it happens. I have one client who insists I send him an “original” paper version of my reports instead of just emailing him a PDF; I’m convinced he does this because he thinks any PDF I send him would be scanned from paper, and he wants the best quality version he can get. So far, I have not been able to convince him that my PDFs are the originals. Rather than argue, which doesn’t do me any good, I send him the paper copy he wants and email him my PDF, too, with the hope that he’ll eventually see that the PDF is better.

(By the way, David, Katie, and Ernie did a good job of explaining the “print to PDF” capabilities of the Mac. David, in particular, emphasized how you can turn any document on the Mac into a PDF without any deterioration, and linked to his clever shortcut for speeding up this process.)

(I should also mention that there is one type of electronic document that lawyers often don’t convert to PDF, and that is the Microsoft Word file. Among attorneys—and, to be fair, to too many other people—Word is considered as fundamental to a computer’s operation as bits and bytes. It’s as if John von Neumann and Alan Turing got together and decreed it as the One True Format.)

The more serious problem is with photographs. The files I’m sent often contain photos of broken parts or an accident scene, and I learn what I can about the nature of the failure from these photos. In pre-digital days, I’d get crummy photocopies of photos, and I’d ask for photographic prints. Lawyers understood how this would help, and they’d happily make the request to whoever owned the photos. Later, I’d get low-quality prints of images from digital cameras, and I’d ask for the “original JPEGs.” This was a readily understood shorthand way of saying that I wanted a copy of the image files that came out of the camera. Again, it was obvious to my lawyer clients why I wanted this, and they would make the request.

But with the switch to PDF document management, I’m having a harder time getting what I want. The photos typically come to me in large PDFs, with one or two images per page and a Bates number. I understand how this is great for the attorney, but it’s bad for me. The embedded images are always of lower resolution than what came out of the camera. Too often, this is because the PDF was created through the print-and-scan technique; but even when it wasn’t, some downsampling is part of the conversion process and detail is lost.

As important, the photo’s metadata is gone. The sequencing and timing of photos is often just as significant as the scene they capture, and the conversion to PDF loses that information.

For some reason, I can no longer get across to my clients the importance of getting the original JPEGs. They see the PDFs as “digital photos,” and don’t really understand how any other digital photo file could be superior. It’s like talking to Nigel Tufnel.

“But these are digital.”

Lawyers aren’t stupid—far from it. For most of them, though, this stuff just isn’t in their wheelhouse, and they don’t see it as important to learn. I’m obviously not doing a good job of explaining the value of other digital formats, so I’m asking David, Katie, and Ernie to modify their proselytizing for PDFs and put in a good word for JPEGs.