No Pdfs for legal information online - by Margaret Hagan - Open Law Lab-02
As I’ve ventured into the world of public legal education — helping lay people figure out and navigate their legal problems — I keep hitting my head against one thorny wall over & again.

Materials are buried in PDFs.

Excellent cartoon stories telling immigrants how to deal with the government are only available in PDFs. Know your rights explainers are presented in unsearchable PDFs. Walk-throughs of a legal process are presented in static, hundred-page long PDFs.

No Pdfs for legal information online - by Margaret Hagan - Open Law Lab-03

People do not like PDFs. They serve a very limited purpose — they keep the information frozen in the exact design that the author created, and let the author save some time up-front by merely having to upload the PDF to the web. But it puts the onus & the pain on the user.

The user has to make sure their browser can properly open & display the PDF. The user has to try to find their way through the PDF, hoping that the text is searchable, and then deal with the pain of searching through to find the information she is actually looking for. The user can’t easily clip out information to save for later, because the text will be wonky & full of bizarre characters if it’s copy-able at all.

And if the user is on mobile — which, users increasingly are — then PDFs are the worst. PDFs are not responsive, making them so difficult to look at on a mobile screen they are virtually useless.

PDFs are not user-friendly, and public-facing legal organizations should stop using them immediately. Sure, keep a PDF version up online for the *very* limited use case of a person wanting to print off a copy of the information and distribute it in its original author formatting.

But the vast majority of use cases for online legal information are people trying to get a specific clip of information that they can find easily, intake easily, and then save for future reference easily. PDFs don’t allow for any of this.

No Pdfs for legal information online - by Margaret Hagan - Open Law Lab-04

Please, legal authors & publishers of great content, unbury your content — let it free — make it usable for your target audiences. Take the text and images out of the pdf, and lay it out in a webpage with HTML.

It is not hard. It is worth the investment. It is a very quick & low-cost solution to the horrible PDF problem of public legal education. And you the legal organization will get higher Google search result placement if you liberate your text out of its frozen, buried PDF pile and onto lively, usable, searchable web pages.

To incentivize some change on this topic, I am thinking of naming names to shame groups that are serial PDF-buriers. Or giving some kind of reward badge to those organizations that actually present their information in easy-to-use formats — who take an Anti-PDF approach to sharing useful legal information. Something to get a movement away from this anti-user reliance on PDFs to communicate information.

No Pdfs for legal information online - by Margaret Hagan-01

Any thoughts on how to get change here — or other thoughts on how to better get legal information out of experts’ heads/computers/PDFs and out available to lay people?

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  4. Ed

    I agree with you on this one too! PDF documents have their place, but not as the primary or only format for source documents on the web.

    Over 20 years ago, I succeeded in getting my government’s statutes and regulations on the web in HTML. I then started working on moving to an SGML originating (drafting) environment, which quickly moved to XML when it became a standard and had some decent tools (about 1999). It took years, but by 2004 our statutes were all being drafted in XML and in 2007 our regulations were also. Of course, going to the web became trivial, as did producing PDFs (necessary to satisfy a lot of users, but they never play a part in searching).

    With respect to accessibility on the Internet, particularly searching within a PDF once you have it, the acronym should be taken to mean “Pretty Damn Foul”.

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