Can apps or services relieve the burden of bundling?

tl;dr: Not without some pain, and considerable cost if you’re a solo practitioner. But we have a winner. Albeit at the cost of breaking a fundamental rule of British journalism.*

It turns out my blog on nested emails struck a chord. Several cries of pain rang out. Clearly it isn’t just me for whom this is a needless annoyance.

Fortunately, there are a number of web services and apps which take the misery out of bundling. Surely they’ll step in and sort it?

Well… yes. Some of them. But at considerable cost. And with a lot of bells and whistles that I just don’t need.

The ask

I admit it; my requirements are idiosyncratic. So I may not be the target market. But honestly I’m not convinced I’m so far out of the bulls-eye, particularly among the growing number of barristers who are comfortably digital-first, that there isn’t a viable customer base for what I’m after.

Put simply: I don’t want mark-up. I don’t want the ability to add comments, highlights or otherwise mess about with the text. PDF Expert (for me – I recognise Adobe Pro will suit others) is a far better precision tool for that, particularly since it means I can move smoothly from iPad to laptop in native apps without fuss or bother.

So stripped down to the bare essentials, all I want to do is bundle. And in doing so, the app/service/whatever needs to be better at merging PDFs, moving stuff around, adding page numbers or creating hyperlinks than PDF Expert already is. (It’s great at the first three, and not bad at the fourth.)

So in short, I want something that does the following, with minimal fuss:

  1. Sucks in a variety of filetypes. Including, blast them, nested emails.
  2. Puts them together into a single PDF, allowing me to reorder and retitle.
  3. Creates an index page, with each entry linked to the first page of the document it represents, whose format I can define.
  4. Also creates a table of contents (in PDF Expert terms, Outlines), again in the format of my choosing.
  5. Adds page numbers – and yet again allows me to choose how they’re formatted, since different courts have different preferences.
  6. Exports as a PDF with a reasonable file size.

(If it OCRs the lot of it as well, with a file size that’s not stupidly big, then so much the better.)

And that’s it. This really is table stakes. None of these five things (with the exception of number 1) is anything more than what the courts near-universally now require.

The options

There are probably loads. But a quick canvass of colleagues, and a moderate amount of DuckDuckGoing (yeah, I refuse to use “to Google” as a generic verb) brought me to three options: Casedo, Bundledocs and Hyperlaw.

(There were a couple of others; but they were PC-only. So no.)

I tried Casedo first, and was pleased to find it a native app rather than a web service. From a security perspective, I rather like keeping everything in file locations I can control. It’s very good value – about £12.50 a month. And it sucks in documents quickly, and makes organising them a breeze. Its interface is designed with care, and works well.

But… but, but, but. Its limitations are pretty huge. It only takes PDF and Word documents, so no Excel, PowerPoint or even emails without converting them first (and certainly no nested emails). Its OCR takes (I kid you not) 30 seconds a page, and often far longer. Its index page is pretty inflexible. And its page numbering seems only to allow a couple of formats, neither of which comply with the requirements of some of the courts and tribunals before which I appear. (And I’m always sceptical about apps which make my laptop fan scream. It’s not the fastest machine in the world, but it isn’t a slouch.)

So no. I wanted to like it, but no.

On to Bundledocs. Lots of law firms use it. Again, its intake worked well. Its index pages were well-thought-through, and at least to some extent customisable. Its page numbers likewise, although the settings to do so were like some ghastly throwback to Windows Vista. I didn’t get a chance to test its nested email-handling, since that didn’t seem to work on the demo version I was using.

But I loathed the interface. Clunky, clumsy and a poor use of a webservice. Worst of all: they wanted £48 a month. After advertising that your prices start at £15 a month, to slap a sole practitioner like that is just a joke. It’s clear that Bundledocs isn’t interested in us independent barristers. So I’m not interested in them.

Lastly, Hyperlaw, which comes out at £300 a year (£25 a month). I tried it out as part of a chambers-wide trial earlier this year, and wasn’t impressed. I liked its nested-email handling (and other intake), but spent too much time on its markup functions, which I didn’t like at all and which were near-useless for someone who spends a lot of time on an iPad.

So I’ve now given it a do-over, with a focus solely on bundling.

And… it’s pretty good. It sucks in nested emails quite happily, a big win. It appears to OCR stuff reasonably effectively. And it churns out usable bundles with a good deal of customisation of page numbers and tabbing.

I’m not entirely dancing for joy. Its interface, again, is horrible. Wholly unintuitive. It took me forever, even with the manual, to work out how to ensure documents were sorted in date order. Although it does a great job of detecting dates in documents, nine times out of ten it selects the wrong one, requiring one manually to tell it, for each document, which of several dates it’s extracted it should use. Overall, this is an awfully long way from being a pleasure to use.

But it pulled in a whole bunch of documents, of varying types. It OCRed them. It enabled them to be split, ordered and bundled. It created (again, with a certain amount of fiddling) a workable hyperlinked contents page. (Although please, Hyperlaw – if you’ll allow me to use Bates page numbering, as a number of courts require, could you put that on the index as well? Thanks.) And I should be able to design a standard template into which to squirt documents, so that bundles come out as I want them to look.

The outcome

People, we have a winner.

Of course I don’t have my ideal scenario. I’d infinitely prefer something native, rather than a web service. And huge chunks of Hyperlaw are essentially useless to me, and it hurts to be paying for something I have no intention of using.

But is avoiding bundling pain worth £300 a year to me? I think it may be. I haven’t signed up yet. But I’m certainly well on the way to doing so.

That said, I’m sure I’ve missed options. Do tell. I’d like to make sure I’m doing the right thing. Let me know.

(*Footnote to the headline: It’s an old adage in British journalism that if a piece has a headline posing a yes-no question, the answer is almost always “no”. Mostly because if it wasn’t, and the piece was on solid ground, there wouldn’t have been any need to put in the question mark in the first place. It’s a bit like headlines with quote marks in – they mostly mean “we haven’t actually stood up this quote, and it might well be bollocks. But it’s a great top line, and we just want the clicks.” Sorry to have broken the rules there.)