Surviving without sticky notes

I’m not saying it’s unheard of. But it’s vanishingly rare to find a barrister who works on paper and who doesn’t festoon her bundle with sticky notes – whether purpose-made and translucent, or torn-up Post-Its. Combined with cardboard tabs to create sections, it works. But in a paperless world, what are we to do?

Everyone does it.

When faced with a paper bundle hundreds of pages long – still worse, several – it’s tempting to sigh in despair. How can one possibly navigate it? Find what one’s after? And most importantly, do so quick enough not to annoy the tribunal – or look impossibly incompetent in the process?

The two time-honoured techniques are the cardboard tab and the sticky note. Cardboard tabs separate one document from another. Sticky notes take you to the exact page you need – sometimes the exact paragraph. (If you’re the kind of person who carefully places them in alignment with said paragraph, rather than in a kind of OCD march down the side of the page. Guilty as charged on the latter front, incidentally.)

It works. Aside from anything else, once you’ve been through a bundle a few times, the physicality of the locations starts to sink in. You recognise, almost subconsciously, which tab, which sticky note, is which, from their position. And so you find your way – smoothly and professionally.

I don’t have a solution to the loss, in our new paperless world, of the physical cue. That simply doesn’t exist, and it’s a shame. But it’s a burden we’ve simply got to bear, I’m afraid.

That aside, though, there are perfectly workable alternatives to tabs and Post-Its. PDF Expert’s handling of annotations, in fact, makes this simple. Firstly, it allows you to create an Outline – essentially a table of contents. Secondly, it allows you to bookmark individual pages. And thirdly, whenever you highlight something or write a text note in the margin, it lists ALL these annotations. And lets you search the list.

It also allows you to export the annotations. Imagine that. You’ve marked up an authority with highlights, written yourself a few marginalia to guide your thinking – and then you email yourself just the extracts you’ve highlighted and the notes you’ve written, so you can easily cut-and-paste them into an advice or a skeleton. Perfect.

All these are visible on the Mac through either the View menu (third section down, after “Split View”) or through clicking the button just to the right of the traffic-light buttons in the top left of every window. The one that – unsurprisingly – looks like a sidebar. Which is exactly what it opens, with four buttons at the top allowing you to show (from left to right) bookmarks, outlines, annotations, or just thumbnails of all the pages. (Similarly, on an iPad, you hit the top-right button which looks like the spread pages of a book.)

So when you’ve put your bundle together (caveat – while bookmarks and annotations survive a merge just fine, outlines don’t – so do this after you’ve done the merge):

  • show the Outline sidebar;
  • Go to the first page of a document within the bundle;
  • Click “+ Add Item”, typing in the name of the document (or an abbreviation you’ll actually recognise – I normally include the date for easy reference);
  • Repeat till you’re done.

You can now easily skip to any individual piece of evidence. Note that you can indent outlines, for instance if you have a big document with multiple parts.

As you read through, you’ll find important pages. Highlight them (select the text, then you can do any number of things – choose “Highlight” from the “Annotate” menu, right-click and choose a colour, use a keyboard shortcut – pick your preferred method and stick to it. And when you’d normally add a sticky note, hover your mouse in the top right hand corner of the page – and you’ll see a little blue “bookmark” placeholder. Click that, and a red bookmark will appear – and even if it’s not open, the Bookmark sidebar will pop into view, with a fresh new bookmark for you to name.

So there you go. Highlight, and find all your highlights in an easy-to-search list. Go straight to a particular document via the Outlines. And skip to a particular page or issue you Bookmarked earlier.

Job done. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you’re accustomed you’ll be sauntering through bundles as quickly as you used to. If not more so.

(In the spirit of fairness, I should acknowledge that other apps do some or all of this – just in different ways. Adobe Pro, for instance, combines bookmarks and table of contents into a single list. Some people far prefer that – which is fine. Personally, I don’t. The point being: this isn’t about what’s right or wrong. This is about what works for you – what gets out of your way and helps you do the job. Find a system, and stick to it.)