Why OCR? The importance of text searchability for legal documents

Remember the days of skimming documents in search of that key term or phrase? Or scanning pages to find exactly where you mentioned that important detail? Thanks to text searchability for legal documents, that process became a whole lot easier when working on digital files.

In order to work in real time, law firms need to be able to search in real time. That’s where OCR comes in.

What is OCR?

OCR, or optical character recognition, is the mechanical or electronic conversion of different types of documents – scanned paper documents, PDF files, or digital images – into editable and searchable files. OCR turns legal documents that couldn’t be searched for text into searchable files, allowing legal professionals to search the entire contents of the document.

Once this process has been applied to a document, readers can search that document for words or phrases by typing Ctrl+F (Cmd+F on Mac computers). Suddenly it’s that easy to dive deeper into a document’s finer points.

The importance of searchability in legal documents

Before OCR, the only option available for digitizing printed paper documents was to manually re-type the text, a method that proved to be extremely time-consuming as well as prone to errors.

Now, once a scanned paper document goes through OCR processing, the document’s text can be easily edited and searched within a word processing software such as Microsoft Word or in Google Docs.

Why is searchability in legal documents vital?

Most courts now require when eFiling

Whether it’s for the research attorneys who review filings before they get to the judge or the examiners who read every document and have heretofore been required to copy and paste the text, court officials like text searchability. So the clerks will check to see if your documents have been OCR’d once they are eFiled.

Easily find words in large files

Whatever reason you’re looking, the ability to find any word in any file simply by searching can be groundbreaking for legal professionals. Think of how easy it will be to analyze files from opposing counsel when you can examine by a term.

Minimize error rates

Converting paper documents to digital files can result in typos and incorrect sentences, making simple replication difficult without OCR.

When court officials or one of the parties needs to copy aspects of the document, you’re much more likely to have an accurate replica when text searchability has been enabled.

To make a PDF document searchable, you can publish it as a PDF directly from your word processing software (the preferred method among legal professionals), or apply optical character recognition in your PDF software.

Read more: How to make a PDF document text searchable

How can I confirm that my doc is text searchable?

Your law firm just received hundreds of documents from opposing counsel, a mix of PDFs created from Microsoft Office applications and scans, some OCR’d and some not – multiple document types intermixed without any pre-defined indexing system. How can you quickly separate searchable from non-searchable PDFs, and detect which files need to be OCR’d?

You can check manually for text with one of these methods:

  • Search using Full Acrobat Search (Edit > Search)
  • Search by typing Ctrl+F/Cmd+F
  • Read Out Loud operation (View > Read Out Loud)
  • Select All (Edit > Select All or Ctrl-A)

If the document is not searchable, Adobe Acrobat will discover that there is no text on the page, send you an alert stating that the page contains only an image of a scanned page, and ask you to OCR the document.

Another way to check for searchable text is to use the Preflight feature of Acrobat Pro, which can be used on a single document or be automated using a batch sequence.

Implementing OCR

OCR can be implemented in your firm in a variety of ways:

  • Some scanners come with built-in proprietary OCR software that makes documents searchable the moment they are scanned. However, this method will only OCR documents scanned by you, not those sent to you that were scanned by others.
  • You can also implement stand-alone, third-party OCR software by purchasing and installing it on every employee’s desktop, with instructions to OCR every document. The problem with this method is employees will need to remember to OCR every document, every time, without fail, and you’ll have the cost of installing OCR software on all the firm’s computers.
  • You can utilize a document management system with integrated, automatic OCR that can be used to store, organize, and manage documents and does the OCR for you, automatically. One drawback: not all document management software has OCR capability built right in.

However you choose to start implementing, text searchability is critical for all legal documents, and checking for it should become a widespread practice for your firm.

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What reasons have you found text searchability for legal documents to be so important in the industry? Tell us about them in the comments!

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About the Author

Jan Hill is a paralegal and a freelance writer who specializes in law and legal technology topics.

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