E-Discovery Software Makes The New York Times: But What Does It Mean For You?

Always an observant lot, a number of federal defenders emailed me the link to a March 4, 2011 NY Times article which discusses how e-discovery software is saving attorney time and charges. See Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software. Comparing the traditional method of document review where attorneys and paralegals do “eyes on paper,” the article discusses e-discovery software that can analyze documents more quickly and for less money – music to everyone’s ears, especially those who do indigent criminal defense work.

The article describes how some of these software analytics can more effectively search and retrieve information than ever before, even if a human being viewed and indexed every document. Examples include “conceptual searching” software which, broadly stated, can find the ideas in which you are interested, even if the specific keywords are not contained in the document. So, for example, if you are looking for the concept of “bill of law,” the program identifies relevant documents (documents that reference bill of laws, constitutional amendments, etc.) and excludes other documents which may have the word “bill” in them but do not include the concept of “bill” that you are interested in (such as duck bill).

(As an aside, this has been discussed and utilized for years within the electronic discovery world. Over four years ago, The Sedona Conference, a nonprofit research and educational institute dedicated to the advanced study of law and policy, published an excellent commentary discussing the challenges and potential solutions involved with searching large amounts of ESI in The Sedona Conference Best Practices Commentary on the Use of Search and Information Retrieval Methods in E-Discovery, August 2007 (TheSedonaConference.org). In part, the commentary states that “[h]uman review of documents in discovery is expensive, time consuming, and error-prone. There is growing consensus that the application of linguistic and mathematic-based content analysis, embodied in new forms of search and retrieval technologies, tools, techniques and process in support of the review function can effectively reduce litigation cost, time, and error rates.”)

As many federal defender staff and CJA panel attorneys know, federal criminal cases are experiencing an explosion of electronic data, with cases involving increased volume, multiple file types and multiple source devices including social media. The idea that technology can save us from this problem is enticing. I often wish that I was Spock talking to the computer on the Starship Enterprise, where the computer would provide me the relevant information succinctly and to the point (with a friendly voice to boot).

Though artificial intelligence has grown by leaps and bounds, it is nowhere near that Star Trek 23rd century vision of the world, and all of the software described in the New York Times article requires significant up-front human thinking and planning to make it effective. That is not say it isn’t useful and shouldn’t be explored (in fact, it must be), but the software in itself is not a panacea to the problems of electronic discovery.

The article, which also focuses on the possibility that the software may reduce legal jobs, is a great read if you are interested in what is the current cutting-edge technology. Practically, the products mentioned in the NYT article are out of the realm of most people’s current day-to-day practice. The higher level analytics are very expensive and are currently only useful for the few exceptional cases that reach extremely large volumes of data. That said, there are limited instances where defense teams have taken advantage of this type of technology to narrow the data in their case. We have found that by using the proper workflow, doing front-end thinking and planning, this technology does result in overall cost-effectiveness and allows defense teams to spend more time on what they care about most.

Three additional points to consider:

  1. Paper and electronically scanned paper generally does not work with these new tools
    The majority of discovery in indigent federal criminal cases is in scanned paper form, i.e., it was a piece of paper that was imaged and then converted into either TIFF or PDF format even though almost all of that paper was originally produced by a computer). As exciting as these new tools are, they generally don’t work with scanned paper because they are designed to use the metadata associated with the native ESI to do the higher level searching and threading. This is one reason why it is important for opposing parties to discuss in advance the form in which information in the case will be produced.
  2. When dealing with sizable amounts of information, a review tool is needed
    Historically, people who do indigent criminal work have gotten by without using an in-house review tool such as Concordance or Summation, or one of the many web-hosted solutions now out there. Instead, they used Adobe Acrobat Reader, IPRO, Windows Explorer, or they simply printed out the documents to look at them. With the dramatic volume increase, and the myriad file formats containing additional information that isn’t visible when you simply hit “print,” federal defender offices and CJA panel attorneys have a greater need to have a review tool (be it on their computer or web-based), which allows them to more effectively review and manage case information.
  3. Greater productivity is needed just to keep pace with the information explosion. 
    Though not a panacea, we must examine and embrace new technologies to deal with this onslaught. Electronic discovery experts recognize that while all the new technology in the litigation support arena should allow us to search in more sophisticated ways, organize in a more refined manner and review more data faster, we continue to be hard pressed to keep up with the amount of information inundating us.

Ralph Losey, a nationally recognized electronic discovery expert, had his typical witty and insightful take on this article. See NY Times Discovers e-Discovery, But Gets the Jobs Report Wrong.  I found the following particularly relevant to the future challenges in the criminal litigation context: “The new technologies allow us to go faster and search and review more and more bits than ever before, but still, we are just treading water. . . . I do not know the actual metrics here. I don’t think anyone does. But it is my impression that the incredible advancements and improvements in search and review speed made possible by some software are roughly counterbalanced by the growth in information.”

The “tried and true” discovery management techniques that serve so well in cases involving a handful of bankers boxes of paper documents will not work in modern-day litigation. Just the volume itself forces one to take advantage of what technology has to offer. In this point in time, everyone who practices law uses some form of technology. By taking the next steps of learning more about technology and understanding how information is stored digitally, people can do their jobs more effectively and efficiently. I firmly believe that with the right education, human resources, processes, and tools, the computer can help you process, organize, and find critical information more quickly and allow you to more effectively represent your client during these times of limited funds.

– Sean

Posted in ESI