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The Undiscovered Benefits of E-discovery

Steve WilsonLitigators today must be prepared to collect, review and share an influx of electronically stored information (ESI) at the start of a case. Often, this data originates from many different places; emails, social media posts and online accounts are just a few of the ESI sources that provide relevant case data. The ubiquity of ESI makes e-discovery a central factor in cases of all sizes and types, not just class action and complex litigation. 

Litigators who don’t properly handle e-discovery face a protracted and cumbersome process that’s prone to costly errors and may lead to federally imposed sanctions. Yet despite the mounting consequences of e-discovery failures, attorneys aren’t doing enough to evolve their e-discovery practices. Today’s law departments need to adopt a proactive approach to e-discovery. Having strong e-discovery strategies doesn’t just enable litigators to fulfill information requests – it also provides them with a window into information that can be extremely useful to the outcome of a case.

Attorneys not up to speed with e-discovery 

The legal industry’s ESI problem largely stems from a lack of attorney engagement with e-discovery procedures. In a recent Exterro study of judges and attorneys, nearly two-thirds of respondents agreed that attorneys aren’t equipped with the knowledge to meet client e-discovery needs. When it came to explaining this knowledge gap, however, judges and attorneys differ on the root cause. While most judges trace the problem to a lack of cooperation between parties, the majority of attorneys point to a different issue: Lawyers not only lack experience with e-discovery – they’re also reluctant to learn about it. 

One reason litigators avoid learning about e-discovery is because they don’t see it as a priority relative to other work tasks. But a look at e-discovery case opinions illustrates the steep consequences of this attitude.  Back in August, for instance, Delta Air Lines was ordered to pay $2.7 million in discovery violations on top of the $4.5 million it had already paid. The $7.5 million judgment largely stemmed from Delta general counsel’s failure to meet basic e-discovery standards like preserving data and backup tapes. 

Delta’s legal team isn’t the only one to struggle with data retention. As a Duke Law Journal report on sanctions for e-discovery violations revealed, failure to retain ESI is the most common reason for sanctions. Data retention is a prerequisite for sound e-discovery practice. The fact that many litigators don’t meet this basic standard points to the need for better awareness about e-discovery and its benefits.    

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Beyond meeting standards: The need for effective e-discovery

Robust e-discovery isn’t just about achieving baseline standards like data preservation. Increasingly, strong e-discovery is becoming necessary for litigators who want to maintain a competitive edge on the global stage. There’s an international push for better e-discovery standards, with nations from Canada to Singapore and Japan to Italy implementing e-discovery guidelines. This global focus on refining e-discovery is heightening the standard for attorney handling of ESI.

Here in the U.S., the recently-amended Federal Rules of Civil Procedure gives firms another reason to prioritize e-discovery solutions. The amended rules – which went into effect last December – raised standards for ESI preservation and discovery, and increased the consequences for noncompliance. Under the updated rules, there is an expectation that litigators will do what they can to ensure the e-discovery process is efficient, and make a reasonable effort to preserve ESI. The amended rules make it hard for a litigator to claim ignorance if he or she doesn’t follow proper e-discovery procedures. In March, for instance, a judge brought e-discovery-related sanctions against a plaintiff as a direct result of the FRCP amendments

In addition to solidifying compliance and a competitive edge, comprehensive e-discovery can provide litigators with an abundance of actionable case data that might not otherwise be uncovered. Information from social media posts, emails, Excel spreadsheets and other digital sources can help attorneys build a better case – but only if it’s effectively reviewed and refined. And with the mounting use of data-generating Internet of Things technology, attorneys will only have a greater need to retain, analyze and use digital information moving forward.  

Why an e-discovery solution is vital – and what firms need to look for in one 

Despite the clear need for effective e-discovery, many firms continue to rely on outmoded methods, such as paying hourly paralegals to conduct manual reviews of case-related ESI. This cumbersome approach turns e-discovery into a long, expensive and error-prone process. By using a comprehensive e-discovery platform, litigators can significantly expedite the discovery process while saving money and increasing accuracy and actionable findings. In order to do that, however, firms should align themselves with the right solutions provider. Here’s what firms should look for in an e-discovery solution: 

  • Auto-redaction: Redactions are a pivotal part of the review process, since litigators need to ensure that shared documents don’t contain privileged information. Manual redactions are slow-going and can lead to costly oversights, which is why attorneys should seek out auto-redaction capabilities in an e-discovery solution. Litigators should look for e-discovery solutions with version history features so that all original document content remains preserved and searchable, and that legal teams retain a trail of any redactions made by different users. 
  • Advanced search: The e-discovery review process typically involves honing in on certain topics or mentions across ESI material. Attorneys rack up significant costs by paying hourly paralegals to do this work; currently, 80 percent of discovery costs are spent during the review phase. E-discovery solutions with advanced search functions enabled by robust metadata and tagging can drive down review costs by making it easier to hone in on specific parameters and keywords. 
  • Annotations: Documents go through many different hands during the review process. As more attorneys review documents, the conversation risks becoming siloed or scattershot. Annotation features can help ensure that the review conversation remains collaborative and centralized for future reference.
  • Easy document conversion: Once litigators finish their review, it’s time to prepare the files for sharing – a procedure that usually involves merging documents and converting them into certain file formats. Carried out manually, the process of merging and converting ESI materials is very burdensome. Therefore, look for e-discovery solutions that offer tools for easy document conversion.

By recognizing the importance of e-discovery and adopting solutions that help streamline the process, attorneys can be ahead of the pack as digital information moves to the center stage of the discovery process. 

Steve Wilson is the vice president of product design at Accusoft, and he has more than 20 years of experience in software and app development. 
 

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