The process of preserving, collecting, reviewing, and producing records is imperfect. Until all information is solely electronic and is automatically classified when created, it always will be.
Theoretically, considering that upwards of 98% of all information is electronic, it should be possible to find each and every relevant record. However, the ever-increasing volume of digital data continues to outpace our ability to efficiently and accurately deal with this information. The reality of limited time and money demands that parties compromise and accept discovery imperfection.
The problem is well documented: The amount of information subject to discovery in litigation continues to grow at almost unfathomable rates as individuals and corporations generate staggering volumes of information. In 2010, approximately 32 billion non-spam e-mails were sent every day — as compared with the 171 billion pieces of mail delivered by the U.S. Postal Service during all of 2010. In addition, social media posts, status updates, tweets, and blogs, produced from data sources such pads, pods, and clouds, all contribute to this ever increasing mass of information.
The time, burden, and costs associated with identifying and producing relevant records from mountains of information is swamping traditional discovery budgets and holding litigants in an expensive dilemma. Further complicating matters, this problem is expected to be solved in the same amount of time it took to produce documents back in the paper days.
There have been many methods developed over the years to “perfect” the e-Discovery process, such as custodian-directed collection, iterative search terms, early case-assessment, visualization, concept clustering and the newest kid on the block, predictive coding. Each of these methods has its own benefits and risks, but none produce a perfect result.
No matter how reasonable the efforts, how cooperative counsel are, or how advanced the technology is, litigants must understand that some documents will be withheld that are not privileged, some privileged documents may get produced, and some relevant documents may never see the light of day.
This is not a new problem. When paper files ruled the world, the challenge was finding critical documents that existed only within a multitude of storage boxes in some dusty warehouse. Today, the problem is almost the reverse: the chance of any single document getting lost is very small. However, having all that digital information at hand results in documents getting lost in plain sight.
Since we cannot locate, collect, and produce every relevant piece of information, what should we do? Our ethical obligations are no different than they were during the days of paper discovery. Somehow, we need to balance the requirement to produce all relevant information against the practical problems of time and expense.
There are no checklists or guidelines that lead to the perfect solution. The best way to manage these imperfections is to admit they exist, take reasonable steps to reduce them, and protect clients against them by seeking agreements that address the inevitable errors. The more transparent this process is, the more likely the parties and the courts can reach reasonable solutions. Maybe someday computers will be wise enough to save us all from ourselves, but in the mean time, the issues associated with filtering down huge amounts of information to manageable pieces will require technical know-how, foresight, cooperation and patience.