Catch-22 for e-discovery standards?

Lawyers are waiting for judges… who are waiting for lawyers. What’s a client to do?

E-discovery law is always going to be out of step with information technology because of the way in which the law develops.

photo credit: Drew Vigal / CC BY-NC 2.0

The legal system is very rules oriented, including many purely procedural rules. This is so partly because the legal system is an adversarial process, in which disputes between opposing parties are resolved by a neutral third party judge. The legal system attempts to create a fair process by giving everyone advance notice of the rules that will be observed, then sticking to those rules. Because the process is considered so important, a great deal of time and money may be spent during a lawsuit to resolve disputes over whether one party or the other has broken the procedural rules. Serious breaches of purely procedural rules by one party can lead a judge to award victory to their opponent for no other reason than failing to follow procedure. A judge may also find that party’s attorneys personally liable for their participation in the rule-breaking.

Legal procedural rules are established by legislatures, like the US Congress and state assemblies; by court administrative bodies, like the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and (initially) the Federal Rules of Evidence; and by judges by way of decisions (also known as rulings or opinions) they write to explain how they resolved a dispute between parties to a lawsuit.

Recommendations concerning legal procedures may be made by expert committees, which for e-discovery typically means The Sedona Conference and TREC Legal Track. But although judges regularly mention legal experts’ recommendations in their opinions – such mentions are typically known as “dicta” – both the recommendations and dicta lack the authority of law.

In an ideal world clearly defined, efficient, and flexible rules would be developed and followed for identifying and disclosing electronic data – like a well developed API (Application Programming Interface) in the software realm, or a useful IEEE  standard, which is akin to what TREC may ultimately develop. Unfortunately, as with many APIs and even internationally recognized standards, the reality in law is a quite a bit messier than the ideal.

Legislators and judges are not experts in the realm of electronically stored information. Nor do they wish to be; nor should their role be expanded to require such expertise. Furthermore, judges tend to be reactive rather than proactive. Not only do they have very full agendas already, but the fundamental character of their role is to wait until they are presented with a dispute that clearly and narrowly addresses a particular issue before they make a ruling that takes a position on that issue. This is known as “judicial restraint”.

Two new influences are incrementally changing the legal rules concerning e-discovery. The first influence is the ripple effect from recent changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Evidence which clarify how electronically stored information is to be reviewed and disclosed. Attorneys and judges must attempt to follow these new rules, and judges are now deciding new e-discovery cases interpreting these rules for the first time in various situations. The second influence is the rising prominence of two prestigious but unofficial advisory committees, the aforementioned Sedona Conference and TREC Legal Track, which have researched and published detailed findings and recommendations concerning e-discovery best practices. These recommendations are increasingly being cited by judges in their rulings

Notwithstanding the commendable efforts of those who have been working skillfully and hard to improve e-discovery standards, those standards remain quite broad and subject to a wide range of interpretations. As a result, a wide range of technologies and processes are thriving in the e-discovery realm. And the standards that exist at present do not offer the means by which to compare most of the popular technologies and processes currently in use.

Two change agents are likely to sharpen e-discovery standards and narrow the field of e-discovery technologies and processes.

The first change agent is the quality control movement which is being promoted by vendors such as H5 and Inference and recommended by both TREC and Sedona (which I’ve written a little about here). Their thinking is that e-discovery, like any other mass-scale process – and here we’re talking about reviewing documents on the scale of tens-of-thousands to millions – must adhere to well-defined quality standards, just as manufacturers that produce thousands or more of consumer product components must adhere to well-defined quality standards.

The second and most important change agent will be ground breaking legal rulings by judges. When judges eventually rule that new standards must be observed, then lawyers and their clients will follow (for the most part). Until then lawyers are almost certain to stick to the status quo. In fact, when I discuss this topic with e-discovery solution vendors I always hear that their attorney customers aren’t interested in anything that the courts haven’t already accepted.

But therein lies the Catch-22: Judges are waiting for lawyers to present an issue while the lawyers are waiting for the judges to rule so they don’t have to present the issue. Because of judicial restraint, judges only rule on issues that have been unambiguously presented to them in the course of a lawsuit. But until the courts have ruled that certain technical standards are required, the lawyers won’t advise their clients to rely on those standards. And until a lawyers’ client relies on a standard in a situation which puts that standard at issue in a lawsuit, judges can’t rule that the standard is legally valid. So round and round it goes.

The log jam breakers will be 1) further amendments to the procedural rules, based no doubt on the recommendations of TREC and Sedona and the vendors and lawyers that participate in those efforts, and possibly 2) a “civil rights campaign” approach. The latter is a scenario like we saw in 1950’s Supreme Court school desegregation decisions in which clients stepped forward at some personal risk to offer their personal circumstances as “test cases.” By adopting and sticking to a certain principle, even though it created a controversy, they could bring about court rulings that effectively changed the law.

In a corporate setting the latter approach may only be possible with C-level and board support because of the risk involved. Opportunities would have to be identified and pursued in which it appeared that the company could save more in the long run by relying on e-discovery innovations, such as quality measures and automation, than it risked in the short run by going to court. In addition, the innovations would have to be fundamentally sound, albeit untested in court, while controversial enough that an opposing party was unwilling to accept them without a court challenge. (Ironically, whenever a client adopts an e-discovery innovation that doesn’t lead to controversy, it results in no judge’s ruling and thus no legal precedent for other clients’ attorneys to follow.)

Both of these log jam breakers are bound to move slowly. This means years of small, incremental change before definitive technology standards result. Of course, the complexity of information management continues to increase and the cost of e-discovery is bound to continue to rise along with it. For these reasons, whatever each of us does, in our individual and representative roles, to support standards that lead to increased efficiency and reduced cost, the better off we’ll all be.

3 Replies to “Catch-22 for e-discovery standards?”

  1. Thank you for acknowledging Inference’s commitment to improving electronic discovery. This is a critical time, especially considering economic pressures, and it is important that the industry come to a resolution that will refine electronic discovery and review to decrease risk and improve quality assurance, but also to help to mitigate costs and establish new protocols to modernize and ease the entire process. Perhaps an alternative perspective of this Catch-22, one that will lead us and the courts to finally address this problem, is that since technology created this problem, we must embrace technology to solve it.

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