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Live from LegalTech West: The E-Discovery Tug of War

by Kurt Leafstrand on June 27th, 2008

tug_of_war_2.jpgHello from Los Angeles, where the weather’s fine and summer’s in full swing! Accordingly, a few of us in the legal technology community spent the night before LegalTech enjoying a Dodger’s game hosted by LTN editor-in-chief and rabid Yankees fan Monica Bay (outfitted in full Yankee regalia for the occasion). So as to not incur Monica’s wrath, I left my Red Sox cap at home.

At the game, I happened to sit next to a colleague from another vendor who mentioned that her firm is about to celebrate twenty years in e-discovery.

Twenty years! What a remarkable milestone for any company. It got me wondering about how much technology has evolved over that time period, and raised an interesting question to noodle over between innings: With all of the investment and innovation in the e-discovery space, who’s actually winning the electronic data discovery tug of war, twenty years in?

What is the e-discovery tug of war, you ask? Let’s start with the scene in 1988.

On one side, the documents: They stared at you from across the mud puddle — hundreds or even thousands of boxes stacked one of top of another, hauled out from a warehouse where they’d spent their days, against their will, in windowless solitude, ready for battle. They were ticked.

And on the other side, you: With your new IBM PS/2 Model 80 (the best money could buy: 640×480 VGA color screen, 16mhz 386 processor, 80MB hard drive), flatbed scanner, and some new DOS-based database program called “Concordance.” To add insult to injury, Starbucks hadn’t even really gone national yet, so you were probably stuck with a jar of instant coffee to try to stay awake.

You didn’t stand a chance.

From then until now, two different dynamics have played against each other, pulling the flag back and forth over the dividing line:

  1. On one side, the explosive growth of electronic documents has been truly mind-boggling. From a baseline of close to zero in 1988 (WordPerfect 5.1 wasn’t introduced until 1989), today essentially every single business document is created, transmitted, and stored electronically.
  2. On the other side, technology innovators in the e-discovery space have used creativity and a large dose of Moore’s Law to store, process, and search electronic documents with ever-increasing speed and efficiency.

During the seventh inning stretch, with the Dodgers holding a commanding lead over the White Sox, I thought: Maybe technology is about to win.

Here’s the argument: Assuming that the creation of document content will still largely be human-driven, now that most every legally significant class of communication is being created and managed on-line, growth of e-discovery-relevant data volumes may quickly move from being exponential (when everything was “going digital”) to a rate driven more by productivity improvements and economic growth. Improvements in processing, search, and analysis of documents, however, will continue to improve at a Moore’s Law pace for the foreseeable future, presumably making it fairly trivial for advanced e-discovery technologies to outmuscle their longtime adversary.

Google shows some evidence of this victory of technology over data. Remember that just a few years back, search engines frequently trumpeted how much of the Internet they were able to index – and it was far from the whole thing. Today, that’s largely a solved problem. It’s simply amazing how quickly Google’s index ingests new data, often in what seems like a matter of minutes. In fact, I dare say that by the time you read this post, you’ll be able to perform a Google search on some of its content and have it come up front-and-center in your search results. Amazing.

What does this mean for electronic data discovery? The best e-discovery technologies will change to solve challenges that are far more strategic in nature. Instead of focusing on how fast and effectively they can process documents, or how quickly they can allow attorneys to review them, they’ll provide powerful capabilities for addressing some of the most important e-discovery problems that inside and outside counsel face, such as:

  • How do I craft robust, defensible search strategies for my cases while minimizing e-discovery costs?
  • How can I standardize a repeatable, high-quality discovery process that’s executed consistently across my organization?
  • How can my organization become more proactive in identifying potential legal risks and liabilities based on our company’s “legal history”?

I’m sure you can come up with a number of others. What do you think – is the war against documents over, and electronic data discovery ready to move to a new phase? Or are there still many more battles to be fought?

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