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Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG)’s Legal Trends Survey Reveals Alarming Inattention to eDiscovery Spending

by Dean Gonsowski on December 5th, 2011

In their latest survey, entitled “E-Discovery Market Trends: A View from the Legal Department,” Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) analysts Brian Babineau and Katey Wood analyze a number of interesting statistics and provide a range of insightful conclusions.  By surveying general counsel from large, mid-market (500-999 employees) and enterprise-class organizations in North America they were able to dive into a range of eDiscovery topics, including pain points, operational expenses and prioritizations on a go-forward basis.  Some are more intuitive than others, but in either case the results serve as good calibration metrics for those who endeavor to understand the corporate eDiscovery state of the nation.

“Most corporations are not tracking e-discovery spending…” In what may be the most notable finding of this ESG report, 60% of survey respondents claim that they did not track annual eDiscovery spending in 2010.  The authors correctly note that the eDiscovery process, “which can be highly unpredictable due to its project-by-project nature to begin with, has historically been outsourced to service providers charging at variable rates and often billed back to companies via their law firms.”  Despite the significant challenges of tracking eDiscovery spending, it’s nevertheless irresponsible for organizations to keep their heads in the sand regarding such a significant operational expense.

As the old saw goes, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure,” so it’s almost inconceivable to think that so many organizations aren’t tracking such a significant expense category.  For organizations who want to create a repeatable business process, as opposed to the fire-drill chaos that is typically associated with eDiscovery, it’s vitally important to accurately capture core eDiscovery metrics.  For starters, it’s useful to understand basic collection parameters, such as of the typical numbers of key custodians, average data volumes per custodian, data expansion rates, de-duplication statistics, etc.  Once these metrics are in place, it then becomes possible to manage the process and reduce costs.

Katey went on to expound in an exclusive quote for EDD 2.0:

“E-discovery can be managed as a strategic business process with an understanding of costs, performance and outcomes. When there’s no basis for reporting or comparison, it’s pin the tail on the donkey.  Corporate litigants won’t ever know they’re getting their money’s worth if they don’t even know what they’re spending.”

“E-Discovery accuracy/efficiency isn’t being measured, in large part.” Similar to the failure to measure eDiscovery costs, a full two thirds of GCs (67%) aren’t tracking the “efficiency and/or accuracy of e-discovery document review.” Until corporate counsel can link expectations of competency/efficiency with oversight and performance metrics, outside law firms will likely avoid having their feet held to the fire.  This passive stance makes transparency and process improvement difficult at best.  Additionally, this model of having expectations for efficiency, with low or no accountability, doesn’t bode well for the quick adoption of enabling technologies like predictive coding, since the driver has to inherently be the need/desire for increased efficiency (which axiomatically equals lower law firm review bills).

“Corporate information governance and litigation readiness (especially defensible deletion) are a priority, but not yet a reality.” From an internal prioritization perspective, more than two thirds (69%) of respondents identified their desire to expire/delete data more consistently, “thereby limiting unnecessary data retention for future litigation requests.”  Savvy enterprises correctly recognized the “multi-prong threat of unregulated data retention: the large amounts of irrelevant data ultimately produced for legal review, the greater difficulty of hanging onto potentially litigious documents past their required retention periods.”

This finding is very encouraging, and it ties into the upward momentum the industry is seeing regarding information governance generally – particularly linking the reactive (right) side of the EDRM with the logically connected and proactive (left) side of the EDRM.  As a good first step it’s critical to see organizations now associating good information governance hygiene with lower costs and better eDiscovery response times.  The ESG finding also triangulates with results from the recent Information Retention and eDiscovery Survey, which found that companies having good information governance hygiene were often able to respond much faster and more successfully to an eDiscovery/investigation requests, often suffering fewer negative consequences.

The only downside to the positive information governance trend, as reported by the survey, was that,

“while there are great benefits to defensible deletion, internal initiatives for implementing it too often are stymied by difficulty in obtaining cross functional consensus and authorization, particularly as it touches so many other critical processes like regulatory compliance and legal hold.”

“Legal hold processes are still very manual.” Another similar question revealed that many companies are attempting to get their information governance house in order, but are still in the very early stages.  When asked about their  current legal hold notification and tracking process, a whopping 69% of organizations said that they are using a “manual process performed by internal staff using e-mail and spreadsheets, etc.”  And, another 6% said they either had no formal process or tracking mechanism.

Given the risks attendant to flaws in the preservation process this area is ripe for improvement.  The good news is that 54% of survey respondents are intending to improve their legal hold process, with 25% planning improvement within the next 12 months.  This is a healthy acknowledgement that there is risk, and with a modicum of investment (time, personnel, procedures, and technology) the legal hold area can be brought up to current best practices.

The ESG survey is a welcome temperature gauge into the state of corporate legal departments.  It notes, in conclusion, “with the staggering growth, diversity and dispersion of data, the pain e-discovery is currently causing large and serial litigants are only a symptom of the larger problem of unwieldy and under-developed information management affecting all businesses.”  With data insights from the ESG survey, it’s becoming clear that foundational information governance elements (like deploying auditable legal hold procedures, tracking eDiscovery spending, updating data maps, etc.) are desperately needed by the many organizations that want to turn eDiscovery into a repeatable business process.  The good news is that many of these organization have improvements in mind for the next 12 months, and the challenge will be to make sure these proactive projects maintain the same level of organizational urgency that it often present for more reactive tasks.

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