I dabble more than a little in the legal world, but that’s OK, because the legal world dabbles quite heavily in the world of technology. Nowadays, metadata is the smoking gun in court, and e-discovery is the ballistics test that uncovers it.
The concept of e-discovery, or electronic discovery is simple: it is the discovery, identification, and production of electronically stored information (ESI). However, the execution can be involved, complex, and frequently contentious.
Take for example something seemingly simple and benign: the keyword search. If you and I want to find out about something online, we open up Google or Bing and type in some words, such as “e-discovery keyword search”. We typically get back a ton of links, in order of relevancy. We pick and choose from among the links to find what we need. Rarely do we have to go beyond the first few pages to get the information or resources we’re looking for.
In a legal case, though, what keywords are used can trigger a conference between parties, and even hearings with the judge. If there’s too much material produced, both parties may want to refine the keywords; too little material produced, and the parties may question what keywords were used, or whether the use of keywords is even useful.
In a white paper titled Where Angels Fear to Tread: The Problems of Keyword Search in E-Discovery (pdf), the author notes:
The heavy reliance on keyword search in e-discovery places an enormous burden on today’s legal teams. Inconsistencies in language, inefficiencies in search techniques and software user interfaces, which conceal more than reveal, place the attorney in a difficult position: determining what is relevant in a compressed timeline using obsolete tools and tactics. These outdated tools are a key factor behind the spiraling costs and risks associated with e-discovery.
There’s an entire science devoted to keyword searches within the legal community. As for other metadata, oh my goodness, let’s not even get started.
The use of e-discovery was an important component of the Ringling Brothers/animal welfare group Endangered Species Act case (now titled “AWI et al v. Feld Entertainment”). It has continued as an important component of the fees allocation process for this same case.
In a decision that is both unusual and controversial, the judge in the case, Judge Emmet Sullivan, decided that the animal welfare groups should pay attorney fees to Feld Entertainment for the 9+ year court case. After many months, Feld’s lawyers submitted their fee request in a set of filings spanning thousands of pages. (See my copy of the case history, starting with docket number 635.) Not only is the $25 million dollar (and change) fee request large, it’s also been provided in a not useful format: PDF documents with manual redactions, and color coding (example).
The animal welfare groups asked for something a little more useful:
The Fee Petition, which spans at least four-and-a-half four-inch binders, includes nearly two thousand pages of time records and invoices as well as numerous other Excel spreadsheets and tables. The time records and invoices, accounting tens of thousands of attorney and staff hours, are so voluminous that FEI’s paid experts were unwilling to review them. Plaintiffs, unfortunately, do not have the luxury of limiting their review of the time records and invoices to a determination that the “time entries provide level of detail . . . that is typical of appropriate block billing practice,” as Mr. Millian did, see D.I. 664 at 18, or to review only a supposedly “representative sample of litigation activities” limited to three brief periods of time, as Mr. Cohen did, see D.I. 663 at 11-12.5 Rather, Plaintiffs and their experts must scrutinize all of the hours that Feld now seeks to pass on to them.
As Feld’s experts make clear, and as Plaintiffs’ counsel explained to counsel for Feld, this is not a task that can be accomplished by reading the PDF versions of spreadsheets and invoices that Feld included in the Fee petition. It can only be accomplished via computer assisted analysis of the underlying time records using a program such as Microsoft Excel, which will allow Plaintiffs’ counsel and/or experts to (i) sort the data, (ii) perform complex searches within the data, and (iii) mathematically compare time entries across (for example) timekeepers, law firms, and parties to the litigation.
There is no commercially available computer program that can take a PDF of an Excel spreadsheet, much less a PDF of actual invoices, and generate a functioning spreadsheet containing the underlying data. Accordingly, the only way Plaintiffs could independently recreate the time records of Feld’s counsel would be to manually reenter tens of thousands of rows of numbers and text, a process that would take even highly-experienced data entry personnel hundreds to thousands of hours. It would be patently unfair to require Plaintiffs to undertake such an effort to recreate data that Feld’s counsel already have at their fingertips. Moreover, because an analysis of Feld’s billed time is one of the first steps needed to craft Plaintiffs’ response to the Fee Petition, requiring Plaintiffs to replicate Feld’s time records would inject months of needless delay into the fee application process, in addition to creating needless, and substantial, additional expense.
Feld’s lawyer’s response begins with:
Plaintiffs’ second request is for FEI to re-create all of the time entries for Fulbright (JS Ex. 31 and 32), Covington (EG Ex. 1), and Troutman Sanders (“Troutman”) (CA Ex. 2) in
sortable Excel spreadsheets because Plaintiffs say they want to “sort the data” and “perform complex searches.” Mot. at 6-8. These requests should be denied because: (1) the documents do not exist in sortable Excel format, (2) Excel format would not protect FEI’s privilege redactions that Plaintiffs cannot and do not challenge; (3) Excel format would not reflect the color-coding of the exhibits; and (4) FEI is not obligated to undertake the time, effort, and expense of creating new documents, to Plaintiffs’ specifications. It is not necessary for Plaintiffs’ response to the Fee Petition, and if they want to have such charts, they can create them themselves. JS Ex. 32, EG Ex. 1, and CA Ex. 2. These exhibits contain the time entries that were sent as part of invoices to FEI, and were produced to Plaintiffs in .pdf files, which is the same format in which they were sent to the client (or in some cases, the invoices were sent to the client in paper, in which case FEI provided a .pdf to Plaintiffs). The invoices do not, nor have they ever, existed in a sortable Excel format – a fact that FEI’s counsel represented to Plaintiffs. While the .pdf files are not sortable, however, they are word-searchable, as any Adobe document is. But as Plaintiffs themselves argue, there “is no commercially available computer program that can take …. a PDF of actual invoices, and generate a functioning spreadsheet containing the underlying data.” Mot. at 7. So Plaintiffs demand the creation of a document that does not exist, which is a requirement that is non-existent even within normal Rule 26 discovery on the merits of a case, let alone once the case has concluded and is in the final phase of assessing legal fees for frivolous and vexatious litigation.
The legal document goes on for several more pages, with the lawyers expressing increasing umbrage at the animal welfare groups’ request.
If the sheer volume of words and the level of outrage were any influence, a judge might be moved to side with Feld’s lawyer, John Simpson, from Norton Rose Fulbright. But the judge handling the fee allocation, Magistrate Judge John Facciola, isn’t just any judge. He’s one of three judges respectfully known as the e-discovery triumvirate—three men known far and wide for their expertise related to e-discovery.
And Judge Facciola was just a tad skeptical about Feld’s lawyers lamentations:
To that end, I will hold a one day evidentiary hearing, at which I expect knowledgeable representatives, such as billing database managers, from 1) Fulbright, 2) Covington, and 3) Troutman Sanders to be prepared to demonstrate the billing software used during their representation of FEI in the instant action. I also expect the representatives to be prepared to testify to the following issues:
1. Explain and demonstrate live (e.g. not in a PowerPoint presentation but in the actual database) how, within their particular software program(s), an individual timekeeper
makes an entry; what is recorded in that entry; how that entry is saved; who reviews that entry; how that entry is edited or altered for privileges or in an exercise of billing discretion; how that altered entry is saved; and finally, in what format the final bill is sent to the client.
2. Explain why that data saved within their particular software program(s) is NOT, through the use of commercially available software, capable of being converted into a sortable Excel-compatible delimited value spreadsheet format such as comma-separated value (CSV).
3. Explain why, if there exists data that was only saved in a .PDF format, it is NOT, through the use of commercially available software, capable of being converted into a sortable Excel-compatible delimited value spreadsheet format such as comma-separated value (CSV).
A noticeably subdued response indicated that the entries in Excel spreadsheet format would be forthcoming.