Jeffrey Ziplow, MBA, CISA

Electronically Stored Information (ESI) as it relates to eDiscovery has caught everyone's attention.  Although ESI can be a valuable source of information for many cases, it can also be fraught with information overload and potentially be an expensive nightmare.  Mountains of information are often required to be explored to yield even a minimal amount of data, and the process can easily become bogged down with too much unnecessary data and too little pertinent information.

This is why, in eDiscovery, selecting the right search terms is essential in order to maximize effectiveness and weed out the useless information from the useful, while saving valuable time in an investigatory process that typically must be completed expeditiously.  So the question becomes:  In eDiscovery, how does one truly evaluate which search terms will provide the best results and which ones may cause information overload?

Without a well thought-out search term system in place, discovery can be a horrific and time-consuming exercise.  Having one in place can not only allow the attorneys conducting discovery to avoid getting sidetracked with superfluous information, but it can also minimize the number of starts and stops throughout discovery and bring a welcome level of efficiency to the process.

eDiscovery maximization begins with a few basic questions:

  • For what information are we looking?
  • What are the strengths/weaknesses of each search term?
  • How can we formulate some "rules" or search term strategies to best locate the information?

It is important to plan and confirm the type of information either party is looking for.  All too often what seems like a good plan of attack is riddled with potential information overload.  Consider, as an example, searching for the word "log."  This seems like a simple request at the highest level, but it may lead to a volume of superfluous information and search term "hits."  In the world of computers and electronic information, various "logs" are automatically generated within many computer programs.  Although these files may be useful in some eDiscovery situations, depending on what information you are looking for, an attorney can spend a lot of time reviewing useless information.

The word "log" is also part of the word "logo," and, depending on the search term rules that were identified upfront, a large number of useless hits may be identified.  This is where it is important to identify in advance the "rules" or search term strategies to best locate the information. 

In this particular situation, we could have developed a strategy and search term request to return a search term "hit" only if the word "log" was used in a particular way.  The critical point here is that these rules need to be thought out in advance and agreed to by both parties.  It is difficult to start eDiscovery searches and refine the rules mid-stream.

In order to make the eDiscovery process a little more palatable and less time-consuming, there should be more time spent reviewing and evaluating the search terms to be used in a case.  In some instances, an independent third party can be used to help refine searches and also develop the search term strategies (for example, specific terms or words used within "x" number of characters of each other) to be implemented.  Understanding the potential frequency on the use of these terms, along with a specific search term strategy, can significantly reduce the amount of time required to physically review and assess the relevance of the search hits.

Ultimately, there is a myriad of benefits to using the proper search terms, and, while the initial effort to find the right terms may require additional time at the beginning of the process, it can save invaluable time on the back end of the investigation.  The ratio of "relevant to irrelevant" information located in discovery will greatly increase, which, in the end, may just lead to even greater success.

In a process as potentially arduous as eDiscovery, properly utilized search terms can mean the difference between a timely exercise and one that is too hampered by unusable minutia.  And in the end, that could mean the difference between success and failure.

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