eDiscovery and SharePoint 2013 as a Litigation Tool

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What is eDiscovery and why should we care about it?

Electronic discovery or eDiscovery is the process of searching for electronically stored information (ESI) with intentions of using it for legal purposes.  Electronically stored information can be found in any type of electronic form: documents, emails, videos or instant messages.  It includes any type of file containing information pertaining to a civil lawsuit, audit or investigation.

Electronic Discovery was enacted as an amendment to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) and came into effect in December of 2006. These rules, which govern all civil procedures, mention electronic information as records which can be produced when requested in litigation.  However, the entirety of the eDiscovery process goes well beyond the definition found in the FRCP.  The full eDiscovery process encompasses different phases to identify, collect, preserve, review and then produce the ESI.

In addition to being a regulation, ESI can also aid in resolving a legal matter.  Electronic files contain metadata, i.e. data about your data, which can contain more useable information than paper documents.  For example, emails have time stamps showing when they were sent and received, documents contain information about their authors, etc.  These are examples of metadata that electronic files can include that may help litigation departments put together a series of events or ascertain who has viewed certain information.

What is the eDiscovery process?

The first stage of eDiscovery is identifying all ESI which may be relevant to the case at hand.  Searching for this information can be a challenge, as well as a major time-consuming process.  Files and information can be located anywhere on a company’s network, whether it be on a single user’s laptop, which they bring home every night, or on a file server located in their datacenter.

Once all the content is identified, the files need to be placed in a legal hold.  This is a process of preserving the electronic content that was identified in the searches.  To preserve the content, all identified files are compiled into a central location and locked down to prevent further edits or deletion.

The next stage is for the litigation team to review and process all the content discovered and preserved.  This can also take a considerable amount of time depending on how much information was discovered in the identification stage.  Once the content is reviewed, it can be provided as evidence.

There are ways to design your system to make the eDiscovery process quicker and less painful.  In addition to that, there is software in the market which aids in the eDiscovery process. Microsoft SharePoint 2013 is one of these applications which helps address both issues.

How does eDiscovery work in SharePoint?

SharePoint is a company portal where users go to store files and data, as well as have the ability to search that data.  SharePoint can also be used as a centralized search repository for all of a company’s important information, returning results not only from SharePoint sites but also files from network servers and data located outside of the SharePoint databases.

With the release of SharePoint 2013 comes a new site template: eDiscovery Center.  An eDiscovery Center site allows users to create multiple cases for their different lawsuits or investigations.  For each case, users can create different search queries to retrieve data and documents returned by SharePoint’s search functionality.  Also with the release of SharePoint 2013 and Microsoft Exchange 2013 comes the ability for eDiscovery queries to search through any email sent from or to users within the company.  This means that within one location you can search for documents, emails and other various types of data.

Using SharePoint as a centralized location to search all your ESI reduces the time spent in the identification stage of the eDiscovery process.  Users have the ability to filter content based on certain keywords and/or metadata, e.g. the date created, author or file type.  This advanced refinement will save time when the litigation team has to review all the ESI.  Imagine your litigation team defining their own complex search criteria, giving them the ability to search for all documents and emails that mentions both “Acme Corp” and “risk” from the past 18 months using just one query.

SharePoint has also rolled out on-premise Sky Drive, which allows users to keep all their documents internet-accessible, secure and discoverable.  With users taking advantage of this, companies will eliminate their need during eDiscovery to search every personal computer for specific content.

After all the electronically stored information is identified with these queries, the litigation team has the option to secure the content in legal holds.  Any content that resides within SharePoint or Exchange can utilize the “in-place hold” functionality.  SharePoint’s “in-place hold” will preserve any ESI identified in the searches.  If any content is modified or deleted after being discovered, SharePoint will automatically keep those items in a secure location.  This means that users can edit files or delete emails without being aware a hold was placed on their content.  Once the content is ready for review or distribution, compiling the documents is just a matter of going into the eDiscovery Center and selecting the queries you wish to export.

Searching through all of a company’s data might sound like a daunting task — and it is.  It is also a very expensive process in the time it takes to discover and review information.  Proper planning and architecture will greatly help when an eDiscovery process takes place.  And software like Microsoft SharePoint can offer an efficient and cost-effective way to prepare for and execute an eDiscovery.

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