Increased operational efficiency is a primary organizational goal for any business. Using effective project management techniques, together with proper implementation of technology, can help organizations improve their efficiency. Automation of certain tasks, when properly executed, can bring greater consistency and result in cost-reduction. This article explores the benefits of applying project management techniques to increase efficiency in e-discovery operations.
What is Project Management
A project is a temporary, non-routine endeavor limited by scope, time, and cost that creates a unique product, service, or result meeting project requirements or a business need. Projects are temporary, there is a clear beginning and end. Because a project is temporary does not necessarily mean it is short in duration; projects can be small and brief or very large and last for many years, involving seemingly unlimited resources.
Legal work, and work performed in e-discovery in particular, fits squarely with the definition of project-oriented work. Project management is the structured application of skill, knowledge, tools and techniques to organize processes, activities and tasks designed to bring about a desired outcome which meets business need. There are other project management methodologies, including Agile, a more nimble, iterative version of traditional project management; Lean, which emphasizes eliminating waste and increasing efficiency through improvements in speed and cost; and Six Sigma, a continuous improvement method that seeks to measure and improve operational performance by identifying variations and eliminating waste, leading to less errors and increased quality. Traditional project management, however, is the mainstay and the foundation for the other methodologies.
In the legal business, like any industry, projects arise within each engagement. A lawsuit is a project, and any part or stage of a case is a project. Preparing a motion and brief, for instance, can be broken down into subordinate tasks and dubbed a research or writing project. Lawyers identify the issues to be raised and argued in a motion or brief, perform the research, draft the motion, quality-check the brief by proofreading and cite checking, and then file the motion with the court and serve it on opposing counsel. Thus, a series of tasks must take place during the course of any given project.
Project Management in the Context of E-Discovery
Projects arise for litigation teams in e-discovery as well. Managing electronically stored information (ESI) throughout a project presents an opportunity for an organization to create efficiency using technology and by taking advantage of the expertise of their attorneys and litigation support professionals.
The model framework for discovery projects is the Electronic Discovery Reference Model (EDRM). But, while the EDRM diagram is easily viewed as a workflow for handling e-discovery projects, the principles of project management did not play a role in the design of the model. As the industry matures, it is necessary to consider refinements to the process.
The State and Federal civil procedure rules also impose duties on attorneys to disclose information to opposing parties that is relevant to a lawsuit, not deemed privileged. Proportionality is an overriding concept that governs the level of effort and costs that should be expended to identify potentially relevant materials under applicable civil procedure rules.
Clearly, whether an attorney is the requester or recipient of discovery, both sides must have a workflow in place. The question that arises is what does this workflow look like?
Framework for E-Discovery Projects
As with any project, an e-discovery project leader should build processes for planning, executing, monitoring and closing the project.
Scope the Project
From the outset, it is important to define the scope and properly plan the project. This involves gathering the stakeholders and determining the project requirements. Two primary questions a project manager should pose at this stage:
- What resources are needed?
- What constitutes a completed project?
Prepare a schedule and a budget
Projects are typically tracked in terms of time, cost and quality. It is no different in e-discovery. But it is also necessary to consider the potential risks associated with the project, develop a sound communication plan, and effectively manage the expectations of stakeholders. In addition, it’s important to consider the tools and resources, including technology, that will be part of the workflow.
Planning requires an understanding of not only the potential legal exposure associated with each case, but also analysis of the exposure to risk and the costs associated with the litigation strategy. In a lawsuit which is actively contested, it is important to develop a budget tailored to the case. There are times where the litigation costs alone may outweigh the costs of an early settlement.
A major factor in planning for any e-discovery project is to understand the time frame associated with the matter. It is necessary to consider all of the components of the project and develop a timeline reflecting project milestones. Part of this calculation also requires consideration of technologies that may accelerate the process and reduce the timeline.
Projects involving large volumes of data are particularly vulnerable to cost overruns and delays. For this reason it is necessary to plan and coordinate each component of a project with an experienced litigation support or services provider.
Plan for Any Third-Party Vendor Needs
Many projects involve the coordination between not only the client and their outside counsel, but also service providers. In some instances, there are multiple services providers on the same project, with each handling differing phases. It can be a burdensome task to manage the various providers that are handling data during differing stages of the project. Having the ability to track the status of various required tasks in real time can prove very beneficial when trying to coordinate all the actions of the project’s various actors.
Communication is key throughout any project. Having a communication mechanism that includes all necessary personnel enhances the efficiency of the project management team. When instructions are relayed to project managers, the ability to quickly verify that the instructions are properly understood at the outset of a task avoids potential pitfalls and reduces delays.
Ensuring that the team members have easy access to the information they need to proceed with their assigned tasks is also essential. If a project manager is asked to cover a task that was originally assigned to another co-worker, the team should have the ability to handle such actions in a seamless manner. Project management teams have the ability to report on the details regarding what took place at each step of a specific workflow for any individual litigation.
One of the primary risks facing project teams is the handling and security of data. The data itself needs to be tracked for chain of custody purposes, showing whom handled the physical media containing the source data, and when. Data must be protected during the time that it is in possession of the project team, and access to the data must be limited and documented. Without a proper chain of custody to verify that the information is authentic, the evidence generated by an eDiscovery project may be rendered inadmissible in court as it may fail to meet required evidentiary standards.
Data breaches, cyber-attacks, and changes to data privacy laws across multiple jurisdictions continue to impact how information is managed and accessed. Ensuring that data is secure and protected during a project and managing whom has access to attributes of the data’s content is an essential aspect of project management. Moreover, certain types of personally identifiable information must be protected and handled following guidelines set forth by specific legislation.
In addition, risks associated with team members departing the company during the course of the project should also be addressed. If a project manager departs while the matter is current, there must be contingency plans in place for how to move forward without losing information that is vital to the completion of the matter, and the right to access information for the departed user must be terminated.
Plan for Quality Control
Gathering and reporting project metrics are a primary tool used to track the performance at each stage of an e-discovery project. Planning for the quality measures that will be used should be developed before the project begins.
This can be as simple as validating collection procedures or devising a scheme for reducing error rates in document review. For instance, steps should be taken to ensure quality control measures are in place to verify consistency in attorney review decisions. Examining random document samples to ensure conflicts are resolved should also serve as part of the quality control practice.
One critical objective in e-discovery projects is ensuring that privileged materials are not produced to opposing parties. Certain projects may require large volumes of documents which need some form of redaction, and this can be a costly and time-consuming task. Verifying that no inadvertent access to sensitive information is provided to parties that don’t have proper permission is vital to the proper completion of a project. It is necessary to have several quality control steps built into the production process to protect against unnecessary disclosure of protected information Redacted content must be properly verified and corresponding metadata must also be redacted when documents are produced to opposing counsel.
Once a project is underway it is essential to monitor the overall progress. At each stage of a project it will become apparent whether tasks are being completed in a timely manner and within budget. Beginning with collection process, for instance, the sources of data should be clear from the outset thus enabling a fair estimate for time of completion. Similarly, when processing data there should be some sense of the volume, which will inform how long it may take to complete the processing.
One difficult area to monitor is document review. It is important to track the performance of the attorney review team and technology can help to provide reports that measure the progress of each reviewer. Reports can be generated indicating which review team members are meeting the performance expectations.
In the end, if team members working on any aspect of an e-discovery project are not performing according to expectations, it may be best to change personnel on the project early rather than providing too many opportunities to improve.
Determining the current project status in real-time and reporting to stakeholders can be a challenge. Having technology in place that can track tasks and their current status is beneficial to managing a project. Generating live reports that indicate the amount of time remaining to complete certain tasks while using the current level of resources is an important feature provided by project management technology.
There is always room for improvement in project management. Learning from past projects how to use knowledge to enhance future performance is pillar of project management. Unfortunately, the project closing process is often overlooked.
Beyond storing vital project instructions and project historical information, closing exercises help identify inefficiencies and provide insight to where improvements can be made.
Satisfying efficiency goals, effective project management provides many benefits. Implementation of useful customizable technology can improve your existing workflows, and integrate with other existing systems, proving benefits to any organization. Corporate entities, law firms and government agencies should all assess their current process and perform a cost-benefit analysis of suggested improvements.
While it is apparent there are many elements to a specific litigation which present project management challenges, with the proper mix of planning, people and technology, the ability to properly fulfill discovery obligations is within reach.