“King’s letters could be musings of a mad man” read the headline in Monday’s Metro (19 November 2012).
What followed was a story describing how scientists at the University of London will attempt to analyse the letters of King George III using technology to look for patterns of words that might give some indication as to his state of mind at the time of writing. The idea of looking for relationships between words struck me as a familiar one.
Recently I received a call from a frustrated secretary working in the Dispute Resolution department of a national firm. She had been given the unenviable task of indexing approximately 16,000 electronic documents. Provided in no particular order on a portable hard drive, the documents were identified only by number. Although an index was supplied, it was largely useless because cross-referencing the actual electronic documents was not possible.
The lawyer involved had proposed that the secretary open each document individually and create a meaningful index by reading and transcribing the information contained within. If we assume (optimistically) that this process would have taken three minutes per document, and (even more optimistically) that the secretary in question worked on it full-time and without interruption, she would have completed this task in around nine weeks, or 450 hours. But at what cost to the client or, perhaps more relevant, to the sanity of the secretary?
In this instance, as is invariably the case, there was a simple solution. The correct application of technology – in a word, eDiscovery – meant that, for less than £500, I was able to provide an index using information extracted directly from the electronic files themselves.
But once the secretary in question has had time to review the index I supplied, her thoughts may turn to what she is going to do next. Although 16,000 documents is a relatively small data set, the fact is that it still amounts to around 140,000 pages of material to be reviewed.
We could print everything, which would amount to approximately 300 lever-arch files of paper. This is not a problem for us – K2 and Millnet offices are well equipped to cope with printing or copying large volumes of documents. Once again, however, our secretary and her colleagues are faced with the prospect of having to read all this material. We would make it as easy as possible for them – printing everything in chronological order, for example, and also labelling the files in such a way as to make them easily identifiable – but these efforts offer only aid and do nothing to avoid the laborious and repetitive process of manually trawling through this coarse, unfiltered material.
The alternative is to review the documents in their native electronic format. But what are the advantages of doing so?
Consider the fact that when you print a document, two things happen:
1. You lose all the embedded information the document contains. This information is called ‘metadata’. It offers details about that document: when it was created, who created it, whether there are any other documents embedded within it (email attachments, for example) and a whole host of other information.
2. You lose the ability to search the text of the document to find specific words (or, in the case of King George’s letters, relationships between those words). Reviewing the document in its original native format means that you retain this ability and can use it to assist your review.
The ability to ‘search’ for keywords is only the start. With larger volumes of material, it is possible to use assisted review techniques to enable a computer to develop an understanding of the documents’ content by looking at the words in their overall context.
“Well, that is all very nice,” I hear you say, “but what has it to do with King George and his ramblings?”
The basic tenet of the University of London scientists’ hypothesis is that the late King’s writing style became increasingly erratic during the lead-up to and throughout his periods of alleged insanity, while the writing style of those with whom he corresponded remained constant throughout. By using a technology called ‘latent semantic indexing’, these scientists are performing the same tasks that we do, day in day out, when working with Litigation teams up and down the country.
In summary, the idea is to look for relationships between words and groups of words within the wider context of a document, and in so doing, to produce groups of documents that are contextually similar – albeit that do not necessarily contain exactly the same words. These relationships can then be reviewed and disclosed as appropriate.
There is an opportunity here for Legal Secretaries. Too often, when faced with a choice between reviewing documents electronically or printing them, lawyers will predictably favour the option which is more expensive, less efficient and less reliable – paper. By choosing to retain the electronic version, not only can you avoid the time-consuming and unnecessary task of indexing documents, but you can also help the lawyers with whom you work to become even more efficient and informed, and to provide a better service to their clients.
The scientists at the University of London are using this technology to look into the mind-set of a man who lived more than 200 years ago, trying to establish once and for all whether he was insane. I would suggest that in a far shorter period of time, lawyers who refuse to adopt new technologies will be judged on the same terms as good old King George.
Next time you are asked to undertake any manual process involving electronic documents, ask yourself whether technology could achieve the same result faster and more cheaply through utilising metadata that already exists within the documents.
About me: I cut my teeth working as an Office Manager for K2 Legal Support in Bristol, providing outsourced photocopying and scanning services to the thriving legal market in the Southwest. I am now jointly employed by K2 and Millnet and work as a consultant for lawyers dealing with issues which arise in collecting and reviewing electronic documents.
K2 Legal Support provides on-demand copying, scanning and eDisclosure services nationally to the legal profession. K2 supports the broadest range of eDisclosure tools of any UK vendor. Your local K2 Project Manager will be able to get to know you and your case, providing an individual solution rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach. With offices in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and London, whatever your practice area or size of law firm, K2 offers accurate and confidential service to ensure that you meet your deadlines every time.
Steven England, Litigation Support Consultant
Bristol: 0845 402 7078
Birmingham: 0845 803 5503
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