Customized e-discovery tool lightens law firm's litigation load

It's a marriage made in Mensa: A law firm and a seasoned vendor figure out how to marry content management to litigation services to come up with a tool that does everything but argue cases.

Like most good-sized law practices, Cooley Godward Kronish LLP is in the knowledge management business. The 600-attorney firm tracks millions of documents housed in multiple repositories.

"You cannot hire enough people to read this stuff; you can barely host it," CIO Sherry Lalonde said.

You cannot hire enough people to read this stuff; you can barely host it.
Sherry Lalonde
CIOCooley Godward Kronish LLP
Cooley Godward has been a dealmaker in Silicon Valley since the 1950s, when it formed Raychem and chipmaker National Semiconductor Corp. The firm earned its chops in biotechnology in the 1980s, taking Genentech Inc. and Amgen Inc. public. And it seems to have adroitly exploited the tech boom of the 1990s, when it took 230 companies public.

For several years now, the firm has used MindServer Legal from Recommind Inc. to help rationalize its vast stores of data. The San Francisco-based vendor's "concept" search tools sit atop all of Cooley's repositories. The technology retrieves material based on the criteria provided by the lawyer. The query often goes well beyond finding a document, or an author or a date range with a title, Lalonde said. The lawyers are after the heart of the material -- the concepts or intent that underlie the metadata.

"We are using this to find particular precedential work but also to find deals," Lalonde said. "We didn't want to adopt processes where we would have documents reviewed. There is simply too much volume and too much nuance in the documents themselves."

But a successful law firm is more than the sum of sophisticated in-house search systems. Litigation services have exploded in recent years. The technologies used to load and categorize data during litigation are starting to converge with the technology used in knowledge management systems. Lalonde was determined to marry the two, in a hurry.

"Our view was that in the middle of this there are an array of services and technology that can serve both the data that is discovered in litigation and the data that is produced as a result of a workflow," she said.

To find that sweet spot, the firm worked with academics and other experts to determine what it could expect from the "fairly vanilla" search tools of the litigation service providers. The next task was finding a vendor that could turn plain vanilla into va-va-voom by incorporating the complex "concept" search capabilities that made the firm's content management software so useful.

"The question was, how can we do our homework and create an RFP that specifies what we would like this system to do and to be, so we didn't end up inventing fire again," Lalonde said. "This was a very formalized process. It wasn't one of these harebrained ideas."

Vanilla into va-va-voom

An in-house team of applications developers and project managers, as well as attorneys and paralegals, hammered out the request for proposal (RFP) in three weeks, specifying what the firm expected "in the very first instant" from the product.

Turns out, designing a system that can interact with an underlying litigation database is beyond complicated. "It is something that is almost a career," Lalonde said, calling it "utterly fascinating."

The law firm needed a content, review and production system that could organize, search, view, annotate, categorize, tag and brand case documents. On top of that, the system needed to get at those hidden nuggets, Lalonde said. What else did the documents contain conceptually? Were there nuances that made the documents other than what they appeared to be, just based on the metadata?

A system that mines sensitive data must abide by ironclad rules. If documents contain highly confidential data that some reviewers are not allowed to see, the system has to respect that. If the system uncovers some "vastly important" data -- the so-called smoking gun -- will the case team be able to tag it without changing the underlying coding? What about accessibility? Is the system available remotely? If the system is hosted, is it available 24 hours a day? Is there anything in the product -- or in its planned enhancements -- that would preclude the firm from using it with internal systems, the virtual private network or Citrix?

"Because we certainly didn't want to replicate this everywhere," Lalonde said. "There was an incredible laundry list."

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When the proposals came back, they were "vastly different," Lalonde said. The vendors that rose to the top, including Recommind, had tools that could filter through extremely large data sets, e.g., find everything that has to do with auto accidents between such and such dates, even if the words auto accident are not in the document, and, oh yes, don't tag anything having to do with Jeep rollovers.

Cooley Godward chose Recommind, which had developed and just released Axcelerate eDiscovery. E-discovery refers to the first phase in a criminal or civil case, when digital data is sought for use as evidence. This process has been a key "pain point," because there were few conceptual search tools, no automation and inconsistent, inefficient review of most documents. As a result, 70% of e-discovery costs were related to reviewing documents, according to Recommind's vice president of marketing, Craig Carpenter.

Recommind launched Axcelerate to remove the bottleneck, Carpenter said. The product automatically organizes and orders documents by category, concept, issues, phrases and so on.

Analyst John Bace, who covers regulatory compliance at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said vendors are racing to stake their claims on the relatively undeveloped e-discovery landscape. At EDRM.net, an ongoing project to develop standards for e-discovery, the number of e-discovery vendors listed jumped from 450 to more than 700 in the space of six months.

"To me, the e-discovery market almost has the feel of the Hype Cycle rollercoaster again," Bace said, referring to the term coined by Gartner to describe the course of new technologies from hype through disappointment and to adoption, or maturity.

"The CIOs have to be very careful. We think nobody has an end-to-end solution yet, so what you focus on at this point in time is finding those tools which address issues where you have the greatest potential risk, or which provide the greatest reward."

For Cooley Godward, there is a happy ending. The firm is using its new Recommind system in a case that Lalonde cannot discuss because of client confidentiality. "It is a highly complex system to put in place, and it is also something that will grow with us, as we become more experienced," she said. But the tires have "been kicked," and so far, so good. "It is something that we are expecting will provide us very high value. It was been proven in all our tests to do that."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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