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January 15, 2013 Articles

Guidance for Working with Associates, Contract Attorneys, and Paralegals in Document Reviews

A well-run and well-organized document review will lead to a better understanding of the case for everyone.

By Lindsey Nelson

Document review receives a bad rap. While most firms (particularly during recruiting season) like to minimize the amount of document review their associates must perform, a significant portion of associates’ duties at a large firm relate to document reviews. Document reviews can arise because of discovery obligations, in response to a subpoena, or when doing an internal investigation. For junior associates, that often means hundreds of hours in front of a computer reviewing documents for responsiveness or privilege. For mid- and senior-level associates, document reviews often involve organizing a document review protocol for junior associates, contract attorneys, or paralegals who will complete the first-level review. Though they can be tedious, document review is the lifeblood for any matter, as it is the main source of information for determining the facts relating to the litigation. A well-run and well-organized document review will lead to a better understanding of the case for everyone from the junior associate to the senior partner. The following are tips for mid- and senior-level associates for running an efficient document review involving junior associates, contract attorneys, or paralegals.

Plan for the Long-Term 
When documents first are collected for a review, there may only be a few hundred or thousand documents. Depending on the matter, however, that number could turn into the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions. Unless there is certainty that there is a limited set of documents, document reviews should be set up at the beginning to accommodate a large amount of documents. Summarizing every generally related document is feasible when there are only 300 documents; it is not possible once that number climbs to 500,000, where only the very key documents likely are going to make the cut. The associate in charge of the review must anticipate the overall size of the review and set up a review protocol that will continue to make sense as the document review grows.

Context of the Case 
It is worth the time investment at the onset of a substantial review to explain the context of the case to anyone reviewing the documents. The mid- or senior-level associate should explain the case in writing and in-person. This should include a discussion of how the review factors into the larger case strategy. A more developed understanding of the case will enable the reviewers to make better decisions regarding appropriate tagging of documents; a reviewer who understands the big picture of a matter is more likely to spot the key documents that may not appear “hot” or “key” on their face. In addition, if the reviewers understand the context of the matter, it will allow them to answer many of their own questions down the road and save more senior associates time.

Establish a Go-To Associate 
A go-to associate who can answer basic questions related to the legal aspects of the document review is another valuable resource. Inefficient lines of communication can be a major contributor to wasted time over the duration of the review. The presence of an associate who is available to answer review-related questions enables a more speedy and efficient review. This person can either be the person running the document review or a more junior associate who is heavily involved in the project.

Set Deadlines 
Deadlines are a useful tool to keep the review on schedule. It is frequently difficult to determine the pace of the review until it has begun, but the existence of deadlines, even minor ones, allow the document review to stay on track. It is helpful for reviewers to have these deadlines to balance any other ongoing work. At the beginning of a review, with a deadline that could be months or years away, it may seem that there is all the time in the world to complete the review; however, regular deadlines will prevent a major crunch at the end.

Review and Provide Access to Review Metrics 
Every reviewer reviews at his or her own pace. That said, if 10 reviewers are able to review 75 documents per hour and 2 reviewers are only averaging 30 per hour, it is an issue that needs to be addressed. Whenever the mid- or senior-level associate in charge of the review sees any large discrepancies in review rates (either high or low), he or she should have a meeting with the reviewer. It could be that the reviewer is receiving a disproportionate number of large files, or it could be that the reviewer does not really understand what to look for in the documents. Knowing the reason for the discrepancy can help resolve the reviewer’s issues. Additionally, providing the reviewers access to the metrics can be useful, as it will allow them to know their general pace and be able to predict their ability to meet deadlines. It also can provide a number to set as a baseline for reviewing the documents throughout the review. Most review software now has the ability to provide these numbers to the associate in charge of the review.

Regular Check-Ins 
Junior associates, contract attorneys, and paralegals are often reluctant to ask too many questions at the beginning of a document review. It is imperative for associates also working on the case to regularly check in with their reviewers to ensure that they are on the right track. A discussion of the types of documents a paralegal is seeing and the coding procedure is not only informative for the mid- or senior-level associate in charge of the review, but it also assures the reviewers that they are on the right track. This also provides an opportunity for reviewers to point out any particularly “hot” documents that they have found that the more senior associate has not yet seen in a second-level review.

Lindsey Nelson is an associate with Nixon Peabody LLP in Washington D.C.