Are lawyers using the right early case assessment tools?

Data is exploding, and lawyers could find themselves analysing tens of thousands of emails

Are lawyers using the right early case assessment tools?

This article was produced in partnership with Epiq.

Australasian Lawyer sat down with William Hutcheson, a solutions architect at Epiq Systems. Epiq is a worldwide provider of legal and business services, serving law firms, corporations, financial institutions and government agencies—helping them streamline the administration of business operations, class action and mass tort, court reporting, eDiscovery, regulatory, compliance, restructuring, legal transformation, and bankruptcy matters.

When a lawyer starts working on a case, they may be faced with analysing vast amounts of data – everything from phone calls, emails and voice messages, to WhatsApp chat logs and Teams meetings.

In this early stage, conducting an early case assessment (ECA) is a vital tool. But while the traditional ECA approach has served lawyers well over the years, Epiq Systems solutions architect William Hutcheson says the digital and data landscape is changing fast – and so lawyers need to know which tools to use, and how and when to use them.

Traditionally, lawyers have started their ECAs by conducting interviews and gathering emails, documents and recordings, and then manually going through each piece of information to tag it for relevancy. But with increasingly modern data sets, the traditional approach is becoming less efficient – and so it pays to have the right strategy when dealing with different types of data.

“A data set used to be emails, and collecting physical laptops or desktops,” Hutcheson told Australasian Lawyer.

“Now it’s cloud-based email and storage, Teams chats, audio recordings and mobile devices. We’re really seeing a significant spreading out of sources.”

“The amount of content contained within those sources has also increased substantially,” he explains. “Data is absolutely exploding – if you collect emails or SharePoint documents for one person for a year, that’ll comprise over 30,000 pieces of information. That’s why firms are taking a much more technical approach now, and there are a lot of tools out there that can help kick-start the ECA process.”

When it comes to simplifying the process, lawyers have an abundance of options. Microsoft 360 has built-in search and review tools, which can be used to immediately locate potentially relevant emails, immediately limiting the amount of data that needs to be exported from a client’s environment.

Lawyers can also use ‘visualisation’ tools when dealing with large amounts of emails. These will create a visual diagram showing who is speaking with who, how often, and whether there are any ‘subgroups’ of people speaking to each other.

“Communication visualization also plays well in conjunction with search terms, and that’ll help you understand whether there’s a group of people talking regularly about any specific terms,” Hutcheson explains.

“They also offer ‘sentiment analysis’ – for example, if a particular email was sent to put pressure on somebody. It looks at words, phrases and punctuation, and learns to identify the sentiment behind them. That will help float the more interesting or relevant emails. Getting these kinds of visual insights plays really well for email communications.”

When it comes to using the right tools, Hutcheson notes that different types of data respond better to different processes. He pinpoints chat data as particularly challenging, as it categorises each individual text as a separate data point – essentially, its own ‘email.’ This can be problematic when you run search terms, and come up with lots of short texts without the context of the full conversation.

“Having tools in place that can group those chat messages together as a ‘single document’ is really useful, so when you start to put eyes on communications, you’ll have a full understanding of the communication” Hutcheson says.

“If you have a lot of audio files in your collection, that’s largely useless unless you transcribe it – so tools that transcribe large amounts of audio become really useful. Once you have transcribed text, you can begin to use more interesting ECA features like concept clustering and sentiment analysis.”

“Ultimately it’s important to use the tools, but also to have workflows in place that help you use those tools to the best of their ability,” he concludes.

“In the context of these modern data sets that we’re increasingly seeing, knowing which tools to use is a really valuable skill.”

Epiq is a worldwide provider of legal and business services, serving law firms, corporations, financial institutions and government agencies—helping them streamline the administration of business operations, class action and mass tort, court reporting, eDiscovery, regulatory, compliance, restructuring, legal transformation, and bankruptcy matters.

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