In E-Discovery, It's Not About The Hourly Rate

The billable hour has received a lot of attention in recent months as it relates to associate salaries and the value the client receives, among other issues. But it has been especially relevant in the e-discovery field in recent years, as more in-house departments have realized that much of their discovery work can be done for under $65 an hour versus the $200-400 they were accustomed to paying.

So now that this is the norm in our profession – paying $45-65 an hour for e-discovery work – the real question becomes, ‘What am I really getting for that money?’

Once you’ve driven down costs to the $45-65 per hour level for e-discovery, I would argue that the hourly rate makes little, if no difference, on your bottom line. The most important factor is the review rate of the attorneys. In fact, it’s really very simple math.

Let’s take a medium-sized matter: 30 gigabytes of data, or 400,000 e-mails.

Using a traditional (linear) review tool, an average review rate would be approximately 50 document decisions per hour for an attorney. By increasing the attorney review rate by 20 decisions per hour, the cost savings over the life of the project would amount to $125,000 and cut the project’s time by 25-40%. That more than compensates for a $20 per hour difference in an attorney's hourly rate, too.

That’s also a very conservative answer, because many companies now utilize a content analytic review tool that clusters documents together by topic versus a linear tool that only organizes data chronologically. Using the content analytic tool is likely to produce a 300-500% increase in the review rates, which saves in excess of $300,000 and 70% in time on that same 30GB of data. Content analytic tools cost more, but you can see where that difference can be accounted for.

So if you can accept this concept, it truly becomes a question of what you’re getting for your money. Many in-house departments have $48 an hour attorneys handle their e-discovery work, but ultimately the work is re-reviewed by outside counsel, there’s no fluid process in place and the client has no idea what kind of productivity the attorneys are generating. How would they know if they could be doing it better?

The question really becomes about how to increase review rates and thus productivity. There are many ways to do this, but it starts with experienced attorneys who know e-discovery and the technology. It’s supported by proven processes and talented project managers. Everything must be transparent: work closely tracked, benchmarked and learned from. It’s a collaborative, highly communicative process with outside counsel. And it can be repeated from matter to matter, creating more opportunities for learning and efficiency.

Focusing on the process and maximizing productivity -- not the hourly rate -- is where money is truly saved in e-discovery. The math really will speak for itself; all a client has to do is ask for it.