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.

Early Case Assessment + Content Analytics = True Savings

We often hear about the most important factor in creating a cost-effective e-discovery review: the review rate of the attorneys. Without question, the use of a content analytic review tool has greatly enhanced the ability to increase review rates for attorneys who know how to use these tools -- by 3 to 10 times versus a linear tool.

This improved productivity goes directly to the bottom line and dramatically reduces the largest component of the e-discovery cost structure: the attorney reviewer expense. Content analytic tools also greatly reduce the manpower and duration required for review.

Here’s where people often get stuck: The upfront cost of using a content analytic tool is (usually) significantly higher than that of a linear review tool. But as many have discovered, those upfront costs are typically recouped many times over by the end of a case because of the efficiencies that are gained in using a content analytic tool. The additional good news is that there’s a way to decrease the upfront costs by culling the amount of data needed for the review. These early case assessment tools are equally, if not more important, to the bottom line.

Early case assessment software platforms (such as Clearwell, Metalincs, and Autonomy’s Aungate Investigator & ECA, among others) enable corporations and law firms to dramatically and intelligently reduce the amount of data that needs to be reviewed. These programs offer a sneak peak at the data at a fraction of the cost of loading for review with a typical content analytic tool. In addition to standard culling methods like de-duplication and file-type extractions, early case assessment tools provide a means to develop legally defensible keyword searches, identify key players in the litigation (or more importantly identify non-players), and allow for bulk coding of clearly non-relevant materials or potentially privileged documents prior to loading into the review platform.

A quick example: A company's initial collection totals 300,000 documents for review. Using an early assessment tool, that number is dramatically reduced through de-duplication (20%), excluding privileged documents eliminates (another 10%), performing a multi-phrase keyword search (25%) and identifying the responsive data set (70%). The final number of documents to be loaded into the content analytic tool: 48,600 (or just 16% of the original collected documents).

Common volume reduction achieved through an early case assessment tool is 70-80% (the companies mentioned above have case studies on their respective websites that detail even greater reductions). The point is clear: reducing the volume of data, combined with the increased speed in which it can be reviewed via a content analytic tool, is a winning combination for corporations and law firms seeking to better manage e-discovery matters.

It’s always fun to be part of a meeting in which the realization sinks in that not only will the work product be better, but it will save hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars.