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Modern law firms are knee-deep in information — paper and electronic — but finding the one document a case might turn on is often left to serendipity or the memory of a savant paralegal. The obvious solution is to put all of that information into a searchable database, but this usually involves document imaging and coding, which is not always as simple as it might sound. Some key issues should be considered before building a database. THE BASICS An explanation of some basic terminology might be helpful at the outset. Imaging is the conversion of paper documents to electronic format in order to create an exact replica of a document. Coding typically refers to the collection of key information from a document, either by human coders or programmatically. Indexing is the process by which the important information identified in coding is added to a database in order to facilitate searching for documents when needed. The result of imaging, coding and indexing is a searchable database from which important documents can be located and retrieved via a search request or query. Documents can be imaged without being indexed, but the result would not be very useful since the database would not be searchable. First, consider whether a database is needed. If you have more than a couple of boxes of documents, if you need to share information with others, and if you have the need to be able to easily search through your collection to find critical pieces of information, you need a database. Consider the number of depositions to be prepared as well. For example, multiply the total number of pages in the discovery collection by the number of depositions, and you get the total number of pages you will be physically handling without the assistance of a database. If you initially choose not to create a database because there are only a few documents, you may have to change your decision if, as discovery proceeds, that one filing cabinet turns into a warehouse full of boxes. Once the decision to create a database has been made, time will become important. Keep in mind that a perfect database takes long to build, but that perfect database will not be useful if it is available too late to help decide whether to litigate or settle. On the other hand, a hastily created database may contain indexing or coding errors resulting in documents that are incomplete, inaccurate or not easily found. Not being able to find critical documents even though they may be in a database may have the same disastrous outcome as not having a database at all. Money, of course, is always a factor. If little is available, it may well be that a perfectly coded database is not feasible and maximizing the use of technology may turn out to be the most cost-effective use of resources. In addition to software or hardware purchases, human coders may add considerable cost. While it may be tempting to save money by keeping coding to a minimum, this can be a very bad decision if the result is a database that either cannot find the right documents or retrieves so many documents that it becomes difficult and expensive to go through them. The appropriate use of technology to perform routine coding tasks, such as identifying author, date or document type, may be the only way to economically produce a useable database quickly without sacrificing functionality. Technical issues should also be addressed. In addition to the obvious need to analyze whether current software and hardware is adequate, the location and format of the database (CD-ROM, hosted offsite, local area network FTP), support, desired features and retrieval and searchability issues must also be considered. If remote access is desired, security becomes a concern. If the data is hosted offsite, security and reliability are huge issues. The next step is imaging paper documents, but who should perform this important function? Scanning in-house is an option for low volumes of documents, but outsourcing to a professional imaging vendor may be the better choice when dealing with higher page counts. Before turning over your documents, take time to ensure the vendor you select can provide the level of quality and service required by a law firm and confirm that their images will be compatible with the litigation software used by your firm. CODING The next critical question involves how the documents should be coded. Once the decision to code has been made, the work itself is traditionally done by people, either internal paralegals or outside vendors. In either situation, human coding can be expensive and time consuming. In addition, the greater the number of coders, the greater the likelihood of inconsistent indexing, which can cause searching issues later. Given that much of the coding is for routine information such as author and date, a programmatic way to do at least part of the coding makes sense, thus freeing up human coders for more complex tasks and also saving time and money. Clearly, computers cannot perform the same complex analysis humans can. On the other hand, to the extent that programs can perform basic coding tasks much faster and more cheaply than personnel, it can be a waste of time and money not to take advantage of technology. Technology today can “read” documents; extract the information needed to create a bibliographic index containing the most commonly requested fields (author, recipient, Bates number, document type and date); recognize and index other information from the document text such as additional names and dates; and create a field for predetermined “key terms.” If more detailed indexing is required, a firm can effectively use human coders to edit and enhance the database as well as perform quality control reviews. A programmatic approach produces a consistently indexed database more quickly and at far less cost than a database dependent completely on human coders. Additionally, some automated coding processes offer unique built-in features, including search tools. THE NEXT STEP Regardless of whether the database was created manually or programmatically, time should be taken to become acquainted with the information to determine whether a few strategic global edits will enhance the search and retrieval capabilities. Taking a few minutes to review and edit the data when the database is delivered can spare much frustration later. Understanding the search tools is critical in this process. Traditional search methods are reliable to a point. However, the difficulty with a traditional search is being able to create one that is narrow enough to yield a high percentage of relevant documents in a set that is small enough to review in a reasonable amount of time without being so narrow that significant documents are missed. This is not easy, even for very experienced searchers. For many years, Boolean (terms joined with the words “or,” “and” or “but”), proximity (terms within “x” number of words) and field (terms required to appear in a certain part of a document) searches were all that users had available. The knowledge required to successfully use these search methods often required the services of a highly skilled searcher. Even with a well-constructed search, errors in coding or imaging can cause a document to be missed. In more recent years, natural language searching and fuzzy logic have made creating a search easier, but still require much from the user, and often lead to results containing too many irrelevant documents or too many documents all together. The complexity went underground, but was still there. However, with new technology, some databases created programmatically can also create “links” between similar documents as the database and index is created. With this link established, related documents can be found instantly once the initial relevant document is located so what once might have taken days or weeks can now be done with relative ease. This feature of some programmatically created indexes is especially helpful given that the ability to view a series of related documents often yields a more accurate account of events, and even documents that seem harmless can take on new significance when viewed in a more complete context. Difficult to find documents such as spreadsheets are easier to retrieve using a relational content approach because they are related to text documents conceptually rather than by document type. The method by which documents are related and retrieved can vary, so firms should ask how the relationships are created, how the related documents are retrieved, and how the ranking of related documents is done. CONCLUSION The firm that carefully considers all the issues involved in creating a database will be prepared to successfully use that database to tell its story in a cost-effective, compelling way. Success in litigation is based on successful planning, and the litigation support database is a critical element in that planning. V. Lee Johnson is the executive vice president and co-founder of Syngence, which provides unique, fully automated, Internet-based document indexing and analysis services specifically designed for litigators.

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