Michelle Obama. Photo: Debby Wong/Shutterstock.com

Former first lady Michelle Obama is a self-proclaimed “box checker” of achievements. Proud of her South Side Chicago roots, she earned degrees from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She returned to her hometown in 1988 to an associate position at Sidley Austin.

But as Obama, nee Michelle Robinson, enjoyed the spoils of her hefty associate paycheck in Big Law, a nagging realization was forming: She didn’t enjoy being a lawyer.

A business trip to Washington, D.C., in 1990 for a document review assignment solidified to Obama that legal practice wasn’t her passion. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey during a press tour for her top-selling memoir, “Becoming,” Obama discussed the moment she confided in her mother that being an attorney wasn’t for her.

“So one day she’s driving me from the airport after I was doing document production in Washington, D.C., and I was like, ‘I can’t do this for the rest of my life. I can’t sit in a room and look at documents.’ I won’t get into what that is, but it’s deadly. Deadly. Document production. So I shared with her in the car: ‘I’m just not happy. I don’t feel my passion.’”

Her dissatisfaction with law practice wasn’t based entirely on her D.C. document review experience. Indeed, in “Becoming,” Obama wrote that she grew restless with constantly drafting memos and reviewing contracts for corporate clients she rarely saw. But she cited that D.C. trip as providing a gloomy outlook for her career.

Of course, document review has changed since Obama was a practicing attorney. The emergence of e-discovery technology has made document review less of a burden. Spurred by an explosion of digital information, today’s document review tools have turned a once manual process into an automated and cost-efficient one, allowing lawyers more time to focus on complex legal matters.

But the emergence of e-discovery technology hasn’t benefited everyone. While it has made a legal career more appealing and less taxing for many, the advancement of such technology is starting to disrupt the document review market. Suffice to say, it can be a mixed blessing.

From Human Eyes to Computer Brains

During the 1980s and early 1990s, many law firms sent teams of paralegals and staff to offices and warehouses to collect pertinent documents for legal matters. Staff would organize the documents into boxes by subject matter while lawyers—mostly associates—would review the files and mark documents relevant to their client’s case.

“[Document review in the 1990s] relied on human beings going through the documents one at a time and reading them,” University of Florida Levin College of Law e-discovery professor William Hamilton says. “It was a time-consuming process. It was a process where many of the documents being read weren’t relevant. It was expensive.”

At the time, law firms thought the human eye was the best tool to determine relevance, adds Philip Favro, a lawyer and discovery consultant at managed services company Driven Inc.

“The idea was—[and] there still is the notion—that human review is the gold standard of discovery,” Favro says. “That you can go as a human being, [have] eyes on every document, especially paper documents, and not miss anything. That was essentially what was the expectation, and some still hold that misconception. Human review is not the gold standard, it never was.”

In fact, human review has become harder to perform with the proliferation of emails, cellphones, and internet and digital services, which can produce more discoverable data than ever before.

George Socha, managing director in BDO’s forensic technology services practice, recalls colleagues in the 1980s complaining of the “millions” of documents they were assigned to review, when in reality, the number measured only in the thousands.

But now, he sees these millions of documents becoming reality. “Today so much is done electronically, so little is done on paper, [so] most of the work to review documents is reviewing Word docs, Excel, emails,” Socha says. “My ‘mythical millions’ case in the ‘80s is potentially any case today.”

In response, in the early 2000s, the first software companies began to provide technology-based alternatives to manual document review. Today there are numerous e-discovery providers catering to legal departments and law firms, including Relativity, Exterro, KLDiscovery, Catalyst and QDiscovery, among many others.

There are also a host of legal managed services companies, such as Alphaserve Technologies, Riverview Law, FTI Consulting and Pramata. In some cases these companies develop their own e-discovery technology.

A Career in Review

Some attorneys at various career stages work solely as document reviewers through legal staffing agencies. Temp agencies are used to provide on-call document reviewers for companies and law firms. For some, these temp jobs blossom into consistent document review careers.

“There are law firms that are hiring attorneys to do document review for the client and firm,” Jamy Sullivan of legal staffing agency Robert Half Legal says. But, she adds, “They are billing these lawyers out at a lower rate.”

Reed Smith partner David Cohen, who in 2011 founded Reed Smith’s e-discovery and records management group, notes that in the past it was almost a “rite of passage” for associates in Big Law to be assigned to document review. But today, Big Law associates aren’t used for such tasks.

“Clients won’t tolerate associate rates for that work. They shouldn’t, because you can have that work at different rates and by people specialized in it,” Cohen says.

The days of being a full-time document reviewer may be numbered. Dan Safran, CEO of LegalShift, a legal consultancy company for firms and legal departments, says that e-discovery platforms that leverage artificial intelligence, such as Lawgeex, kuraCloud and Seal Software, can perform lengthy document and contract reviews in mere minutes.

What’s more, some e-discovery platforms, such as Disco and Logikcull, have focused on streamlining their user interfaces to the point where anyone, regardless of skill or tech acumen, can operate review platforms with a few clicks of a button, decreasing the need even for e-discovery specialists.

Safran notes document review software won’t entirely eradicate the need for document review attorneys, but he believes there will likely be diminished demand for human reviewers.

For Faiz Ahmed, general manager of legal and compliance solutions at technology and business process services company Conduent Inc., this is already a reality.

“You are not seeing an explosion of document managers,” Ahmed says. “There’s more and more AI, and machine learning applications for the data, so [they] are reviewing more of the relevant data.”

The Burnout

In “Becoming,” Obama wrote that she was burned out as a young attorney. She found, during her three years practicing at Sidley, that she sought a more “virtuous” job that created direct personal results for individuals.

Texas-based legal career coach Debra Bruce says lawyers working with corporate entities may lack daily creative interactions, which could lead to a lack of fulfillment.

“They start to lose meaning and purpose in their work, especially in really big firms, because there’s so much emphasis on billable hours and not creativity, client satisfaction and finding solutions,” Bruce says.

Allan Tepper, a Philadelphia-based lawyer and psychologist, adds that constant document review can be isolating and disheartening for some.

“If you are dealing with a case, a trial case or corporate case, it can be tedious and tiresome,” Tepper says. “It can be isolating in nature, meaning even if you have people to help you at some point, you have to read [the documents] by yourself.”

Obama wrote that after her three-week-long document review experience in D.C., the clients settled, a conclusion she found an “irksome but expected trade-off in the legal field.”

She left the legal practice in 1991 and went on to work in administrative and executive positions in the private and government sectors. Public records show she last registered with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission in 1993 and is voluntarily inactive and not authorized to practice law.

The document review world Obama left behind in 1991 still needed another decade to become more efficient and less daunting. But while technology is now allowing attorneys to focus on more rewarding work, anxiety may be brewing for others who call document review a career. The disruption e-discovery brings, therefore, may not be welcome by all.