When attorneys think back to law school orientation or the pitch the school used to convince them to attend, they probably remember a spiel about all of the wonderful things a person can do with a law degree. As safe a bet as that might be, the safer bet would be that no one ever mentioned document review as a possible career path.

Most readers would probably agree that, in the legal community, there’s a certain stigma to doing doc review professionally. So when Texas Lawyer asked whether I’d be willing to write about my doc review experience, I was a little apprehensive.

Did I want the world to know that I couldn’t find a “real” job, with “real” clients and a “real” paycheck? Frankly, as a recent law school grad, I had debated whether my doc review job would even go on my résumé, and now I was being asked to advertise it to every potential employer in Texas.

As it turned out, my perception of reality wasn’t quite aligned with reality itself. I did include doc review on my résumé, but it certainly didn’t make me unhirable. Quite the opposite — it actually helped me build my résumé, which in turn helped me get a job at a great firm. Just as importantly, it taught me a set of skills that I could take forward into my career.

So, how was I able to build my résumé by doing doc review? It started with the realization that the job listing needed a better description than just “reviewed documents.” I needed more responsibility, which, as it turned out, wasn’t extremely difficult to get. Doc review is not unlike most other jobs — advancement requires attrition and merit.

Attrition is out of a doc reviewer’s control. People quit or are let go; the project ends or its scope changes. Whatever the reasons, the number of people on the project dwindles over time. Those folks may be replaced eventually, but they may not. In any case, if there is ever more complex work to be done, the general rule seems to be that it goes to those with seniority.

What a doc review attorney can control is his or her merit. Before employers and supervisors decide to advance a candidate within the organization, they evaluate the candidate’s merit. The definition of merit varies depending on the position; it may mean being a fast document reviewer, a good researcher and writer, or a natural leader. But whatever the position, there are three things an attorney must understand to succeed: the case, the documents and the review medium.

• Understand the case. The majority of doc review projects arise out of litigation. That is, one side or the other produces the documents during discovery. If either side needs to hire professional doc reviewers, chances are that the litigation is large, complex or both. By large, I mean that the scope of discovery can cover hundreds of thousands or even millions of pages.

To move through these documents thoroughly and efficiently, a doc reviewer needs a deep understanding of the case. The reviewer most likely will have access to the pleadings, which provide a good overview of the factual allegations, claims and defenses. The reviewer’s primary goal is to find documents that factually support the elements of these claims and defenses. If, for example, one party alleges theft of trade secrets, a document produced by the other party discussing those secrets is legally significant.

The ambitious doc reviewer should study thoroughly whatever materials supervisors provide, so he can familiarize himself with the case. If the project allows workers to take materials home, he should do so. If that’s not possible, the reviewer at least should read up on areas of law central to the case. This is especially true for those reviewers who are fresh out of law school, like I was. Reading up on the relevant areas of law helped me scale the learning curve faster than everyone else.

• Understand the documents. It’s hard to really get a sense of how many documents a corporation produces. Say an employee creates a report and attaches it to an email to her boss. That simple act created four documents: the report and outgoing email on the employee’s computer and the report and incoming email on the boss’. Now, imagine the boss forwards the report to several team members. That creates at least two new documents per recipient. At a good-sized corporation, this happens thousands of times daily.

Discovery starts with narrowing down this universe of documents to those that might be relevant to the case. First, the parties agree on which employees’ documents could be relevant. Next, they decide what search terms could yield relevant docs. Of course, this process is overinclusive (the search produces irrelevant docs) and underinclusive (the search misses some relevant docs). Doc review, then, is the art of sifting through those potentially relevant documents to find actually relevant documents.

Another important distinction the doc reviewer needs to understand is whose documents are under review. In litigation, there are typically two main sets of documents: the client’s and opposing/third parties’. Any given doc review project might have attorneys reviewing either or both sets.

When reviewing a client’s docs, the attorney’s job is to play defense. He will categorize docs as irrelevant (excluded from production), privileged (excluded but noted on a privilege log), confidential (produced but under a protective order) or damaging (produced but flagged so litigation counsel can be prepared to face them at trial).

But, if the attorney is reviewing the other parties’ docs, his job is to play offense. He will categorize docs by their probative value to each claim or defense. For example, a memo the company sent internally might contain admissions that go to the breach of some duty, while a financial spreadsheet might have dollar amounts that go to damages.

Success depends on understanding the significance of the docs under review. In addition to keeping in mind which side’s docs they are reviewing, reviewers, for any given doc, need to know who created it and why. Only then does the doc’s legal significance become clear.

• Understand the review medium. In the olden days (i.e. a decade ago), doc review consisted of sifting through boxes upon boxes of physical documents. Reviewers could physically highlight and flag docs, put them into charts and move them around to different piles.

I suppose some doc review projects still happen this way. But, thankfully, most discovery in complex litigation is now primarily electronic; doc reviewers use programs to do the same things they had to do manually in the past.

There are, of course, tradeoffs. Chief among these is the learning curve that accompanies any computer program. Doc reviewers must familiarize themselves with the program’s functions. Since the goal is to be fast and efficient, it behooves the reviewer to figure out the program’s shortcuts and dig deeper into its advanced features.

I found that the best way to do this was to browse through the help files. By the end of my first week, I had learned how to flip quickly through documents, categorize them using hot keys, search for key words and so on. Even though the difference is barely noticeable over the course of one or two documents, it adds up to dozens or hundreds of extra docs reviewed each day. An added benefit is building a reputation as an expert in that particular program.

Final Note

I suspect that many readers are now in the same position I was in when I graduated from law school: jobless and terrified. So when the doc review position appeared on my law school’s jobs email, I jumped at the opportunity.

While some people make a career of doc review, I knew that it was only temporary for me. But I was faced with a dilemma: Omit the job from my résumé and try to explain away the gap to potential employers, or add it to my résumé and try to make it look attractive.

Some readers may be faced with the same decision. For me, the latter choice was clearly the better one, but that’s only because I was able to build my résumé with a strong, descriptive and appealing job description. In my experience, the only way to get to that point is to develop a good working knowledge of the case, the documents and the review medium. Understanding these aspects of the job allowed me to move into leadership roles and take on more complex work. And in the end, it led to a permanent offer at a great firm.