Are Custodial Self-Discovery and Preserving ESI in Place Good for You?

A majority of organizations still follow the traditional practice of instructing custodians—that is, employees–to search for and protect potentially responsive electronically stored information (ESI) locally or what’s known colloquially as “preserving it in place”. In fact, the international law firm Fulbright & Jaworski found in its 7th Annual Litigation Trends Survey that more than half (55%) of companies still rely on custodians as their primary method to identify and preserve their own information for litigation or an investigation.

By following this practice, these companies, particularly those with larger numbers of custodians,  have a higher risk of incomplete collection, inadvertent deletion/spoliation, and metadata corruption. What’s more, it’s difficult for legal to supervise  the collection process,  leading to inadequate defensibility of the litigation hold and eDiscovery process.

In a 2008 Kahn Consulting survey on employee understanding of eDiscovery responsibilities, only 22% of respondents said they had a good understanding of their responsibilities for retaining ESI for discovery. Only 16% said they had a good understanding of their responsibilities when responding to a litigation hold. These statistics, while a few years old, blatantly highlight the risk of custodial self discovery and preservation in place.

Still not convinced? The courts are now holding litigants to a higher standard. In a recent case, Roffe v. Eagle Rock Energy GP, et al., C.A. No. 5258-VCL (Del. Ch. Apr. 8, 2010), the Judge expressed surprise overt the custodial self discovery practice used by one attorney:

The Judge asked:

Am I correct that you have been relying on what they [the defendants] self-selected to put in their transaction files in terms of what you obtained and produced?

The defense attorney answered:

That’s correct, your Honor. I was told that they uniformly would put all of their Eagle Rock e-mails into that folder. I have not checked, and I don’t know whether that is true or whether that is accurate. I believe they are telling the truth, but I don’t know if that is accurate.

The Judge immediately responded:

Then here is my ruling. This is not satisfactory. From what you have described to me, you are not doing what you should be doing. First of all, you do not rely on a defendant to search their own e-mail system. Okay? There needs to be a lawyer who goes and makes sure the collection is done properly. So both as to the two directors who already have produced — we don’t rely on people who are defendants to decide what documents are responsive, at least not in this Court. And you certainly need to put somebody on a plane to go out and see Mr. Smith.

In this exchange, the Judge clearly states: We don’t rely on people who are defendants to decide what documents are responsive. Custodial self-discovery is like the fox guarding the chicken coop.

Relying on litigants to find, protect and eventually turn over potentially responsive ESI can be problematic. Most of them will attempt to do what’s right to the best of their understanding. But as we’ve seen from the 7th Annual Litigation Trends Survey, fewer  than1 in 4 (23%) have a good understanding. Those few that could have something to hide may find ways to do a sub-par job in the discovery process. If I am the opposing counsel, I  want to know if self discovery was relied on.

So what is a defensible answer for the risks posed by custodial self discovery and preservation in place? Well in my opinion—and I’m about to sound like a corporate schill–you need an ESI archive, which captures the majority of potentially responsive ESI from the in-house infrastructure along with a solution for the remote collection of custodian ESI from their locally controlled equipment.

First, a central ESI archive that captures, indexes, stores, protects, manages and disposes of ESI allows for central discovery of ESI for silos like email systems, share drives and SharePoint systems.

So what can be done for the discovery of locally controlled custodian locations?

Some organizations centrally backup custodian workstations on a regular basis. But relying on restoring backups and searching for responsive ESI has never been considered a good idea. It’s also expensive.

What if you could schedule forensically sound backups of all custodian workstations and use those backups of custodians’ workstations to discover against, even when those custodians are traveling and not synced to the organization’s infrastructure?

A consolidated metadata repository provides enterprises with an accessible catalog of the types of data and content stored on PCs. Using flexible metadata selections, administrators can quickly identify information that is relevant to litigation or compliance matters and, if necessary, retrieve that relevant data from the solution for further review.