Lawyers drowning in a sea of emails

The sheer volume of digital evidence is making lawyers' lives more difficult. Bad news for cash-strapped business?

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
Technology has sent us to the moon, put terabytes of information at our fingertips and enabled us to share our choice of breakfast with the world. But it also has its downsides, as antivirus specialist Symantec has just discovered after talking to a load of lawyers. Apparently, we're now generating so much electronic data that when lawyers come to work on a case, it's taking them longer and longer to sift through the potentially relevant stuff. And that's not just a pain for lawyers - more time spent means higher fees for the businesses using their services...

As you'd expect, when lawyers are building a case, they have to check all the available evidence and then submit the relevant stuff to the court. In the old days, that means chasing down lots of bits of paper - and although that presented challenges of its own, they didn't have to deal with the sheer volume of stuff that they do now, in the era of emails and voicemails. For instance, when Goldman Sachs had its run-in with the US SEC recently, it presented the regulator with over 2.5bn pages of data. No wonder both sides eventually agreed to a settlement – who wants to read all that?

And lawyers are struggling to cope. Every single one of the 5,000 lawyers surveyed by Symantec admitted that they had seen a case lost or delayed (or had been told off by a judge) because they'd been unable to find or process some relevant bit of electronically stored information (or ESI, to those in the know). Given its importance to the legal process these days - 98% said that digital evidence had won them a case in the last two years - this is clearly a big issue for them.

Now the non-lawyers among you may not be able to muster a lot of sympathy about a bunch of City suits complaining about having too much work to do. But when you're talking about a profession that charges by the hour (though not in the Wayne Rooney sense) there's a knock-on effect: more time spent on ESI means the legal process is more costly for clients. At the moment, that's the last thing businesses need.

Still, it's not bad news for everyone: most of these lawyers reckon the answer lies in better search technology, which would allow them to sift through this morass of emails more efficiently. So although it's Google's search technology that's making headlines this morning, perhaps it's companies like UK-based Autonomy (which specialises in searching unstructured data) that could be the big winners from this...

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