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Electronic Discovery

Look beyond simple keyword search for detailed results

Lawyers need to look beyond the keyword search as electronic discovery software improves, says Candice Chan-Glasgow, director of legal review services with Toronto-based Heuristica Discovery Counsel

Heuristica is Canada’s only independent law firm providing eDiscovery service across the country, and Chan-Glasgow tells AdvocateDaily.com that its hybrid legal technology team is another way the company stands out.

“It’s no longer defensible to rely exclusively on keyword searches,” she says. “Back when that was all the software could do, it was fine. But now that it’s capable of so much more, you’re going to miss relevant documents if keyword search is all you’re doing.”

In one recent case, Chan-Glasgow demonstrated her point to a client by comparing an apparently exhaustive keyword list drawn up by counsel in litigation with the list of relevant documents that were ultimately identified with the help of Heuristica’s iterative review process. 

“It turned out that 33 per cent of the relevant documents did not contain any of the keywords,” she says. “And this was a list drawn up even after document review was underway by people who knew the data, but it was still insufficient on its own.”    

Although a good place to start document review, Chan-Glasgow explains that keyword searches are limited by how “literal” the technique is. For example, searches will only return matches from documents that contain the precise term entered. That means any original documents with slight misspellings will not be picked up.  

“I’ve worked on a number of construction litigation cases, and I’ve seen databases where the word ‘remediation’ is spelled 50 different ways. In another case I was working on, I saw a party's name misspelled around 40 times,” Chan-Glasgow says.

“When people are typing on their tiny phone keyboards, it’s going to happen pretty frequently, and those mistakes will not be caught by keyword searches.”

In addition, she says it’s common for employees to use abbreviations, code names or other language in place of the names that make it onto keyword search lists.   

At the other end of the scale, Chan-Glasgow says another problem with keyword searches is that they can be overinclusive, delivering a wave of false hits that can bury the truly relevant documents.

“We often find that counsel are surprised by the sheer volume of results that come back from a keyword search,” she says. “Just because a keyword appears in a document, doesn’t mean it’s relevant.”

By contrast, litigation software analytics allow lawyers to search millions of documents for concepts as well as words, identifying relevant documents even when misspellings or slang are used.   

“To take a simple example, if I were to search for ‘dog,’ then the concept search would also return results for ‘puppies’ and other synonyms,” Chan-Glasgow says. 

“It’s an iterative process. While key words are a good starting place, you should also be refining your keyword list based on the results you’re getting,” she adds.

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