eDiscovery Best Practices: Is Disclosure of Search Terms Required?
March 24, 2011
I read a terrific article a couple of days ago from the New York Law Journal via Law Technology News entitled Search Terms Are More Than Mere Words, that had some interesting takes about the disclosure of search terms in eDiscovery. The article was written by David J. Kessler, Robert D. Owen, and Emily Johnston of Fulbright & Jaworski. The primary emphasis of the article was with regard to the forced disclosure of search terms by courts.
In the age of “meet and confer”, it has become much more common for parties to agree to exchange search terms in a case to limit costs and increase transparency. However, as the authors correctly note, search terms reflect counsel’s strategy for the case and, therefore, work product. Their position is that courts should not force disclosure of search terms and that disclosure of terms is “not appropriate under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure”. The article provides a compelling argument as to why forced disclosure is not appropriate and provides some good case cites where courts have accepted or rejected requests to compel provision of search terms. I won’t try to recap them all here – check out the article for more information.
So, should disclosure of search terms be generally required? If not, what does that mean in terms of utilizing a defensible approach to searching?
Personally, I agree with the authors that forced disclosure of search terms is generally not appropriate, as it does reflect strategy and work product. However, there is an obligation for each party to preserve, collect, review and produce all relevant materials to the best of their ability (that are not privileged, of course). Searching is an integral part of that process. And, the article does note that “chosen terms may come under scrutiny if there is a defect in the production”, though “[m]ere speculation or unfounded accusations” should not lead to a requirement to disclose search terms.
With that said, the biggest component of most eDiscovery collections today is email, and that email often reflects discussions between parties in the case. In these cases, it’s much easier for opposing counsel to identify legitimate defects in the production because they have some of the same correspondence and documents and can often easily spot discrepancies in the production set. If they identify legitimate omissions from the production, those omissions could cause the court to call into question your search procedures. Therefore, it’s important to conduct a defensible approach to searching (such as the “STARR” approach I described in an earlier post) to be able to defend yourself if those questions arise. Demonstrating a defensible approach to searching will offer the best chance to preserve your rights to protect your work product of search terms that reflect your case strategy.
So, what do you think? Do you think that forced disclosure of search terms is appropriate? Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.