eDiscovery Daily Blog

eDiscovery Trends: Review Attorneys, Are You Smarter than a High Schooler?


Review attorneys are taking a beating these days.  There’s so much attention being focused on technology assisted review, with the latest study noting the cost-effectiveness of technology assisted review (when compared to manual review) having just been released this month.  There is also the very detailed and well known white paper study written by Maura Grossman and Gordon Cormack (Technology-Assisted Review in E-Discovery can be More Effective and More Efficient that Exhaustive Manual Review) which notes not only the cost-effectiveness of technology assisted review but also that it was actually more accurate.

The latest study, from information scientist William Webber (and discussed in this Law Technology News article by Ralph Losey) seems to indicate that trained reviewers don’t provide any better review accuracy than a pair of high schoolers that he selected with “no legal training, and no prior e-discovery experience, aside from assessing a few dozen documents for a different TREC topic as part of a trial experiment”.  In fact, the two high schoolers did better!  He also notes that “[t]hey worked independently and without supervision or correction, though one would be correct to describe them as careful and motivated.”  His conclusion?

“The conclusion that can be reached, though, is that our assessors were able to achieve reliability (with or without detailed assessment guidelines) that is competitive with that of the professional reviewers — and also competitive with that of a commercial e-discovery vendor.”

Webber also cites two other studies with similar results and notes “All of this raises the question that is posed in the subject of this post: if (some) high school students are as reliable as (some) legally-trained, professional e-discovery reviewers, then is legal training a practical (as opposed to legal) requirement for reliable first-pass review for responsiveness? Or are care and general reading skills the more important factors?”

I have a couple of observations about the study.  Keep in mind, I’m not an attorney (and don’t play one on TV), but I have worked with review teams on several projects and have observed the review process and how it has been conducted in a real world setting, so I do have some real-world basis for my thoughts:

  • Two high schoolers is not a significant sample size: I’ve worked on several projects where some reviewers are really productive and others are highly unproductive to the point of being useless.  It’s difficult to determine a valid conclusion on the basis of two non-legal reviewers in his study and four non-legal reviewers in one of the studies that Webber cites.
  • Review is typically an iterative process: In my experience, most legal reviews that I’ve seen start with detailed instructions and training provided to the reviewers, followed up with regular (daily, if not more frequent) changes to instructions to reflect information gathered during the review process.  Instructions are refined as the review commences and more information is learned about the document collection.  Since Webber noted that “[t]hey worked independently and without supervision or correction”, it doesn’t appear that his review test was conducted in this manner.  This makes it less of a real world scenario, in my opinion.

I also think some reviews especially benefit from a first pass review with legal trained reviewers (for example, a reviewer who understands intellectual property laws is going to understand potential IP issues better than someone who hasn’t had the training in IP law).  Nonetheless, these studies are bound to “fan the flames” of debate regarding the effectiveness of manual attorney review (even more than they already are).

So, what do you think?  Do you think his study is valid?  Or do you have other concerns about the conclusions he has drawn?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Disclaimer: The views represented herein are exclusively the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views held by CloudNine Discovery. eDiscoveryDaily is made available by CloudNine Discovery solely for educational purposes to provide general information about general eDiscovery principles and not to provide specific legal advice applicable to any particular circumstance. eDiscoveryDaily should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a lawyer you have retained and who has agreed to represent you.