The NZ E-Discovery Blog  Facilitating proportionate and efficient e-discovery

Exploring the limitations of keyword search terms

September 15th, 2021

In my last post I explored how many effective eDiscovery methods can still be those that are simple and have been used for years – as long as they are thoroughly considered. One of these methods is the use of keyword search terms. Although there can be limitations of keyword search terms.

In recent times, with the advancements of more sophisticated technology, and the use of TAR (Technology Assisted Review) in the discovery process, we can lose sight of at least considering approaches like keyword search terms.

Keyword searching is still a very common method used in litigation or investigations to target potentially relevant information, but it is very easy to get it completely wrong.

Keyword search terms will not find what you are looking for unless they are carefully crafted and refined if necessary.

Why have search terms been so popular?

Traditionally keyword search terms have been an approach that many lawyers are familiar with and comfortable with. We all use keywords every day through search engines like Google, and other digital platforms.

I still find today (as I did 10 years ago), that many matters consider using keyword search terms at some stage of the discovery process. Undoubtedly, it has been an easy method to quickly cull documents to a smaller and more manageable set to review.

However, unlike the use of search terms in the likes of Google, when applied to eDiscovery many are simply unaware, or fully appreciate the potential limitations of applying keyword search terms.

Limitations of keyword search terms – Not knowing what you could be missing !

It goes without saying, that search terms can significantly reduce the volume of documents to review, but it could mean that crucial information is missed if the keyword does not result in a “hit” in a document. A document is either in or out, a document either contains the word or it doesn’t.

This can be very dangerous early in the matter !

The development of search terms too early in the process can then become entrenched in the discovery order. These are usually based solely on the lawyer’s own knowledge of the case, often without even sighting documents and testing or sampling of the search terms.

Choosing effective search terms is not as simple as preparing a list of words the lawyer thinks will help them find the relevant documents. As you would prepare for other aspects of the case, you need to understand what you are looking for, and often before you look for it.

The problems only escalate further when the legal team begins its document review.

Or, far too many irrelevant documents !

Alternatively, the search terms may produce irrelevant documents that may have different meanings to that intended.

Far too often one of the largest and completely unnecessary costs of the discovery process is lawyers spending their time reviewing entirely irrelevant information.

Any lawyer who has reviewed documents based on keyword search terms will appreciate the frustration this can cause, with many ‘reluctant’ reviewers in the first place – adding needless time and expense to the discovery process.

All is not lost !

The problem is not using a search term approach, but the method in which they are applied. Keyword search terms can be an effective method of isolating important information, but to find what you are searching for – they do need to be carefully crafted.

In my next post I will explore in further detail some practical methods to improve the effectiveness of keyword search terms.



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