Spend ten minutes talking to nearly anyone in the legal profession, and the conversation will inevitably shift into eDiscovery. Five minutes after that, you’ll find yourself getting an earful: legacy data types that are painful if not impossible to access and process. Review costs that spiral, scope creep, the nuances and pitfalls of using analytics. Vendors that drop the ball, projects that spin out into the weeds, missed deadlines, sanctions. And so on and so on.
Given these pressures, it’s clear that finding the right eDiscovery services provider can be equally critical for the law firm and the in-house practitioner. But what does right really mean?

Right is a tech-savvy workhorse who really excels at the things you need

Notice that there are three value points in that statement: tech-savy, workhorse, and excels at the things you need. The first two are fairly simple to evaluate, so I’ll address them last. It’s the third point that so often winds up causing ulcers. How do you know if a service provider really excels at the things you need?

One way is to send out an RFP – but this is time-consuming and subjective. Providers (bless their hearts) want to position themselves in the best possible light, and who can blame them? Unfortunately, the urge usually results in responses that are too long and detailed, and perhaps a bit exaggerated where capacities and expertise are concerned. All of which amounts to a soup of information that you’ll have to sort through. If you have more than a handful of responses, it’ll take you weeks.

Asking peers for suggestions can be helpful, but they may be biased – and their needs and priorities are probably different from yours. It’s better to ask if they can confirm what you already suspect about a potential provider’s abilities and experience.

So what’s a busy lawyer to do? Well, it’s simple. Or at least, it can be.

Create a vendor questionnaire

Wait, what? Didn’t you just say that RFPs were an ineffective pain in the rear?

Indeed I did – but I’m not suggesting you use an RFP. I’m saying questionnaire – and there’s a big difference. To wit: you’re not looking to understand every single thing about the company, which is usually what RFPs do. You just want to learn enough to know whether a conversation is warranted.

Fine, then. I’ll go along with this for now. How do I create a vendor questionnaire?

The first and most important step is figuring out what you really need. Happily enough, you can use the EDRM as a scaffold.

For most projects, Information Governance will be outside of the scope, unless you’re specifically looking for a consultant who can help you deal with that little beauty. Presentation is also somewhat peripheral in most situations, or at very least, not something you typically need a provider’s help for. So that means you just need to work your way through the middle of the model. The goal is to come up with the two or three activities in each area that are most important to you, and then develop a writing prompt that really digs into the provider’s experience in that area. So, for example:

Checklist for Vendor

The Upshot

  • Clearly define as many details of the eDiscovery effort as possible. Overlooking something now can cost time and money later.
  • Develop questions that address specific needs, as tied to those details. Keep your language simple, direct, and brief. Don’t ask “can you do this.” Instead, ask for a description of a specific situation and concrete examples.
  • Rank your questions by priority. Aim for the 10 most important things across all key areas of the EDRM. Then tack on two additional questions to evaluate technical competence and work ethic (I told you I’d get to them at the end).
    • List the technical certifications held by your firm and/or employees, with dates earned.
    • Describe a situation in which your team missed a deadline. Why did it happen? What did you do to rectify the situation? Note: “we’ve never missed a deadline” is not an acceptable answer.

You want somewhere between 10 and 15 questions when it’s said and done – no more than 20, ever.

  • Create a standardized document in Word, so that respondents can easily write an actual response. Asking people to describe their skills in an Excel sheet is just cruel.
  • Provide clear, simple instructions:
    • Answer in-line in the file you sent (this will make it easier to compare vendors)
    • If a question includes multiple parts, respond to every item
    • Return the response by date / time / timezone (allow a reasonable amount of time! You’ll typically get better responses if people have enough time to think them through, rather than rushing to meet the submission deadline.)
  • Impose a word limit for each answer (175 to 200 words is enough room to offer some detail, but not enough to bury you.)

Choose 3-5 targets firms – look for companies with attractive, well-written websites that clearly describe services. (Chances are good that if the firm takes pride and care with the way they present themselves to the world, they’ll take pride in the other aspects of their work.) If you already have a preferred technology for processing, hosting, and review, you can use that criteria to further narrow the pool. Send them your questionnaire, and when the responses come in, read them carefully. Then set up a meeting or conference call with the one or two firms with which you’re most impressed.

Up Next > The Meet and Greet: Right is a company you feel comfortable with

About the Author

Unicorn Avatar for AutherSusan Ethridge is a writer and editor with more than fifteen years’ experience in marketing and business development for industry-leading eDiscovery service providers. She enjoys cooking, literary fiction, and cool technologies, and tends to get OCD about music and bourbon. She is a die-hard fan of the Oxford comma.

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