What exactly is document review?

On the same subject as last week’s post From Louboutin to lawyer-linguists?, this guest post from Andrea Kaluzny is a tongue-in-cheek account as well as a great insight into the subject of document review, which is a particularly widespread practice in the United States.  As well as being a contract attorney providing multilingual support for litigation, Andrea is committed to volunteer work in several areas including, amongst others, animal welfare and human rights.


Isn’t it funny how you can go through 3 years of law school and never once hear the words “document review”? Everyone prepares you for the traditional role of a big law firm associate into which only the top 10% of your class may ever aspire to enter, and here you are making your temporary way in through the back door.

Perhaps one should explain to all of those innocent law school grads what document review is – what they always wanted to know but law school was too embarrassed to admit – that it was preparing them, at a cool 100 grand in tuition fees, for something not even Judge Cardozo would have an opinion on: document review.

In simple terms Blackacre (Schwarzenegger for the linguists amongst you) sues Greenacre over something. The judge then determines the scope of discovery and we are in business – everyone gets to shuffle papers, exchange them, asks for more papers and so one and so forth.  Of course no one can really be trusted to hand over documents to the other side which show how guilty they really are, thus this job is entrusted to us: officers of the court.

We get to sort through the company’s files, all of them! Yes, that includes SMS or text messages (I was just asked the other day if I can read French text messages – the answer being – Mais, non! I am still struggling with English LOL 🙂 ), meta data (the stuff you thought you deleted) voice messages, private e-mails (love those office romances and secretaries dishing it out about their new colleague), and much more.  We determine what the other side and the honorable judge get to see – that is, what is relevant.

Once we figure out that something is relevant to the case – this is a process which can get highly technical, like finding the name of a product being sued in a document even if it has nothing remotely to do with the suit – we turn to our coding manual. This is sometimes written by people at least vaguely acquainted with the case, sometimes it seems to have just been a folder which someone found lying around the office and decided to recycle by giving it to the new reviewers. I have worked on suits where the firm had handled many previous projects and people had worked there close to a decade. This meant that the manual no longer really meant what it said but had taken on a verbal gloss. After a while we also learned what words and concepts had come to mean over the years and tried our best to teach this to newcomers who invariably in a stubborn manner kept pointing to the written word as if it were a legal text (no, this is not law school anymore).

Still in law school back-stabbing mode, I hear in some fine institutions of higher legal learning it is not uncommon for students to rip pages out of law library books to prevent those coming after them to do the same research for their legal writing paper. Yes Survivor Island – Law School – may be coming soon or may be canceled because it was too brutal for Prime Time.

Confidentiality is a tricky subject and thus not funny – what does the other lawyer get to see but not his client?

Privilege – lawyers involved – thus even less funny! But at least no-one from the other side gets to see it unless you screw up – good time to follow what is happening in the McDermott suit in case you suddenly need to skip town – and the country – does Brazil still not have an extradition treaty or do you have to go even further? I hear North Korea is nice this time of year and you can add valuable language skills for a higher-paying language review job.

Next you look for Key Issues – the stuff that upset the other side enough to sue in the first place.  Also a place where you can find something good or bad about your client, which you send up the chain for the litigators to use in court to show what a saintly corporate citizen your client really is, or to pray that the other side will not discover in the truck load of documents it gets to see, and to prepare to defend in case it does.

The rest is kind of up to the individual review – some very lazy litigators who do not want to actually ever open the files, but just look at the log, make coding jungles out of the coding tree (and then wonder why it takes you so damn long to review each document). Others want you to leave notes for each document – I am still talking English language documents here. Usually it is not so complicated and you tick a couple of boxes, move on to the next document and on with your life.

For foreign language documents you usually do a summary translation. As a rule of thumb lawyers freak out when they see a foreign language – even if it is translated in the paragraph below of that same document. So they want to know as much as possible until they get back to their comfort level. Of course you have two thumbs – and the rule of thumb for your second thumb is – they want to get rid of the foreign reviewers who are more expensive than their English counterparts asap.

Needless to say we are also always too slow. I have heard through the grapevine that people thought we were conspiring to drag out the review and other higher-ups tried inspiring us by sharing with us how much faster they would be if only they spoke our language. To which I say “here, have a dictionary – knock yourself out. It helps and prolongs your stay on the review to say this in the language they just admitted not speaking. 🙂

Document families – like their human counterparts – can be tricky where one document makes others, if not all, relevant. A child messes up and the parent is in for it as well.

Oh yes – the wonderful world of redactions. I knew I had forgotten something here or rather repressed it.  Companies seem to insist on creating documents which list several of their products in the same document where you get to redact all products not being sued. Financials are my all time favorite – I worked for a company which managed to create 5000-page spreadsheets listing every yellow marker they bought that month, the coffee they consumed and yes also the product we were looking for. So you get to electronically white out lots of information. Of course there is also personal information such as home addresses, credit card numbers and patients’ names, which you redact. Sorry, this job is so mind-numbingly boring that even I cannot come up with a joke here. Note to the IRS agent, the only other person who may ever get to see these: I feel your pain! The missing tea bags from pg 1235 can be found on pg 4038 under stationery.

And there you have it in a nutshell. Your first legal job out of law school which pays enough so that you can service your student loans and gives you a chance at having a life before the grim reaper redacts you when your personal rule against perpetuities catches up with you like a springing interest.


You might also be interested in a previous guest post by Andrea about testing contract attorneys’ language skills, and this article on Managing the Review Process from FindLaw.

4 thoughts on “What exactly is document review?

  1. Pingback: Weekly favorites (Nov 26-Dec 2) | Adventures in Freelance Translation

  2. Pingback: Most read posts 2013 | From Words to Deeds: translation & the law

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