Before you go to court for a legal proceeding, you first need to understand what you’re up against and what resources you have at your disposal. This process—the early case assessment (ECA)—is critical when it comes to building a case or defending a client.
At first glance, ECA may seem like a routine procedure and a waste of time. But it’s actually one of the most important parts of the eDiscovery process and something that legal teams need to take seriously. After all, putting effort into ECA improves court outcomes and eliminates costly mistakes drastically.
Read on to learn what ECA entails during eDiscovery, as well as some best practices to keep in mind when going through the process.
What Is an Early Case Assessment?
Just as the name suggests, ECA involves discovering and processing electronically stored information (ESI) before a legal case starts. ECA applies to items like emails, text messages, blogs, audio, and video files. It also applies to physical evidence like paper documents and forms.
At a high level, ECA helps legal teams understand risk and form a legal strategy. Legal teams use ECA to build the most effective case. This process also helps save time during court and ensures a fair, speedy, and efficient trial.
During ECAs, legal teams attempt to clarify a range of important items. Here are some examples.
The Main Legal Issues at Hand
At the very beginning of a case, legal teams may only have a surface-level understanding of the case at hand. By going through ECA, they can discover the key legal issues they need to focus on during the case—as well as what’s irrelevant.
Legal teams also use ECA to determine overall legal liability. This allows the legal team to understand what’s at stake and relay the risk level back to the client.
Relevant Search Terms
A big part of ECA involves organizing ESI and making it discoverable. Legal teams should identify key search terms from the outset. That way, they can quickly identify information upon request.
The eDiscovery process moves fast. As such, there is little time to waste. For this reason, it’s a good idea to identify potential data custodians during the ECA process so that legal aids can engage with them and gain access to relevant data. This is also important for issuing and enforcing legal holds.
Legal teams often encounter massive data volumes during eDiscovery. This is especially true with large cases involving numerous custodians. During ECA, legal teams need to understand how much data they are working with so they can plan accordingly.
At the very end of the ECA process, you should have a clear understanding of how much the eDiscovery process will cost. This is necessary for setting a budget and obtaining more funding if necessary.
What Does Early Case Assessment Involve?
ECA is a foundational part of the eDiscovery process. That being the case, it isn’t something you should breeze through. Conducting a thorough and accurate ECA is essential for building an effective eDiscovery strategy. Simply put, it sets your legal team up for success during litigation.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a general overview of what ECAs entail.
Speaking With Data Custodians
Data custodians are individuals who have access and control over ESI. For example, this may be someone with administrative access to a cloud database or an email server.
Because data custodians own and access data, they can provide essential insights into the volume and contents. They can also potentially grant access to important logs, records, and events.
For this reason, it’s worth interviewing data custodians early on in the ECA process and gathering their feedback. Data custodians act as valuable resources and help streamline eDiscovery.
After you speak with data custodians, collecting initial information is necessary. This way, you can produce reports and get a better understanding of data volumes, key dates, and other important insights.
Data Analysis and Reporting
Once you have your initial data set, you should compile it into a secure location and produce basic analytical reports to better understand what you're working with. Keep in mind that this is just a preliminary step and that further collection and analysis may be necessary during the eDiscovery process.
ECA Benefits During eDiscovery
A best-in-class approach to ECA can be truly transformative. Here’s why.
ECA may seem like a barrier to the eDiscovery process, especially for seasoned eDiscovery teams. However, putting the time and effort into ECA saves a tremendous amount of work down the line. Your team will be able to move much faster and more efficiently after going through ECA.
The ECA process also serves as a roadmap for eDiscovery. It helps point out which individuals and systems to approach for data—and which ones you can avoid.
Another benefit to ECA is that it reduces risk during eDiscovery. This is because ECA helps identify key data sets and storage locations. It prevents you from missing important information that can pop up during the eDiscovery process and catch your team off guard.
To illustrate, imagine defending a client but overlooking an important server containing a trove of emails. This could impact your case—and not in a good way. But by going through the ECA process, you can identify this type of information ahead of time and plan accordingly.
Better Resource Management
ECA also gives you an overview of how large and complex the eDiscovery process is going to be. With this information, you can better understand how many staff members you’ll need and how much the project will likely cost.
Best Practices for ECA
There are no rules governing how legal teams should approach ECA. Each team is free to form its own strategy and policy. To increase the chances you get the legal outcomes you’re hoping to achieve, keep these best practices in mind during this process.
Try to Reduce Your Data
Not all information needs to make it through into the eDiscovery process. In other words, it’s vital to cull data and reduce the amount of accessible information. Culling data helps to control eDiscovery costs and prevent unnecessary information from becoming discoverable.
Avoid Deleting Data
As a best practice, you should avoid deleting information outside of your defensible deletion policy. Another party may request data at a later time, so it’s necessary to keep any information that you don’t use on hand and readily accessible.
Involve Your IT Department
ECA and eDiscovery involve extracting, handling, and storing sensitive information. As such, it’s imperative to enlist the help of trusted IT professionals who can assist and streamline the process. Many eDiscovery teams also hire IT specialists to help coordinate with IT workers and handle information collection and processing.
Rely on Technology
As the electronic discovery reference model (EDRM) points out, it’s impossible to conduct efficient ECA without the assistance of technology. Most teams now use automated eDiscovery platforms to collect, process, and manage ESI, which speeds up the process considerably.
For example, Venio Systems offers a purpose-built, AI-enabled eDiscovery platform for end-to-end ESI management. Our eDiscovery platform reduces costs and minimizes review time, allowing for a fast and streamlined approach to eDiscovery. As a one-stop solution, it’s useful for all stages of eDiscovery, from ECA to data storage to dissemination.
To see Venio’s powerful eDiscovery platform in action, request a free demo today.
About the Author
Justin Reynolds, Akshita Singhal & Lianna Vaughan
This post was written by Justin Reynolds. Justin is a freelance writer who enjoys telling stories about how technology, science, and creativity can help workers be more productive. In his spare time, he likes seeing or playing live music, hiking, and traveling. This post was reviewed and published by Akshita and Lianna, the in-house team of Venio.