What is a Document Review?

C. Mitchell

The practice of reviewing documents to determine their relevancy for trial is known as “document review,” commonly referred to in practice as “doc review.” One of the essential elements of trial under the common law system is the ability for each party to search for and review the relevant documents each other holds. Parties gain access to these documents through the evidentiary process of discovery, and lawyers for each side then engage in document review to ascertain how useful any given document is to the case. Lawyers also sometimes engage in document review of a client’s documents when that client, usually a business, is anticipating a lawsuit or investigation. Document review is generally considered a rather menial legal task, and typically involves no more than marking a document as “relevant” or “not relevant,” and moving on.

All document reviews must be performed by licensed litigators.
All document reviews must be performed by licensed litigators.

The earliest document reviews consisted of lawyers, typically new associates, sifting through boxes of printed paper. The advent of computer technology made printouts all but obsolete to the document review process. Most documents today are surrendered in electronic format, and are reviewed on computer screens. This has made the review process easier in some respects, but it has also meant that many more documents are now implicated. Typically everything stored on corporate servers must be surrendered during discovery, from official memos to mundane personal e-mails.

Typically everything stored on corporate servers must be surrendered during the legal discovery process.
Typically everything stored on corporate servers must be surrendered during the legal discovery process.

Most of the time, document review is attendant to on-going litigation. Law firms conduct document reviews pursuant to discovery law for clients who are either suing or being sued. Discovery can also be done strategically without a trial, however. A company that is planning to sue another may want to do an internal doc review to understand its own liabilities. Similarly, a company that is expecting being sued, or is expecting a federal investigation, may conduct an self-prescribed review in order to begin piecing together an appropriate defense.

Document review in all jurisdictions must be handled by licensed attorneys. Although the task is little more than scanning for content, it is an essential piece of building a legal case, and as such it must be handled by competent professionals. There is no rule that the attorneys doing the doc review services must be permanently associated with the firm in charge, however.

Law firms who regularly handle big corporate cases can be swallowed by doc review. When millions of documents must be reviewed, the process can take months, and attorneys who might otherwise be able to work substantively on the case will be tied down sorting out relevancy questions. One way some firms have tried to remedy this is by either retaining legal outsourcing services for their document reviews, or hiring contract-based attorneys to do the work for much less than an associate attorney's salary.

An attorney who does only doc review is often known as a document review attorney. This attorney is not practicing law in any meaningful sense, and he does not participate in the case beyond screening documents and marking the ones that might be relevant. He does not interact with clients or contribute anything original to the process. Some firms have document review departments of permanent lawyers whose sole job is doc review, but more often, these lawyers are hired on a part-time, contract-basis, if not outsourced entirely. When the doc review is done, so, usually, are their jobs.

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