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Mitigating E-Discovery Risk of Collaboration Tools

Below is a copy of a featured article written by Kimberly Quan of Juniper Networks and John Del Piero of Lighthouse for Bloomberg Law.

Whether it's Teams, Slack, Zendesk, GChat, ServiceNow, or similar solutions that have popped up in the market over the last few years, collaboration and workflow platforms have arrived. According to Bloomberg Law's 2020 Legal Technology Survey, collaboration tools are being used by 77% of in-house and 44% of law firm attorneys. These tools are even more widely used by workers outside of the legal field.

With many companies planning to make remote working a permanent fixture, we can expect the existing collaboration tools to become even more entrenched and new competitors to arrive on the scene with similarly disruptive technologies.

This will be a double-edged sword for compliance and in-house legal teams, who want to encourage technology that improves employee productivity, but are also wary of the potential information governance and e-discovery risks arising because of these new data sources. This article explains the risks these tools can pose to organizations and provides a
three-step approach to help mitigate those risks.

Understand Litigation and Investigation Risk
The colloquial and informal nature of collaborative tools creates inherent risk to organizations, much like the move from formal memos to email did 20 years ago. Communications that once occurred orally in the office or over the phone are now written and tracked, logged, and potentially discoverable. However, a corporation's ability to retain, preserve, and collect these materials may be unknown or impossible, depending on the initial licensing structure the employee or the company has entered into or the fact that many new tools do not include features to support data retention, preservation, or collection.

Government agencies and plaintiffs’ firms have an eye on these new applications and platforms and will ask specifically about how companies and even individual custodians use them during investigations and litigations. Rest assured that if a custodian indicates during an interview or deposition that she used the chat function in a tool like Teams or Slack, for example, to work on issues relevant to the litigation, opposing counsel will ask for those chat records in discovery. Organizations can mitigate the risk of falling down on their e-discovery obligations because of the challenges posed by
collaboration tool data using this three-step approach:

  1. Designate personnel in information technology (IT) and legal departments to work together to vet platforms and
    providers.
  2. Develop clear policies that are regularly reviewed for necessary updates and communicated to the platform users.
  3. Ensure internal or external resources are in place to monitor the changes in the tools and manage associated
    retention, collection, and downstream e-discovery issues.


Each of these steps is outlined further below.

Designate IT & Legal Personnel to Vet Platforms and Providers
Workers, especially those in the tech industry, naturally want to be free to use whatever technology allows them to effectively collaborate on projects and quickly share information.

However, many of these tools were not designed with legal or e-discovery tasks in mind, and therefore can pose challenges around the retention, preservation and collection of the data they generate.

Companies must carefully vet the business case for any new collaboration tool before it is deployed. This vetting process should entail much more than simply evaluating how well the tool or platform can facilitate communication and collaboration between workers. It also involves designating personnel from both legal and IT to work together to evaluate the e-discovery and compliance risks a new tool may pose to an organization before it is deployed.

The importance of having personnel from both legal and IT involved from the outset cannot be understated. These two teams have different sets of priorities and can evaluate e-discovery risks from two different vantage points. Bringing them together to vet a new collaboration tool prior to deployment will help to ensure that all information governance and e-discovery downstream effects are considered and that any risks taken are deliberate and understood by the organization in advance of deployment. This collaborative team can also ensure that preservation and discovery workflows are tested and in place before employees begin using the tool.

Once established, this dedicated collaborative IT and legal team can continue to serve the organization by meeting regularly to stay abreast of any looming legal and compliance risks related to data generation. For example, this type of team can also evaluate the risks around planned organizational technology changes, such as cloud migrations, or develop workflows to deal with the ramifications of the near-constant stream of updates that roll out automatically for most cloud-based collaborative tools.

Develop Clear Policies That Are Regularly Reviewed
The number of collaborative platforms that exist in the market is ever evolving, and it is tempting for organizations to allow employees to use whatever tool makes their work the easiest. But, as shown above, allowing employees to use tools that have not been properly vetted can create substantial e-discovery and compliance risks for the organization.

Companies must develop clear policies around employee use of collaborative platforms in order to mitigate those risks. Organizations have different capabilities in restricting user access to these types of platforms. Historically, technology companies have embraced a culture where innovation is more important than limiting employees’ access to the latest technology. More regulated companies, like pharmaceuticals, financial services, and energy companies, have tended to create a more restrictive environment. One of the most successful approaches, no matter the environment or industry, is to establish policies that restrict implementation of new tools while still providing users an avenue to get a technology approved for corporate use after appropriate vetting.

These policies should have clear language around the use of collaboration and messaging tools and should be frequently communicated to all employees. They should also be written using language that does not require updating every time anew tool or application is launched on the market. For instance, a policy that restricts the work-related use of a broad category of messaging tools, like ephemeral messaging applications, also known as self-destructing messaging applications, is more effective than a policy that restricts the use of a specific application, like Snapchat. The popularity of messaging tools can change every few months, quickly leading to outdated and ineffective policies if the right language is not used.

Make sure employees not only understand the policy, but also understand why the policy is in place. Explain the security, compliance, and litigation-related risks certain types of applications pose to the organization and encourage employees to reach out with questions or before using a new type of technology.

Further, as always with any policy, consider how to audit and police its compliance. Having a policy that isn't enforced is
sometimes worse than having no policy at all.

Implement Resources to Manage Changes in Tools
Most collaboration tools are cloud-based, meaning technology updates can roll out on a near-constant basis. Small updates and changes may roll out weekly, while large systemic updates may roll out less frequently but include hundreds of changes and updates. These changes may pose security, collection, and review challenges, and can leave legal teams unprepared to respond to preservation and production requests from government agencies or opposing counsel. In addition, this can make third-party tools on which companies currently rely for specific retention and collection methodologies obsolete overnight.

For example, an update that changes the process for permissions and access to channels and chats on a collaborative platform like Teams may seem like a minor modification. However, if this type of update is rolled out without legal and IT team awareness, it may mean that employees who formerly didn't have access to a certain chat function may now be able to generate discoverable data without any mechanism for preservation or collection in place.

The risks these updates pose mean that is imperative for organizations to have a framework in place to monitor and manage cloud-based updates and changes. How that framework looks will depend on the size of the organization and the expertise and resources it has on hand. Some organizations will have the resources to create a team solely dedicated to monitoring updates and evaluating the impact of those updates. Other organizations with limited internal access to the type of expertise required or those that cannot dedicate the resources required for this task may find that the best approach is to hire an external vendor that can perform this duty for the organization.

When confronted with the need to collect, process, review, and produce data from collaboration tools due to an impending litigation or investigation, an organization may find it beneficial to partner with someone with the expertise to handle the challenges these types of tools present during those processes. Full-scale, cloud-based collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack are fantastic for workers because of their ability to combine almost every aspect of work into a single, integrated interface. Chat messaging, conference calling, calendar scheduling, and group document editing are all at your fingertips and interconnected within one application. However, this aspect is precisely why these tools can be difficult to collect, review, and produce from an e-discovery perspective.

With platforms like Teams, several underlying applications, such as chat, video calls, and calendars, are now tied together through a backend of databases and repositories. This makes a seemingly simple task like “produce by custodian” or “review a conversation thread” relatively difficult if you haven't prepared or are not equipped to do so. For example, in Teams communications such as chat or channel messages, when a user sends a file to another user, the document that is attached to the message is no longer the static, stand-alone file.

Rather, it is a modern attachment, a link to the document that resides in the sender's OneDrive. This can beg questions as to which version was reviewed by whom and when it was reviewed. Careful consideration of versioning and all metadata and properties will be of the utmost importance during this process, and will require someone on board who understands the infrastructure and implications of those functions.

The type of knowledge required to effectively handle collection and production of data generated by the specific tools an organization uses will be extremely important to the success of any litigation or investigation. Organizations can begin planning for success by proactively seeking out e-discovery vendors and counsel that have experience and expertise handling the specific type of collaboration tools that the organization currently uses or is planning on deploying. Once selected, these external experts can be engaged early, prior to any litigation or investigation, to ensure that e-discovery workflows are in place and tested long before any production deadlines.

Conclusion
Cloud-based collaboration tools and platforms are here to stay. Their ability to allow employees to communicate and collaborate in real time while working in a remote environment is becoming increasingly important in today's world. However, these tools inherently present e-discovery risks and challenges for which organizations must carefully prepare. This preparation includes properly vetting collaboration tools and platforms prior to deploying them, developing and enforcing clear internal policies around their use, monitoring all system updates and changes, and engaging e-discovery experts early in the process.

With proper planning, good collaboration between IT and legal teams and expert engagement, organizations can mitigate the e-discovery risks posed by these tools while still allowing employees the ability to use the collaboration tools that enable them to achieve their best work.

Reproduced with permission. Published March 2021. Copyright © 2021 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.

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