August 4, 2016 Mike

Communication: The Root of All E-Discovery Problems?

Throughout all of recorded human history –indeed, even before we recorded it—communication has been an issue. Early humans made carvings in cave walls to allow others to know things. I’m sure that some among them thought that such carvings were quite radical at the time. And today, many people find the current scriveners—those who incessantly post their thoughts, meals, pets, children, and activities all over the Internet—are just as radical, if not outright crazy. No judgment. In the end, it’s all communication, right? Facebook is the modern day equivalent of the cave wall. Literally.

Communication BreakdownCommunication breakdown

Communication is something we attempt, but frequently fail to achieve. It seems to me that communication is the root of many of the world’s problems. From the relationship squabble to cultural and religious disputes around the globe. If people were more open minded, less judgmental and more tolerant of change and differences, boy, would many of the world’s problems evaporate quickly. Is this going to happen any time soon? Probably not in my lifetime. But it does –and you’ll forgive the massive segue– beg the question: Is communication the root of all e-discovery problems?

A few examples come to mind.

When parties don’t cooperate in discovery, it is essentially a communication problem. If case team or stakeholder expectations are not met, that’s a communication problem. When seemingly ad-hoc decisions are made in a vacuum and projects go sideways, that’s a communication problem. If faulty instructions for completing a task are given, that too is a communication problem. There are any number of examples that may be cited and readers will know them well.

So, what should we do when we perceive that communication is the root of the problem?

A Pillar of Successful Project Management

Well, there’s a reason that Communication Management is a pillar of project management. The goal, of course, is to be proactive and consider the communication needs of a project during the planning stage. Ideally, all stakeholders –anyone who has any interest in the project—will participate in a kick-off meeting to get everyone on the same page and then schedule regular meetings or calls to report on the status of the project and any changes or anticipated issues.

But all too often, we take communication for granted, put on the back burner, or sacrifice it in the name of expediency. We assume, for instance, that stakeholders understand when we inform them that a problem was encountered while processing ESI. If the problem impacts the scope, timing or cost of a project, there’s a good chance they won’t fully understand. This can lead to a lack of confidence in a project manager and sometimes results in a complete meltdown. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The Intersection of Communication, Quality and Risk Management

Part of managing communication on a project involves consideration during the planning stage of the risks to project outcomes – what could go wrong on this project? Evaluating those risks at the outset of the project and preparing a contingency plan at that time will lessen the impact of the problem. Likewise, itemizing the points at which quality checks are performed suggests that proactive thought has been given to potential problem areas and preparations have been made in the event issues arise.

Project Mansgement in Electronic DiscoveryNone of this will immediately resolve an unexpected issue that arises mid-project. Such circumstances can test a project manager’s communication skills. Successful project managers will possess –and those who don’t will need to learn to adopt—better than average communication skills.

“One of the strengths of a successful project manager is the ability to communicate clearly, succinctly, and without interference. Knowing what to say, to whom, when, and how is essential to successful communication on a project. Understanding the personalities and agendas of stakeholders and keeping in mind the culture, hierarchy, and politics of the project organization are all integral to effective communication. The communication process provides the critical links among people and information necessary for successful projects. Project managers spend a lot of time communicating with the project team, stakeholders, vendors, customers, and sponsors. Everyone involved in a project should understand how communications affect the project as a whole.” (Project Management in Electronic Discovery, p. 57)

Successful project managers in a legal setting also have people skills. They are articulate as much as they are able to listen and they persuade and make suggestions when implementing solutions. PMs display empathy, have coping skills, and great patience. They are also tactful and possess the temperament to deal with a wide array of people and personalities. The best thing a project manager can do is be honest and transparent in their communication. Nothing much more; nothing less.


One of the things that sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to communicate. The irony, I suppose, is that given this unique human ability one would think we would have it down by now. It’s a wonder why humans still mess it up so frequently. I don’t know if better communication is going to solve the world’s problems entirely. I’m an optimist and so I’d like to think it will, particularly as the world becomes more interconnected. I am, however, pretty certain that better communication can solve many of the issues that arise in e-discovery projects. Keep this in mind as you start your next project.

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