I recently attended RelativityFest put on by the ediscovery software provider, Relativity. Relativity is one of the largest discovery software providers. RelativityFest is its extravagant user conference. This year’s version was in Chicago. 

According to Relativity, there were some 1793 attendees at this year’s show, which was the 14th annual one. In the Keynote, Relativity’s new CEO, Phil Saunders talked a lot about the evolving data landscape. Short messaging, audio, and video have all combined to create a surge in new data. Saunders noted that there has been an over 305% year-over-year increase in the amount of data that could be subject to discovery.

I am not actively engaged in ediscovery, and it’s not an area I know a lot about. But I wanted to attend the conference and see where providers like Relativity are going, especially with GenAI and its promise. I have speculated before about the potential for ediscovery vendors to branch out into other areas in the legal ecosystem. Ediscovery is one of the few areas in which lawyers have embraced technology out of necessity. That’s because ediscovery is much more time driven than other areas. With ediscovery, hard court or regulatory deadlines have to be met. Overcoming ediscovery challenges is less about how much you can bill. It’s more about how quick you can get the job done to meet court and adversary pressures. This familiarity and adoption of technology by clients and lawyers could pave the way for similar adoption of technology in areas beyond ediscovery.

Some History

A little history might be helpful. Ediscovery exploded on the scene in the late 90s. I first heard of the topic at a conference where the General Counsel of Microsoft spoke. He was visually shaken about the potential of ediscovery to overwhelm the system and the costs it could bring to litigation. It turned out, of course, that he was correct: ediscovery, the amount of data in every case, and the costs of dealing with it may be one reason so few cases go to trial. It’s certainly a barrier to access to justice. 

In the beginning, much of the ediscovery work was done manually. Ediscovery data was collected and often turned into paper documents. These paper documents were then laboriously reviewed by humans manually. The process was extremely time consuming and costly since those humans billed mainly by the hour. 

And while the amount of data gradually increased, for some period of time, law firms could deal with the increase by throwing more bodies at it. As the area got more complicated, law firms tried to capitalize on the gravy train by forming their own e-discovery expert teams to handle the requests. These small teams gradually became more sophisticated. Since the team members were often the only ones with knowledge about the increasing complexities of e-discovery, they also became valuable.

However, the time involved, the need for speed to meet deadlines, and the amount of data soon overwhelmed even the largest law firms. In addition, discovery techniques were increasingly used for regularity compliance, which is also deadline driven. As a result of this increased pressure, third-party providers arrived on the scene. They developed expertise because they had numerous matters and could spread costs over their ever growing customer base. They could acquire the expensive technology to deal with the increasing amount of data that law firms didn’t have. And due to the expense, often couldn’t. These providers in turn began to rely on true technology companies like Relativity to supply the software and servers needed to do the job. 

In many ways, these providers became the first alternative legal service providers. Law firms and, more importantly, in-house legal departments became comfortable with ediscovery technology and unbundling e-discovery work from other litigation tasks. Often, clients became the directors of and assumed responsibility for e-discovery as opposed to outside law firms. As the amount of data increased exponentially and the stress of accurately responding increased, these providers became invaluable in the litigation ecosystem.

In addition, the providers were focused less on billable hours and more on subscription and task-based fees. As a result, they, together with companies like Relativity,were motivated to be highly efficient. They pioneered an even greater use of technology to mine the data necessary to respond to discovery requests and challenges. Technology-assisted review (and, to some extent, the use of the cloud) was created as an outgrowth of the efforts of the providers and software developers. TAR, which replaces much of the time-consuming human review time, was ridiculed initially but is now mainstream.

The Shape of Things to Come?

I give this background because what e-discovery providers are doing today may be the harbinger of the future. Companies like Relativity have to realize that the business they are in is not e-discovery. It’s data collection and review. Its automation. Data collection and review and automated processes for doing these tasks are not just something needed for ediscovery. These processes and technology can be valuable in all sorts of applications and use cases. 

Consider what Relativity announced recently and last week at RelativityFest

Consider what Relativity announced recently and last week at RelativityFest. More automation tools like Personal Information Detect further automates finding personally identifiable information in large data sets. It can, of course, be used to find information for ediscovery, yes. However, finding personal information in large data sets efficiently can be used for all sorts of things. Like health care. Like for financial businesses. Any place where a business needs to know where and how much personal information is stored in its data. A couple of law firms wished they could have had and used this tool before their security systems were breached and were sued for revealing PI.

Speaking of data breaches: Relativity also announced Relativity Data Breach Response. Data Breach Response will help identify when breaches occur and automate compliance with state-required notices.  Relativity announced another Translate, a translation tool for data and written material. The use of neither of these tools are limited to traditional e-discovery. 

We also recently saw Relativity offering Relativity Contracts. This software can transfer agreements into structured data that can be used for all sorts of tasks. It can be used for contract management, for example, where clauses can be compared, and variances managed, for example. This expands the use of Relativity far beyond litigation and into M and A and corporate practice groups and in-house departments. 

And then the most significant announcement: aiR, a genAI tool designed to further automate data review by using larger language models. This tool will be released on a limited basis later this year, with general availability promised in the first half of 2024. Test users, including some of the biggest law firms and in-house legal, suggest that what is being promoted may be the real deal. 

Why Is This a Game Changer?

Why is this important? GenAI is a real game changer for the e-discovery process. It reduces errors of human review and the shortcomings of technology-assisted review. Another advantage of aiR over traditional forms of review is that it does not require training. Instead, review teams can establish context for AI operations through the review protocol that the team creates.

GenAI is a real game changer for the e-discovery process

But it will do something else. ediscovery has long been the province of nerds. Those who toiled in the field were specialists whom others turned to solve ediscovery problems and pain points. To collect, find, and review electronic data. They had their own jargon and operated independently. 

But GenAi and more sophisticated automation tools are about to change all that. Much of the work that ediscovery specialists did is now or will be automated. And with GenAI tools, rather than turning to the discovery specialist, any lawyer and legal professional can now turn to the AI and ask it to do much of the discovery work. To find the documents and smoking guns. The lawyers with the most knowledge of the case and the client have the tools to yield a better result. It is certainly more efficient. (Joe Patrice of Above the Law offers an excellent analysis of how GenAI tools will let individual lawyers do more jobs themselves).

And yes, billable hours may suffer but billable hours long since stopped being the ediscovery driver. Time to respond, and client pressures now rule. 

And perhaps most importantly from a long term perspective, the use of these tools doesn’t stop at the ediscovery door. Anytime you need to find something in an extensive data set for whatever reason, can be a prime use case. GenAI can also be used to create out-of-the-box models. These models can help customers detect a range of compliance behaviors and identify documents where those behaviors are present. airR can be used to develop all sorts of reusable models tailored to client’s unique needs, all with intuitive interfaces.

So, the landscape of discovery is changing. We will see e-discovery move increasingly into non ediscovery areas: providers like Relativity have the tools and expertise. Think of all the use cases for a tool like Translate that can be applied to large amounts of data. Or Personal Information Finder. I suspect it will be used more in protecting data on the front end than in finding PII for redaction to document requests on the back end. (ediscovery folks couch this back end work as “preservation,” which may be their way of marketing their products for broader use cases than just ediscovery). These tools will inevitably reduce the work lawyers and legal professionals historically did, increasing pressures on the industry and legal jobs. But companies like Relativity are known quantities in the legal world already. They may be best positioned to sell these increased use cases to in-house counsel and even outside lawyers.

Companies like Relativity are now really tech companies in every sense of the word

Automation and AI will may also reduce the market for ediscovery specialists. More and more e-discovery work and, for that matter, other work these folks did is being automated. And more of this work can be done by those who aren’t necessarily e-discovery nerds. What’s left is the lawyer who understands how the tools work, e-discovery precedent, and can validate the processes to courts and regulators. 

And here’s another thought. The two most significant areas where technology has upended legal have been e-discovery and legal research. The two disciplines haven’t combined in a big way. Yet. But the tools they are using and their approach to problems are very similar.

Companies like Relativity are now really tech companies in every sense of the word. That may be why we see so many partnerships Microsoft: the companies speak the same language and have the same motivations. I suspect we will see them move further and further beyond ediscovery.