Discovery and document review are critical stages of litigation and investigations, yet lawyers and professionals often fail to pay enough attention to the human dimension of this work.

Discovery and document review are high-stakes endeavours, and both involve the competing objectives of quality, thoroughness, and speed. Both also require human experts who know how to deploy and use technology or can analyse documentary evidence. This makes it essential to maximise the productivity of these professionals. But every human has limits, and the intense demands of discovery and document review can – and often do – push individuals past their breaking point. Burnout is common.

It is understandable that decision-makers in discovery and document review projects overlook the human component. The technology piece of these projects looms large, and the lawyers in charge are under enormous pressure to make good choices about selecting and deploying the tools that underlie every discovery and document review project. But to get the most out of these tools means finding, hiring, and retaining staff who know the relevant technologies and best practices and understand how to set up a team and run it well. Staff turnover has a direct and negative impact on productivity.

In a nod to the essential role professionals play in discovery and document review, many organisations claim to ensure work-life balance. But dig a little deeper, and it turns out that few give team members the downtime they need to sustain productivity. Mental burnout of specialists has become common and led to widespread turnover in eDiscovery and document review. As recently as March, Legaltech News reported on the problem, with Victoria Hodges authoring an article entitled ‘eDiscoverys Mental Health Challenges Are Often Silent But All Too Present’ that noted that ‘tight deadlines, long hours, generally nonexistent wellness opportunities and understaffing make e-discovery especially stressful.’

There is a better way. In my role leading Elevate’s eDiscovery Project Managers, Analysts, and Specialists, I know first-hand what practices make a positive difference. The components of our approach to a humane work-life balance include:

  • No ‘working vacations’: I instruct every team member leaving on vacation to turn off all email and Teams notifications. If we need to contact them, I will be the only one to reach out and will do so by telephone.
  • Recognition of the realities of parenting and life: We make allowances to enable team members to take their kids, themselves, or family members to school or the doctor without worrying about time away from work.
  • Fostering teamwork: We conduct weekly 1:1 meetings to clarify and adjust work schedules and workloads. We hold daily team check-ins so that everyone remains up-to-speed on priorities and aware of any items that may require added support. We also meet weekly via ‘watercoolers’. Watercoolers are like fight club: the only rule is we don’t talk about work! These practices do more than help ensure we operate as an effective team: they also foster a culture of collaboration and genuine caring.

These and other measures go a long way in reducing team members’ stress and helping them be healthier and happier. Protecting vacations from work-related intrusions means people can use their time off to decompress and recharge. Flexibility for parental/personal duties relieves colleagues from the excruciating dilemma of choosing between their family or work. They know that their teammates will support them when challenges arise. Everyone understands that no matter what, our performance will not suffer and that together we will get the job done and do right by our customers.

Stress is inherent in eDiscovery and document review. And the events and uncertainties of the past two years have generated unprecedently levels of psychological pressure on nearly everyone. For law organisations with discovery and review projects, addressing the human dimension is now more critical than ever.