Google Docs Ready for (Legal) Primetime?

Today's predominant word processors are Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect. MS Word is also offered as a web-based application or Saas (Software-as-a-Service).  However, there is a newer type of document collaboration, where numerous people have access to the same document so that they can all contribute and monitor changes made by others.  These types of applications are becoming more common.  For example, Google has begun to offer its own Google Word Processor called "Google Docs" -- which allows users to share and collaborate on documents. 

What does it matter which type you use in your business?  Here's one comparison between the Google and Microsoft web products.  But there's much more when it comes to the battle between WORD v. GOOGLE DOCS.

Sass and Microsoft Word.  SaaS, which Word uses, is really a form of cloud computing, or internet-based computing. Applications such as a word processor is accessed via the Internet, and the resulting data created by the user (documents) is stored on servers managed by particular service providers. This form of service delivery has a siginificant advantage over "localized" computing from a cost and management standpoint.  For example:

  • By paying a SaaS provider to run applications and store documents, businesses no longer have the need to purchase/upgrade their word processing software.
  • It reduces and/or allows the redeployment of hardware (servers) used to store documents.
  • Applications can be accessed anywhere, anytime as long as the user has Internet access.
  • For remote users, an iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, or other Android-powered phones can be used to access documents, and there is no need to login to an internal network using software such as Citrix or any flavors of VDI.
  • SaaS providers typically guarantee 24/7 access due to elaborate network redunduncies.
  • Fewer or no technical staff is needed to manage software and handle storage issues.  This frees them up for other tasks.

Google DocsDepending on your perspective, Google Docs could be a blessing or a curse. Documents created by Google Docs are devoid of metadata. This means that no document scrubbing (e.g., iScrub) is needed before they're being sent to a recipient. There is no chance of inadvertently disclosing confidential information.  Additionally, numerous people can be in the document at one time, make changes, and monitor the changes others are making.  This can work wonders for collaboration.  Unfortunately, there are some down sides for Google Docs:

  • Google Docs tracks all document edits in the form of a "revision history" trail that cannot be eliminated by the user. This same trail could potentially be subpoenaed by the courts for e-discovery purposes.  Google Docs, and Gmail, stores everything. 
  • Google Docs exists as an independent product from Document Management Systems (DMS). As a result, it cannot be integrated with an in-house DMS or part of a company's overall enterprise content management (ECM) strategy.  In other words, you can't develop a record retention policy that can be followed with these documents. 
  • The document versioning method is quite different. For example, a particular MS Word document in a DMS such as iManage will present itself as "document_number.1" and a new version is saved as "document_number.2". The same document created in Google Docs will present itself as two separate entries in the "revision history". Hence, a Google Docs document would be saved as "document_name" and a new version would be saved as a separate document but renamed as "document_name_revised".  As a result, there is no easy way to move all the separate entries into a DMS as a single document with different versions.

Google Docs may be more appealing to smaller businesses that do not want to worry about internal networks and in-house DMS issues.  But large or small, whether Google Docs is a feasible solution depends on your business infrastructure, records compliance requirements, and the resources available to manage it.  Before taking the plunge, consult with Google, your legal department, and perhaps your existing e-discovery vendor on how Google handles litigation holds and document search and retrieval in e-discovery situations.

Regardless of its short-comings, Google Docs could be a solution for certain businesses that don't require a DMS and the main focus is document collaboration without overburdening the IT staff.

Cloudy Days Ahead for E-Discovery

When it comes to e-discovery, your IT department and forensic experts may be ill-equipped to search, organize, and produce electronic files and documents that are outside the realm of the firm's internal network infrastructure.

The proliferation of vendors that offer web-based computing solutions compounds this problem. Commonly referred to as "Software as a Service" (SaaS), they range from simple email accounts to office suites to whiteboarding and other types of collaborative tools.

This technological alphabet soup in turn facilitates cloud computing and/or utility computing. Basically, it translates into a user's ability to access services from the Internet without having control over the technology infrastructure that supports them. From the IT management perspective, it's like the Wild West of computing. Here's a brief discussion on cloud vs. utility computing.

Lawyers are increasingly mobile due to the shear number of devices, applications and services that connect people, ideas and places. Invariably in-house software may be viewed as inadequate due to various reasons-- system downtime, malfunctioning, subpar performance, and even personal preference. Much to the chagrin of IT staff, users quite often resort to applications that fall outside of the firm's offerings. After all, no firm can acquire and support a large number of applications without a significant drain on IT resources.

Without evolving laws dealing with this type of computing environment, significant barriers will present themselves in the context of e-discovery. First, SaaS providers typically do not have document retention schedules nor are they obliged to initiate litigation holds. Second, information stored on 3rd party systems (databases and server farms) may require subpoenas for retrieval.

In the foreseeable future, e-discovery will no longer involve solely the litigation parties and their respective technical gurus. A multitude of Internet services and ASPs could conceivably be targets of discovery and the cost could escalate with no relief in sight.

Hosted Apps: A Source for E-Discovery

In recent years, the "hosted applications" concept has gained popularity among some small to medium-sized firms due to significant savings from the high costs of software and hardware maintenance.  Such applications should be considered when deposing 30(b)(6) representatives and drafting requests for production of electronic information.

Hosted applications, aka SaaS (Software as a Service), is a software application delivery model where a software vendor develops a web-based software application and hosts and operates the application for use by its customers over the Internet. Typically, customers do not pay for owning the software itself but rather for using it.

From a firm's perspective, the advantages of this type of arrangement are numerous albeit potential privacy and security issues (important/sensitive data being stored on the vendor's servers).

  • Platform neutral - applications and documents can be accessed from any computer.
  • No installation - reduced or eliminate software and hardware maintenance.
  • No downtime - applications and documents can be accessed 24 x 7 from anywhere.

Visiting wikkidapps.com can provide a sense on the kind of SaaS applications that are available today-- from calendaring tools to spreadsheets to word processors. Furthermore, internet software vendors can be setup in a foreign country and may present some challenging international e-discovery issues. Nevertheless, data repositories reside in hosted applications can prove to be fertile grounds for e-discovery, so include them in your list of applications to learn about from an opposing party.