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Maximize eDiscovery in Office 365

Office 365

Employees across every department at large and medium companies in the U.S. use several key software applications every day to be productive and manage their job duties – applications such as email, chat, calendar, spreadsheets and document sharing systems. Most of those companies, including most of our corporate and law firm clients, today use Microsoft’s subscription service, Office 365 (O365), which makes sense, as it is the most widely adopted cloud service with more than 180 million users.

But O365’s user productivity applications are just the tip of the iceberg. IT staff members within these companies also rely on the backend power of Office 365, utilizing the Security and Compliance Center to monitor and manage security, privacy and accessibility across all documents and data within the Office 365 system. The center allows companies to stay ahead of security issues using the Microsoft Advanced Threat Protection packages and reduce legal risk by leveraging the power of its electronic discovery (eDiscovery) features.

eDiscovery is a process in which electronically stored information (ESI) is identified, captured, collected and preserved, then culled, searched and reviewed – typically with the help of advanced analytics like AI-based algorithms – to find relevant data for use in legal proceedings. Those proceedings may be lawsuits and litigation, internal investigations and audits or regulatory matters (such as civil investigative demands from government agencies).

The eDiscovery process, though described above in a highly summary manner, is a sophisticated and sometimes highly complex combination of legal and IT processes. This is what makes it one of the more difficult business processes for a company, and as such, is typically expensive and time-consuming.

But there is good news for companies using Office 365, because there are enough eDiscovery features that, when configured correctly and administered by well-trained personnel, can be the most expedient and cost-effective way to handle many eDiscovery needs. By taking advantage of the Office 365 eDiscovery features, you can simplify the process of identifying, collecting, searching, analyzing and reviewing documents and data for many different types of legal requests and needs – saving both time and money.

Here are some key tips for maximizing the eDiscovery features built into Microsoft Office 365.

Understand what eDiscovery features come with your Office 365 license.

Because many companies already trust Microsoft to maintain their data, they likely already have spent significant dollars on licensing fees, especially in enterprise settings. And with all that enterprise data already stored in the system and money invested, why pay for a separate eDiscovery solution when O365 already offers many of the same features and functions?

Usually, it’s because companies simply aren’t aware or do not have the legal or technical understanding or staffing to take advantage of those eDiscovery features. Office 365 can be tailored to include many foundational eDiscovery elements that leverage machine learning, predictive coding, and text analytics to search for data within the system. In the end, companies can use the platform they already have to get earlier, less expensive and more defensible information out of it.

There are four licensing options for Office 365: ProPlus, E1, E3, and E5. Each one offers different products and services, but the eDiscovery features are only available with the latter two.

The E3 license provides standard eDiscovery functions, with the ability to:

  • Create eDiscovery cases to manage all collected results within the system.
  • Place legal holds on mailboxes, OneDrive and SharePoint (including metadata) to prevent files from being modified or deleted.
  • Perform keyword, basic Boolean, location and other searches to dig through the data – including both the documents you put on hold and data located elsewhere in O365 – to find content relevant to the case at hand.
  • Export the results as an encrypted file.

The E5 license, with Advanced eDiscovery features, offers the above functions as well as the ability to:

  • Automatically identify content that is relevant to a case using the Relevance module.
  • Extract text from image files using optical character recognition (OCR).
  • Organize content into themes so reviewers can quickly find important content.
  • Reorganize email threads, recognize exact- and near-duplicates and group content for review using machine learning.

The E5 license is more expensive than the E3 plan and is only needed by organizations that require more advanced functionality and have the staff to support those more advanced features. The best way to determine which license is the right one for your organization is to speak to your trusted eDiscovery service provider, a certified Microsoft eDiscovery partner or your current Office 365 license reseller.

Use templated workflows to drive consistent, more legally defensible eDiscovery.

The eDiscovery process and its legal requirements shouldn’t be a fire drill that happens at every possibility of litigation or with every new regulatory investigation that arises. Reactionary eDiscovery causes disruptions to the business to increase the risk of error and requires much more time, people, money, and energy. By establishing workflows in Office
365, companies can stay on top of their data management and be prepared for future data collection, litigation hold, data searching or other eDiscovery-related needs.

Here are some key functions you can set up and manage in Office 365:

  • Custodians: Easily identify people as custodians to quickly place legal holds on their content. You can also assign an eDiscovery manager and reviewers.
  • Communications: Send initial legal hold notifications, reminders and release and escalation notices (if there hasn’t been a response) to custodians, which helps legal teams track when notifications have been received, read and acknowledged. O365 also has a reporting feature that can audit email, Office, SharePoint, OneDrive, Yammer and Skype activity.
  • Holds: Use the system to create, manage, remove and delete legal holds on custodial or non-custodial data.
  • Processing: Identify files, extract text, expand embedded documents and more using O365’s processing feature. The system also allows for advanced indexing and error remediation.
  • Searches: Search by keywords, date ranges, domains, authors, sender names and more to cull through the data for relevant content. Boolean and proximity searches (how close two words are to one another) are available to help sort massive amounts of data.
  • Review Sets: Once you’ve gathered all the necessary data, it can be moved into a review set. At this point, you can run more queries and annotate, redact and tag items for responsiveness, content type and privilege to further narrow it down until you’re left with only the relevant data.
  • Exports: Choose to download the native files directly or export documents to include metadata, annotations and tags. Access keys are provided for all encrypted exported data sets.
  • Jobs: Office 365’s job function makes it easy to monitor long-term tasks, such as searches or exporting.

O365 organizes each of these functions into separate tabs that follow the standard eDiscovery (or EDRM) workflow. Of course, there may be a learning curve required for legal staff to fully take advantage of the features and workflows, but there are internet resources and specialists to help guide you through every aspect of leveraging Office 365 for your corporate eDiscovery needs.

Leverage other advanced features of Security and Compliance Center

All businesses must abide by certain general and industry-specific rules and regulations, whether that’s regulatory frameworks like HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and FACTA (Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act) or privacy-related regulations such as GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act). The Office 365 Security and Compliance Center can assist with those needs as well.

Using the advanced administrative features of the center, organizations can harmonize their information governance, security and eDiscovery needs – from auto-tagging documents as records based on keywords or actions, to monitoring bulk file deletions, to ensuring PII is identified even before sending out documents to your attorneys, let alone to opposing parties or regulators.

Office 365 provides access to data and tools that help manage a company’s compliance and eDiscovery needs, including the ability to:

  • Set up processes to govern data, manage devices and receive alerts about suspicious activity.
  • Protect sensitive information across the organization by creating sensitivity labels, encrypting files and establishing data loss prevention policies (when you specify criteria such as location and keywords to identify sensitive information that the system can automatically flag to take a certain action).
  • Import, store and classify sensitive content throughout its lifecycle so you can keep what you need and delete what you don’t.

Governments and other entities create data security regulations with similar goals in mind – to protect consumers’ privacy, for example – but each one requires different information and steps for compliance. Office 365 is a powerful tool to help your organization meet those requirements and avoid fines and reputational damages that can result from neglecting those responsibilities.

Bridge to solutions for eDiscovery needs that Office 365 can’t handle

For companies using Office 365, the bulk of data collected for discovery is likely to be found within the Office 365 ecosystem. Emails, Office documents, OneDrive, SharePoint, and Teams chats and channels are all common areas that may contain information relevant to a lawsuit, regulatory inquiry, internal investigation or other legal matter, and all of that information can be accessed centrally through the Office 365 eDiscovery features.

That said, it is critical that those utilizing those tools have the proper training in both the technology itself and the eDiscovery rules, workflows, protocols and general industry-accepted practices. There are many complexities to ensuring the data exported from Office 365 can be securely and accurately loaded and used in other systems, such as attorney document review platforms. A top Office 365 eDiscovery solution provider will offer several options to ensure a seamless transfer of data between Office 365 and any external system – and that is especially true for those providers offering automation, online dashboards, and process alerts.

It’s also important to remember that though much of a company’s information is contained within Office 365, there are still many other systems – such as databases, text messages and social media, just to name a few – that can be implicated in legal disputes and investigatory matters. Data and documents from those other systems must also be identified, gathered, processed, analyzed, reviewed and produced, so you should partner with a leading Office 365 eDiscovery solution provider to handle such matters. Your provider can offer all of the same processes built into Office 365 for these other systems, and in some cases even offer programmatic bridges and tie-ins to load data from those other systems directly into the same workflows and searches as used with Office 365 native data (that is a whole other article)!

To meet the exacting standards of the laws with respect to evidence handling and using documents in legal proceedings, the workflows and nuanced configurations within Office 365 should be managed, or at the very least reviewed by experts – that is, a trusted third-party company that has experience in IT, legal data management and Office 365. Though much legal technology and eDiscovery companies liberally market themselves as O365 experts, few have the in-depth knowledge necessary to successfully set up and manage the robust platform.

Because the eDiscovery features are relatively new to Office 365 and are constantly being updated, improved and modified as well, it behooves companies that use O365 to work with an experienced eDiscovery service provider that specifically offers Office 365 consulting or solutions. Whether that provider fully manages your Office 365 eDiscovery protocols and workflows or just helps vet certain portions, using a knowledgeable O365 partner to ensure your final processes are configured correctly delivers risk mitigation at a low cost.

Even seemingly simple workflows, such as searching a custodian’s mailbox or exporting documents for attorney review, can be problematic later if certain settings are not correctly configured (and depending upon how errors are handled). Further, there are several workflows that, when bolstered with custom programming against the Office 365 API, is very valuable, as they help automate many tasks and set alerts that are not available as part of the standard Office 365 eDiscovery deployment. Those are all areas where a qualified Office 365 eDiscovery solution provider can help build methods and bridge gaps to your overall eDiscovery process.

The key to maximizing Office 365 for eDiscovery is having it configured by trained experts who understand not just eDiscovery, but Office 365 and your industry as well. With that knowledge, they can customize the platform based on your company’s needs, establish regular eDiscovery workflows and help you remain compliant. By investing in your Office 365 system, in the beginning, you’ll be setting your organization up for future success – saving time and money immediately and through the long term, and garnering that much more ROI on your Office 365 investment.