In my experience, file storage is a significant predictor of success in managing a legal project. This is especially true in litigation and investigations, where the devil is in the details of the documents – and there are often millions of documents. Organizing your files is like organizing your closet: exciting to some, but most usually don’t care and end up defaulting to wherever their clothes (or files) land. This approach might work for clothes, but it does a disservice to your client because of the inherent time-consuming nature of file organization late in the game. A well thought out file storage process almost always sets you apart from your competitors, who probably are not giving enough thought to the topic.
Two case studies from a range of legal contexts show the usefulness of thinking about where your documents will land.
At the center of a series of Residential Mortgage-backed Securities (“RMBS”) litigation matters were well over 20,000 loan files, which consisted of 500 - 1,000 pages per loan file of credit and financial information needed to secure a mortgage. We needed a way keep them organized if the expert and the expert’s team were to review each of them by court-established deadlines and under budget.
We had a fast moving pipeline consisting of at least three layers of loan file review, and, given the court deadlines, it was our job to keep the reviewers and expert moving as efficiently as possible. As a result, the cornerstone of managing the pipeline well came down to quick access to complete sets of loan files. The teams reviewed loan files according to primary statistical sample, and sometimes they needed to substitute an incomplete loan file with one from a supplemental sample. With the extraordinary number of loan files and samples in the scope of our expert reports, we could have easily become disorganized, unconsciously devolving into searching for loan files in a haphazard way. It mattered that loan files were saved according to sample name and loan number.
We designed a process to pull large swaths of loan files in a single go, and funnel them into an easy to understand folder structure.
First, in consult with the subject matter experts in Litigation Support, attorneys drafted detailed instructions to the third parties who possessed these loan files, asking them to prepare the digital files according to certain specifications. Most importantly, the instructions requested metadata containing the loan numbers. The attorneys sent identical sets of instructors to all loan file originators that were third parties to the case. This consistent guidance set the stage for getting loan files containing the type of information needed down the line to automatically pull documents associated with a single loan file.
Second, once we had the loan files, we needed to organize them by sample, with an average of 80 loans to a sample. Lit Support programed python scripts to “pull” loan files with loan numbers tied to a particular sample, and then funnel the files automatically into a folder labeled by sample name and loan number.
Third, we took it one step further by pulling not just the primary sample, but all of the supplemental sample too. This allowed us to quickly supplement if loan file underwriters needed to substitute at a moment’s notice. Pulling loans in both samples established a complete library of all possible loan files we might need for a particular set.
The sheer volume of samples, loan files, and pages of loan files made this project inherently complicated. But, tackling the organization process one step at a time created order and a pipeline that hummed along. In turn, we met all court deadlines and attorneys had the time and energy to tackle aspects of the case that were more deserving of their thought than locating a loan file one at a time.
A large compliance program overseen by regulators needed a consistent process for storing and naming files in order to produce documents to regulators once the materials became available.
Each party in the compliance program created the same type of compliance documents, but due to the hundreds of participants in the compliance program, the amount of unique work product quickly became voluminous.
Without a file storage process, the parties would name their files as they individually saw fit, upload them to a file site with inconsistent names and no folder structure, and effectively create a mass data dump. Without thought to the filename, even navigating the data dump using key word searches becomes a challenge. This type of haphazard review quickly turns chaotic and, meanwhile, the regulator wants the materials yesterday.
We designed a three-step filing system for this compliance program with the goal of producing materials to regulators as they became complete.
1. File-sharing tool. We leveraged a web-based file-sharing tool to upload and share the files. A few of the tool’s features came in handy, including version control, folder structure customization, and a site-generated map of the folder contents.
2. File name conventions. We sent guidance on standardized file naming conventions. This is akin to tying your shoelaces correctly before a game: so simple it gets overlooked and ends up causing you precious time right when you need to move quickly. The naming convention guidance dictated the order and format of (1) identifying information about the compliance participant, and (2) the type of compliance document (there were a set number of options). The naming convention guidance dictated the order and format of this info. This small piece already set the stage for a more ordered filing system.
3. Folder Structure. To move from a mass data-dump to ordered filing, we created a standardized folder structure labeled by participant name and sent specific instructions on how to create and name subfolders. We sent the guidance to those actually handling and uploading the documents so they could make the sub-folders as they uploaded files. The tool could batch-download across folders, so we could send either individual files or everything all at once.
Picking a user friendly, customizable tool, naming files consistently, and establishing a folder structure are very doable actions, but often overlooked is the importance of conveying the process to everyone involved before work starts. All of these steps taken together save a lot of time on the back-end when time always seems to shrink. At the point when the client wanted to review all of its compliance materials, we had positioned ourselves well to be able to send them this information in a digestible format with just a few clicks and a download.
Although an RMBS case and a corporate compliance program are inherently different, at the center of both were important documents containing information key to reaching our clients’ respective goals. In turn, we prioritized our method for collecting and organizing those files just as rigorously as lawyers would drafting a motion or giving compliance advice. In the end, when achieving success on our matters requires harnessing such vast volumes of documents, we are only as good as our plan for managing them.