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.PST File Review - What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You (& Your Case)

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Written By: Elizabeth M. Midgley, Esq., Partner at Anspach Meeks Ellenberger

confused womanRaise your hand if you know what a .pst file is.

Now raise your hand if you know the proper way to review a .pst file for discovery.

If your hand is still up, continue on your merry way.  For everyone else (which I would guess is the majority of you, because it included me the minute before I started researching this article), read this.  It won’t hurt, promise.  What can get hurt is your case if you touch that .pst file again, especially if you need to produce its contents down the line.

Pssst!  What’s a .pst?

A Personal Storage Table (.pst) is a file format used to store copies of messages, calendar events, and other items within Microsoft software (like Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Exchange Client, and Windows Messaging) – or,  in the most basic of terms, it’s how Outlook stores your email.  Generally, .pst files are used to store files and archived items to make them available offline.  In the world of e-discovery, .pst files take on a whole new life, and are used to review files of key players identified in litigation.

So, you have a .pst file you have to review, now what?

The setting: Your opponent has demanded emails from all of your client’s key players that contain specific phrases or relate to the underlying incident.  So, like a good e-discovery attorney, you collect their .pst files.  Now you have to review these files to see what is discoverable.

The choice: Do you 1) say, “Hey, my law firm IT person, can you load these .psts into my Outlook so I can review them?  What a GREAT way to save time and save the client money!” or 2) say, “Sorry, IT guy down the hall, this is not something we should mess with ourselves,” and take those .pst files to the pros right away.

You don’t have to have read between the lines to realize that the second choice is your only choice in this situation.  Here’s a handy dandy list of the top reasons why:

Why not to load .pst files into Outlook

  • It leads to inefficient document review.  What might have seemed quicker and easier is anything but.  Here’s a general overview of what you would have to do if you take it on: go through each email one-by-one-by-one; keep track of which emails in which folders you’ve looked through and which you haven’t; read emails from key players to their kids threatening “no cell phone, mister, if that disaster of a bedroom isn’t picked up tonight”; if you’re using multiple reviewers, you all have to coordinate what you’re looking through and when so there’s no overlap; you can’t mark or tag any of the emails as being related to any of the issues, so you have to figure out how to keep track of what might be responsive; you have to keep a manual privilege log, which is just messy; and then, when you’re finally done, you have to explain to your client why your firm just billed them for 49 attorney hours to review one .pst file.  Good luck with that.
  • Metadata could be changed.  There’s that phrase again, “metadata”, the data behind the data, the “it” phrase in e-discovery.  When you load a .pst file into your own email, information that makes up that email can be changed.  That, obviously, is not good, and can create a mess if your opponent wants to look at metadata, too.   For example – there is an unread email in your client’s .pst file that could be very important to the case.  You have a defense!  “Hey, sure this guy got the email but LOOK, he never read it!”  That defense goes out the window the second that email is read by the attorney doing the review.  How can you prove Mr. Client didn’t read it now?  You can’t.  Metadata says it was read.  Metadata can be a real jerk and difficult to overcome.
  • The client emails could possibly get backed up with your firm’s automated backup system, mixing client data with firm data.  Along the lines of screwing with metadata, this is another big no-no.
  • It exposes your firm network to viruses.  No one likes a virus.  And no one likes the person who opened up the entire firm’s network to a virus.  You do NOT want to run the risk of screwing up your firm’s entire network (and being shunned by your colleagues) by opening up your not-as-virus-savvy client’s email only to find Trojan horses galore.  No siree.
  • You may not have the proper software to view all attachments.  We like to think we’re all totally up to speed on the latest software.  We’re not.  A bad time to find that out is when you’re going through your client’s emails and realize that you(r firm) has to shell out $2500 for software you need to properly view attachments.
  • .pst files can be enormous, hard to work with internally, and can take up a good portion of your firm’s internal network storage.  By enormous, I mean TeraBytes – the big ones – or 1,099,511,627,776 Bytes.  (For reference, this article in MS Word is about 20,000 Bytes).  If you think that downloading the video of your daughter’s dance recital slowed your computer down, that’s nothing compared to what thirty .psts can do.
  • It doesn’t allow for culling before review.  Culling - removing obviously unresponsive and duplicate emails - saves time.  Lots of time.  Like, the difference between having to review 15,000 emails and 150.  That much.  The pros can do that for you by searching for the key phrases, terms, and time frames and, even more importantly, removing duplicate emails (“de-duplicating”) before you even set eyes on one message.

I get it.  I can’t do it myself.  Then what am I supposed to do?

There’s a great – and safe – alternative to DIY .pst handling.  There are document review tools specifically built to make this faster, more efficient, and make sure the emails are still defensible in court.  When these tools are handled by the people who know what they’re doing, you get the information from your .psts in a protected, simplified, and manageable form for your review.

It’s our job as attorneys to be safe and smart when we handle client information.  Don’t take unnecessary risks – turn over client .psts to those who know what they’re doing.  We’ll let the e-discovery companies do what they do best, and we’ll handle the lawyering part that comes afterwards.

If you liked this blog you might also be interested in reading: Metawhat?

Find out how you can save by consolidating eDiscovery services.

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