A short series reviewing custodian interviews, why they matter, and how to do them effectively
Once you have thought through what you need to ask and created a script for your custodian interviews, it’s time to plan how you will format that script and execute those interviews. Custodian interviews can be conducted in a variety of ways, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Small matters might be handled informally by one person; larger ones might require multiple teams and custom tools.
Determining the optimal approach for a particular project requires consideration of the specifics, including: how many potential custodians there are, where they all are, how much time is available, how much money is available, etc. All approaches are one of three types: conversational, formal, or technology-assisted.
For matters of small-to-moderate size, the less formal conversational approach can be effective. In this approach, one attorney conducts all of the interviews personally, makes notes as they go, and manually compiles the results. The advantages of the conversational approach are that it’s inexpensive, can begin immediately, and gives counsel a chance to speak directly with everyone. The disadvantage of the conversational approach is that it isn’t scalable: if custodians are numerous or geographically-distributed, it can rapidly become slow and expensive. It also produces informal, inconsistent notes that require manual compilation, etc.
For larger or more complex matters, a more formal approach is a better option. This approach standardizes and formalizes the interview to be conducted and the method for recording the responses so that work can be split across multiple attorneys or teams of attorneys working in parallel while remaining consistent. The disadvantages of this approach are that it takes slightly longer to ramp up and begin, no one attorney will get to meet and assess all the custodians, and it can still be too cumbersome for the largest projects.
When taking this approach, formats for the script and answer recordation include pre-formatted text documents (e.g., Word), spreadsheets (e.g., Excel), and PDF forms (e.g., Acrobat):
For the largest, most-distributed, or most-urgent matters, the technology-assisted approach can be a necessary alternative to traditional, live interviews. This approach involves creating the script/answer forms in such a way that they can be distributed to, completed by, and collected from the relevant custodians. This approach takes time and money to prepare but is fast once ready – much faster than conducting a large number of widely-distributed live interviews. This approach also scales easily to accommodate whatever size is needed without the burden of scaling proportionally. The tradeoff (in addition to the time and cost to start) is that many custodians will never be spoken to directly by an attorney, eliminating a chance for direct impressions, question answering, etc.
This survey-style approach can be accomplished using paper forms, electronic forms like those discussed above, or web-based questionnaires. In selecting a format for the survey, the same tradeoffs discussed above, between maximizing note flexibility and maximizing note utility, also apply here. Even after completing such a process, however, live follow-up interviews should still be conducted with the key custodians identified by the survey process.
When done effectively, custodian interviews can yield an assortment of benefits: providing a safety net for your preservation efforts; gathering valuable information for your project planning; and, helping you control the flow of information within your organization. Doing them effectively, however, requires interviewing the right people, asking them the right questions, and doing so in a useful format:
Following these guidelines, you can plan and execute an effective custodian interview process that will be right for your project and your organization – a process that will yield actionable intelligence you can use to make informed decisions about the remainder of your project.