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Custodian Interview Tools and Logistics – Conducting Effective Custodian Interviews, Part 3

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A short series reviewing custodian interviews, why they matter, and how to do them effectively


Making an Interview Plan

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.

The Conversational Approach

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 be begun 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.

The Formal Approach

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):

  • Word documents maximize flexibility for note taking during interviews, but those notes cannot be automatically extracted and aggregated with other interview notes.
  • Excel spreadsheets restrict the length and format of the interviewer’s notes in some ways, but in exchange, you get answer notes in a standardized form that makes them easier to aggregate and analyze (using filtering, sorting, searching, etc.).
  • Acrobat PDF forms are even more restrictive on the note-taker, but they also allow even greater customization and standardization (radio buttons, check boxes, etc.), as well as online aggregation and analysis. Plus, once the PDF form is created and locked, the questions on it can’t be accidentally edited or deleted during an interview.

The Technology-Assisted Approach

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.

Key Takeaways

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:

  • Who Gets Interviewed
    • Key Custodians
      • Those closest to the action
    • Departmental Custodians
      • Those responsible for departmental files
    • Representative Custodians
      • Samples for testing a larger group
  • Creating an Interview Script
    • Who are you and what do you do here?
      • Identity, role, tenure, areas, connection to the action
    • How do you do what you do?
      • Hardware, software, devices, network systems, online tools
    • With whom do you communicate and how?
      • Internally, externally, email, chat, Skype, Slack, social media
    • To whom else should I be speaking?
      • Who knows what, who does what, who is connected to what
    • Do you understand what we’ve asked you to do about this?
      • Legal hold compliance, confidentiality compliance
    • Are you a department?
      • Departmental files, internal systems, outsourced systems or services
  • Making an Interview Plan
    • The Conversational Approach
      • Live, informal, solo, good for small matters
      • Quick start, low cost, manual aggregation
    • The Formal Approach
      • Live, formal, multi/teams, good for medium matters
      • Medium start, low-medium cost, automated aggregation
    • The Technology-Assisted Approach
      • Survey, self-completed, good for the largest maters
      • Slow start, medium-high cost, automated aggregation

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.


About the Author

Matthew Verga, JD
Director, Education and Content Marketing

Matthew Verga is an electronic discovery expert proficient at leveraging his legal experience as an attorney, his technical knowledge as a practitioner, and his skills as a communicator to make complex eDiscovery topics accessible to diverse audiences.  A ten-year industry veteran, Matthew has worked across every phase of the EDRM and at every level from the project trenches to enterprise program design.  He leverages this background to produce engaging educational content to empower practitioners at all levels with knowledge they can use to improve their projects, their careers, and their organizations.

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