E-Discovery Help: Tips on Writing Search Terms

Written By: Joshua Burke, Legal Technology Specialist

© Stuart Miles / Fotolia
© Stuart Miles / Fotolia

Search terms are one of the most helpful things to help narrow the scope of the data you will be reviewing.  It is the only way to ensure that at least some key words are present in at least one family member of every document you are reviewing. The major thing to keep in mind when coming up with your list of terms is what do you really want to search for.

With the advancements in software searching is now able to be restricted down to searching on only what you want to search on.  So we can do more than just searching the content of the files.  We can apply searches on the names of the files, the file path (folders they are in) and any/all metadata.

Some common mistakes that we see are vague terms, incorrect usage of phrases, and the lack of necessary parenthesis. Vague terms obviously can bring back many unwanted results slowing down your review with non-responsive documents. We recommend going through and thinking about each term and determining if it too overly inclusive.

One way that we help with this is that whenever we run searches for you we provide a Search Term Report.  This report helps by showing how many items are returned by each term.  If a majority of the returned documents are hitting on a term, it allows you the option to reconsider the term or possibly add in some extra conditions to help narrow your scope.

When it comes to phrases it is important to understand that a phrase is exactly how it sounds; it is an exact grouping of words.  We are often given a phrase of a person’s name, like “John Doe.”  Variations of that phrase like “Doe, John” would not be a hit, and neither would the following “Johnathan Doe.”

When it comes to searching for names we have a few recommendations.  First, we prefer to do proximity searching rather than doing exact phrases.  This covers the following “John Doe,” “Doe, John,” and “John Jacob Doe.”  Second, when it comes to names that are shorthand like John vs Johnathan, we recommend using a wildcard character to allow the software to fill in the word with the extended versions of the word.

The last common issue we notice when it comes to searching is that necessary parenthesis are often missing.  Although it may seem obvious to the person writing up the terms that a few terms are grouped together as they may be similar, grouping is possible to be overlooked if the connection is not obvious.  Logically the priority of an AND and an OR are equal in the realm of searching, so often a literal left to right approach comes into play when reading and running searches.

We at Avalon are always trying to ask the next question, so if we ever have a doubt we ask.  However, a great general rule of thumb would be you can never have too many parentheses.  This ensures that your searches are run with the priority you intended.

An example of the difference between using parenthesis and not is below:

Josh OR Joshua w/3 Burke vs. (Josh OR Joshua) w/3 Burke

The search on the left will hit on any document contains just the term Josh, as well as documents that contain Joshua w/3 Burke.  The search on the right will only return documents that have the term Josh OR Joshua within three words of the term Burke.

We hope this helps you going forward when making your search terms. Call us with any questions!

If you liked this blog you might also be interested in reading: Early Case Assessment, Where Have You Been All of My Life?

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Ian Gattie