How Metadata and Redactions Can Cause Law Firms Big Headaches

A typical law firm generates an enormous number of legal documents. The history revealed by those documents—both in the form of user history and uncovered redacted statements—can sometimes lead to a whole lot of unintended drama when mistakes are made. Is your firm doing all it can to ensure you’re minimizing the potential for problems?

Let’s look at the properties of a Word document—its metadata:

Clean Up Your Metadata

This type of information is useful not only in civil disputes regarding estates, plagiarism or stolen trade secrets, but also in criminal cases involving financial crimes such as fraud, or even more serious crimes in which a typed confession or suicide note is involved.

Perhaps the most high-profile case to have involved Microsoft Word was that of the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) Killer Dennis Rader, whose identity was unveiled after he tauntingly sent a floppy disk to police. The floppy disk contained metadata from a deleted Word document and analysis of the metadata revealed the location of the computer where it was created and the name of the user who last edited it: “Dennis.”

I’ve seen firsthand the impact of metadata mistakes at law firms. An attorney will send a draft agreement to a client, and receives a call saying, “Why is the name ‘Ralph Smith’ all over this agreement? No one named Ralph Smith is involved in this deal.” Next, I get an angry call from the attorney and have to explain about hidden text and/or metadata. Another situation that comes up is when attorneys use a prior document as boilerplate. They are careful to make sure there’s no hidden text, but they still get an angry client call. Why? Because the client went into the properties of the file (see image above) and saw that the author was another attorney in the firm. Not only that, the document was created in 2012, and the last edits took 10 minutes, but the client was billed 1.0 for the work. Not good.

Invest in Redacting Tools

Redactions are another critical concern for attorneys. A major news story hit recently involving redactions in a case involving former Trump chairman Paul Manafort, because the creators of a key document thought they had properly redacted the information they wanted to hide but hadn’t. If you’ve been involved in litigation, you know that redacting documents is something that is done to remove attorney/client privilege or other information that shouldn’t be shared.

Redaction of the document in the Manafort case appears to have been attempted in Word or PDF by drawing a black box over the text or highlighting it in black. When the document was converted to PDF and distributed, the text layer was still there. Readers quickly discovered they could highlight the ‘redacted’ text under the black boxes, copy and paste it, and thereby reveal the contents.

There are numerous tools for redactions, but only a handful that properly do the job.

At Terrapin, we recommend DocsCorp, which offers both a metadata removal tool and a redaction tool:

  1. cleanDocs removes metadata from documents
  2. pdfDocs has reliable redaction tools

We also work with Litera, which offers Metadact as their metadata removal tool.

Please reach out to your primary Terrapin tech if you have any questions about how to manage metadata and redactions at your firm.