Electronic Discovery – E-mail Family

In working with people new to electronic discovery, one of my favorite questions I always get asked is “what is an e-mail family?” When I hear the question, I chuckle and realize (once again) that it has been so long since I first started using the term that I don't think much about it when I reference the “e-mail family” in a conversation, assuming everyone will know what I am talking about.

The term “e-mail family” at a basic level refers to an e-mail and its attachment. Of course it could also be an e-mail with more than one attachment.

Within an “e-mail family” we refer to the e-mail as the parent and the attachments as the children. We may refer to the e-mail as the “parent e-mail”. Interestingly, there can be an “e-mail family” where the parent e-mail has an attachment that is also an e-mail. As you know, there are situations when someone might attach an older e-mail to a parent e-mail. In this instance, there would be the parent e-mail and the child attachment which happens to also be an e-mail, and in this scenario is considered a child because it is attached to the parent e-mail.

Guess what! Just as in real life, the “e-mail family” can grow larger. As we just learned, the parent e-mail might have an attached e-mail. What if that attached e-mail contains its own attachments? In this situation, there would be a parent e-mail, an attached e-mail and then one or more attachments to the attached e-mail. Sometimes we refer to the “attached e-mail attachments” as grandchildren.

There is yet another scenario where the e-mail attachment could be a zip file. The zip file will contain other documents. Although this scenario can get quite messy and confusing if the zip file contains a large number of files, I will stick with a simple example for the purposes of teaching this information. If the zip file contains two documents, we may treat the zip file as Attachment 1 and then the two documents as Attachment 2 and Attachment 3. There needs to be a reference to the zip file within the “e-mail family” so this a clear way to handle it.

I have included some illustrations for the visual learners reading this. It is somewhat humorous that we refer to electronic documents as family members, but you will soon learn that it is hard enough to keep up with what is going on in the fast pace of litigation support. Assigning nicknames to objects can help make the conversations more clear.

One thing to note regarding “e-mail families” is that for the most part we strive to keep “e-mail families” together throughout the entire workflow process, from collection to production. By this I mean, we strive to keep the parent e-mail together with all of its attachments in everything we do. We avoid breaking the “e-mail family” apart and thus treating the parent e-mail or any of its attachments as separate entities.

In the beginning of electronic discovery, “e-mail families” were broken up all of the time. Everyone later realized that this caused confusion. For instance, if the parent e-mail references an attachment on the face of the e-mail, yet the attachment is no where to be found, time is spent chasing down the missing attachment or discussing the missing attachment or wondering what the missing attachment contains. Is the attachment missing on purpose or is it a mistake? Is it missing because it has some juicy content? It may have been an instance where one of the attachments is non-responsive so someone decided to pull it instead of producing it. In most cases, we now go ahead and produce the non-responsive attachment just to keep the “e-mail family” together.

There are instances where it may make sense to break up an “e-mail family“, but these instances should be few and far between. Keep in mind, when working in litigation support, that your goal should be to keep the “e-mail family” together, but also realize that depending on the attorney you are working with, they might have a valid reason for wanting to split up an “e-mail family”.  I will tell you that from a technical perspective, it is a real pain to split up e-mail families and then to keep track of the individual family members. There have been many debates about this throughout our industry, but there are no hard and fast standards as of this writing.

I hope that I have simplified this enough for those new to this industry. There are so many aspects to electronic discovery and my goal is to break it down into easily consumed chunks.





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