In 2010, Anton Valukas at Jenner and Block issued a massive report in his capacity as examiner in the Lehman bankruptcy. The report was an incredibly in-depth review of the business and its failure, but also included a significant amount of detail about his methods and sources. The report disclosed that from three petabytes of available data, approximately five million documents were selected through various methods and loaded into either Stratify or CaseLogistix (a significant culling).

One of the more important parts of the report outlines the search terms used to identify important documents. The terms suggested served as a seed set for a list of terms I’d identify from important communications in numerous other reviews. Most are not case or subject-matter specific, instead they’re terms that help find communications conveying bad news, disappointment or surprise.

Using this personal “hot terms” list, it’s often easy to drill down into the most important (or at least revealing) documents. I continue to add and remove terms from this list to this day. Some, like “huge mistake”, “highly sensitive”, “sneak around”, “too late”, “uncomfortable”, “shocked”, “dumb” and “toxic” have provided incredibly interesting results.

Over the weekend, the WSJ reported The 69 Words You Can’t Use at GM. The list comes from a presentation included in the settlement documents. They are (I’ve highlighted a few that are either already on my list or that I will soon test):

always, annihilate, apocalyptic, asphyxiating, bad, Band-Aid, big time, brakes like an “X” car, cataclysmic, catastrophic, Challenger, chaotic, Cobain, condemns, Corvair-like, crippling, critical, dangerous, deathtrap, debilitating, decapitating, defect, defective, detonate, disemboweling, enfeebling, evil, eviscerated, explode, failed, flawed, genocide, ghastly, grenadelike, grisly, gruesome, Hindenburg, Hobbling, Horrific, impaling, inferno, Kevorkianesque, lacerating, life-threatening, maiming, malicious, mangling, maniacal, mutilating, never, potentially-disfiguring, powder keg, problem, rolling sarcophagus (tomb or coffin), safety, safety related, serious, spontaneous combustion, startling, suffocating, suicidal, terrifying, Titanic, unstable, widow-maker, words or phrases with a biblical connotation, you’re toast

Not all of these terms are generally applicable and some would likely result in too many false hits, but terms like these allow you to step into the daily lives of the custodians and see the things that are of concern to them. It’s far too easy for individuals to forget that work email might later be reviewed, looking for emotion or personal opinion can often be incredibly enlightening.

If you frequently work with specific industries or clients, it would be worthwhile to build a personal search term list relevant to your specific recurring data. While these terms would likely never be used for document promotion, they may help find “the good stuff” at the beginning of a new project. Every case team enjoys finding important information at the outset of a review; it makes decision-making much easier.

Car Fire image courtesy of Nick Fisher.