Findings of a survey of 5,000 lawyers reveals that the profession is struggling to manage the vast amounts of Electronically Stored Information (ESI) that play a vital role as evidence in legal matters across Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA).

Survey respondents across ten countries admitted that they had either lost a case, experienced a case delay or been sanctioned by a court or regulator in the past two years because they were unable to locate or process ESI that could have been successfully presented as evidence. Half of those surveyed (51 percent) admitted to problems identifying and recovering ESI (otherwise known as e-discovery) in the last three months.

The research also discovered that while poor availability of ‘digital evidence’ can hinder the legal process, the power of technology to identify and collect relevant information among millions of electronic files has had a positive impact on many cases across EMEA. 98 percent of the lawyers questioned said that ESI identified ‘digital evidence’ during e-discovery had been vital to the success of legal matters in which they had been involved in the past two years.

These results demonstrate the pivotal role ESI now plays in routine legal matters, with 91 percent of EMEA lawyers rating it as either ‘critical’ or important to their day-to-day work. This ability to remotely search individual desktops and laptop computers will prove particularly useful to lawyers in EMEA, 45 percent of whom said that the type of ESI they most frequently had to search for relevant information were the contents of individual hard drives.

On questioning lawyers throughout EMEA on how successful they felt they were applying e-discovery to ever increasing amounts of ESI, the survey uncovered a potential disconnect between their perceived readiness and their ability to deliver. Overall 69 percent of respondents claimed their teams were “fully prepared” for processing ESI relating to important litigation or compliance matters.

However, 60 percent of respondents admitted they struggled with the amount of information that had to be searched; 29 percent complained that they did not have enough time to conduct thorough investigations; and 24 percent said they lacked sufficiently sophisticated e-discovery technology to fulfill requests effectively.

When asked how this might be alleviated, 57 percent specifically called for “improvements to search technology used to identify, preserve and process ESI” over measures such as new legislation governing the presentation of evidence in digital formats or greater international collaboration.

Assembling a body of evidence strong enough to win a case was testing enough when it involved patiently picking through hundreds or thousands of physical documents. But the rise of electronic data means today’s investigators have to deal with files in the millions. The survey results suggests that even though lawyers might feel prepared, the fact they have all lost cases or legal matters because of difficulties producing ‘digital evidence’ shows more needs to be done for the good of the legal process. The good news is that lawyers acknowledge how e-discovery technology can make locating ‘digital evidence’ efficient, cost-effective and – above all – manageable.

The survey was conducted in August 2010 and is based on responses from 5,000 lawyers in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates.