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The DOJ’s Proposal for Machine Learning in the Michael Cohen Case

By Dave Lewis, Chief Data Scientist at Brainspace Corporation.

Yesterday, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York proposed that a special master, aided by technology-assisted review, be assigned to make the initial privilege determinations on materials that the FBI seized in its raid on Michael Cohen’s office and hotel room. The DOJ proposal is a fascinating document for the electronic discovery industry, and perhaps a confusing one for others following the Cohen case.  Here’s a primer on the technologies involved.

What is Technology-Assisted Review?

Technology-assisted review (TAR) is the use of machine learning and related technologies to accelerate the review of documents in lawsuits, investigations, and other legal matters. Over the past few decades, the volume of documents — particularly email and text messages — relevant to any given legal matter has exploded. It is often impossible for the attorneys and investigators to read every document of potential interest. Increasingly they are turning to TAR. TAR substantially speeds review and, given the frailties of human reviewers, studies have shown it can be as or more effective than brute-force human examination of every document.

What is Supervised Learning?

Supervised learning is the most widely used TAR technology. “Supervised” simply means that people are driving the process, teaching the software by example. The same technology is used when you teach your email software to recognize junk mail, or a streaming music system to pick tunes you like.

In the Cohen case, USAO-SDNY proposed that a retired judge or other “special master” play the role of reviewer and teacher. The special master would review some documents, and determine whether they were or were not privileged. Those decisions would then be used to teach the software to predict whether other documents are likely to be privileged.

What is Active Learning? 

Supervised learning learns from examples, but some examples teach the machine more than others. In active learning, the software selects those documents from which it will learn the most, and presents them to the expert.

When documents of interest are rare, as DOJ’s letter posits that privileged documents would be in the Cohen data set, the system learns the most from those few documents that are predicted most likely to be on topic. When assessed, some of those documents would turn out to actually be privileged, while others would be near-misses that weren’t privileged. Both types are very useful for the software to learn from. Computer scientists refer to an approach of training on top-ranked documents as relevance feedback.  In e-discovery this approach has sometimes been referred to as Continuous Active Learningas referenced in the DOJ letter.  (The latter term has a pending trademark application, so I capitalize it here.)

In the relevance feedback approach proposed by DOJ, the software would iteratively bring potentially privileged documents to the special master’s attention for review. Their decisions on those documents would then be fed back to the software, and the cycle repeated until satisfactory results were achieved.

What are Other Advantages of Supervised Learning in Complex Legal Cases?

A major advantage of supervised learning is that documents found by any means can be used to teach the system.  A variety of other TAR technologies such as conceptual search, other forms of machine learning, analysis of communication patterns, and so on can be used along with relevance feedback to find privileged documents, with all reviewed documents usable for teaching the software. My company’s product, Brainspace, supports using a range of such capabilities, including relevance feedback, through our Continuous Multimodal Learning (CMML) capability.

Further, all parties in the case could submit documents they assert to be privileged or non-privileged to the special master to begin, or continue the training process. So even though a neutral third party would be making privilege decisions, both sides could contribute to the process without being in the room. If desired, the neutral could even train the system twice, once seeded with each parties’ interpretation of disputed documents.

We may or may not see machine learning used in the Michael Cohen case. But it has already had a great influence on the legal world, and this will only grow over time.

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