R1 Public University Shortens Response Times for FOIA Requests

Their Story

Limited resources can severely impact the efficacy and efficiency of any legal team. One of our customers, the office of general counsel for a public R1 university, handles various responsibilities, such as providing quality legal advice, guidance, and service in support of the university’s mission. But, with a small team of just ten attorneys and three legal assistants, the university has found it challenging to handle the high volume of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The Freedom of Information Act provides a path for obtaining information from state and public entities, ensures that citizens of the United States are kept informed, and supports a democratic society. However, responding to FOIA requests can be cumbersome and create major backlogs for state and federal agencies due to the volume and complexity of requests.

Given that the doctoral university has very high research activity and receives federal funding, they are subject to fielding these FOIA requests as they come in. On average, the office handles one FOIA request per day and must respond to the request within five days. By responding within this time frame, the university greatly reduces the risk of litigation.

Since 2013, the Department of Justice has been fielding more than 70,000 FOIA requests seeking federal documents and personal data annually.

Their Challenge

Unlike larger law firms or legal offices, public agencies like this university don’t have vast armies of paralegals. Attorneys from these public agencies can’t delegate tedious, manual tasks. Since these agencies can’t bill for their time, it’s imperative that they utilize tools and work with partners that help them not only remedy these issues quickly but create more streamlined workflows.

Previously, responding to FOIA requests required the university’s office of general counsel to perform a litany of manual tasks using different software, which often led to compatibility issues that significantly delayed its response time. For example:

  • They would have to convert hundreds of emails to PDFs, many of which contained several different attachments. This time-consuming process led to many error messages and crashes due to irregular margin sizes for certain attachments as well as the high volume of documents. Another challenge with this tedious process was keeping all emails and their respective attachments in the correct order, especially attachments that were native file types, such as spreadsheets or images.
  • After converting the emails to PDFs, they’d review the emails for applicable exemptions from FOIA’s disclosure requirements (e.g., attorney/client privilege or proprietary information).
  • Next, they’d scan the final, responsive documents by hand and send them to the requesting party.

This process would often take days, even for smaller requests. At this point in time, the university’s office was in dire need of a better workflow.

The Everlaw Solution

The university’s office of general counsel needed a solution that expedited their FOIA response workflow. With Everlaw’s cloud-based solution, they found it.

Everlaw enables this university to efficiently upload a large volume of data (typically emails), view emails and their corresponding attachments in context and in the correct order, review for responsiveness or possible exemptions, convert digital files into PDFs, and produce them to requesting parties with ease. Here’s how they handle FOIA requests using Everlaw:

  • After uploading emails into Everlaw, the attorney reviews them for exemptions using codes labeled “Withholding” and “Disclosing.” They will also code withheld documents with a “Withhold Reason” that aligns with their state’s exemptions (e.g., attorney/client privilege or proprietary information). Doing this effectively creates a privilege log documenting why certain documents were not disclosed, called a Vaughn Index.
  • Next, the attorney will apply any relevant redactions to portions of disclosed documents and might add a redaction stamp indicating why the redaction was applied. Additionally, they use the batch redactions feature to quickly redact all instances of a certain word or phrase, especially personal identifiable information (PII). Doing this has led them to maintain compliance and preserve the confidentiality required under certain state and federal privacy laws.
  • From there, they run a production on Everlaw to instantly stamp Bates numbers on the documents. They export the documents to PDFs, save the Vaughn index, and send them to the requesting party. Sometimes, they will send a secure, shareable link to the requestor because it provides an audit trail of when the requestor accessed and downloaded the files.

The office uses Everlaw for all sizes of FOIA requests (from 10 emails to 1,000 emails) because they know that the platform will correctly sort the emails and their attachments within a matter of seconds.

Results

The university’s office of general counsel was able to meet the challenges that come with responding to FOIA requests and develop better workflows by using Everlaw. The platform’s surefire email threading, ease of use in reviewing documents, applying redactions, and ability to handle native file types have made responding to FOIA requests a breeze. With accelerated response times, their overall risk of engaging in litigation has decreased, which is a win for the office.

To learn more about how Everlaw can help government agencies speed up response times for FOIA or Public Records requests, request a demo today.