This Is Not a Drill: Designing Tabletop Exercises to Test Your Preservation Strategies

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If you—or your child—have ever been in a live performance, you know that it hardly matters how much time and effort the cast and crew have put in: the moment that curtain goes up, everything changes. Actors who know their lines perfectly well in a quiet room or at a table read will suddenly be tongue-tied. Props or wardrobes that seemed flawlessly designed and executed will turn out to be unexpectedly untenable. That's why directors insist on dress rehearsals—they know that pressure can unravel the best-laid plans.

The same tenet applies to archiving data for litigation, compliance, or internal investigations. You may think you have your systems all thought out and locked down, but using them under the constraints of a real-life situation can reveal gaps you completely overlooked. 

That's why tabletop exercises—the business equivalent of dress rehearsals—are so valuable. 

Using Tabletop Exercises to Test Content Preservation

While it's most common to use tabletop exercises to prepare for natural disasters, cyberattacks, and similar emergencies, the basic concept is adaptable to a wide range of other uses. In a tabletop exercise, key personnel walks through a simulated situation, rehearsing their assigned roles and practicing their various responsibilities. Tabletop exercises can be complex, all-day affairs involving facilitators to guide the exercise and external evaluators to grade the team's performance, highlight strengths and point out weaknesses, or simple quarterly meetings to explore new challenges. 

In a webinar that Hanzo co-hosted with the Association of E-Discovery Specialists (ACEDS), Amy Sellars, Assistant General Counsel and Director of the Discovery Center of Excellence for Cardinal Health, advised that ediscovery professionals should regularly engage in tabletop exercises to test their litigation readiness.

It's a great opportunity to identify and calmly work through issues that may arise in various scenarios when the pressure is not on, hopefully preparing you even more when urgency and timing is critical.

Scenarios like what? We're glad you asked. 

Sample Preservation Readiness Scenarios

The most basic preservation exercise is when an organization receives a legal hold request asking it to preserve information about a potential litigation matter. If that hold request asks for email and paper documents from one or two key custodians, most organizations could quickly act on it. But what if it were more complicated? What if it asked for information previously posted on the company's website? What if it implicated messages that employees had exchanged on a collaboration application like Slack or Google Drive?  What if it included dozens of custodians? Would you be able to access that information and put it on hold quickly and efficiently? Could you do so without putting the entire application on hold?

Other scenarios you could put to the test in a tabletop exercise include:

  • Internal investigations. You begin an internal investigation into an employee's suspected theft of company information. Could you preserve content from the subject's Google Drive without alerting them?
  • Demonstrate compliance during an audit. Your organization—which provides financial services and is therefore subject to regulations from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)—receives a request for information about the promises or guarantees you made on your dynamic website. Can you archive your site completely and accurately for any customer journey in a format that demonstrates that you provided all of the necessary information and disclaimers, and can you do so in the tight timeline of a regulatory inquiry?
  • Gathering evidence. An employee who was just terminated notifies you that they're bringing suit against your organization for discriminatory employment practices. You know that the employee's manager repeatedly addressed their performance issues—which led to their dismissal—over Slack direct messages. Can you preserve those messages defensibly so that they're available to you as evidence in any litigation?

In addition to brainstorming scenarios that you feel you should be prepared for, encourage other teams and departments to suggest “surprise” scenarios that you must react to and see how well you do! When dealing with different scenarios that you might encounter, remember that the goal isn't to pat yourself on the back for how great you are—it's to identify the holes in your plan or the blind spots that may have crept in through shadow IT and new communication tools.

What Tabletop Exercises Can Reveal

Tabletop exercises don't result in a grade or a score. The most critical part of these drills isn't whether you "pass" or "fail"—it's what you learn from the experience. Can you preserve potentially relevant information from all of your organization's data sources? What other information do you lockdown in the process? Can you lift an expired hold without disrupting other overlapping legal holds?

You can also uncover shortcomings in your preservation and archiving strategies and tools with these drills. Are you only preserving screenshots of your website that won't stand up as evidence in court? Did you think you could use Slack's built-in export function to extract information without realizing that you had no way to process the resulting JSON files? Are your preserved files searchable and review-ready?

Evaluate your tools and vendor partners as well. Are you paying for tools that you don't use? Are your vendors available to help when you need them? Do you need additional tools or resources to deal with new types of information or new communication platforms?

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