What Are PST Files? How Should My Small Law Firm Handle Them?

25 July 2017 by Anith Mathai ediscovery pst filetype

Businesses today talk to each other through email. So, your clients are bound to come to you with PST files. What are they? And what do you do with them? Read on to find out.

What is a PST file?

A .pst (Personal Storage Table) file is a special file type created by Microsoft for their Outlook email app. When you use Outlook, it stores all your emails, attachments, calendar events, etc. in a .pst file. So, think of it as more like a folder. (In fact, Microsoft calls them personal folders).

[Note: Don’t confuse Microsoft Outlook with Microsoft Outlook Express. Outlook Express is a simpler version of Outlook and uses .dbx files instead of .pst files. These .dbx files aren’t encrypted, and messages are stored as plain text. With .pst files, messages are compressed and stored in a database.]

Back in the mid-‘90s, PSTs were a brilliant innovation.

Storage space cost much more than it does now. So, email providers would cap the amount of data (i.e. emails and attachments) you could store on their servers. By using PSTs, you could take your data off their servers and onto your computer. This solved the ‘space’ problem. But a bonus was that your emails would be available offline. That was a big deal because dial-up connections back then were unreliable. With PSTs, you could connect to the internet, download your emails, and read them whenever.

But PST files have their problems.

They were a brilliant innovation at the time. But as computers and the internet evolved, businesses evolved with them. And PSTs have become a liability.

First off, PSTs are easily corrupted, because of some design flaws. For example, you can theoretically use PST files over a network. But doing it often ruins them because they weren’t designed to be accessed by more than one user at a time. And if the ruined file isn’t backed up (and it usually isn’t), you lose all your archived emails.

Secondly, PSTs were meant to be used only on one device. So, if you use your laptop’s Outlook to store emails, those emails can only be accessed on that laptop. You can’t access them from your smartphone, on the go. Besides, your smartphone can’t read PSTs anyway, since they only work with Outlook.

Finally, PSTs complicate ediscovery. Microsoft Exchange (Microsoft’s collaborative email tool that complements Outlook) doesn’t read PST files. So, you don’t get a ‘complete’ search when you use its ediscovery tools. Another complication is that PST files can inadvertently ‘hide’ emails. Many organizations purge old emails to prevent them from being subpoenaed for litigation. But if those emails are on a PST file, they can often be forgotten.

So, how should small law firms handle PSTs for ediscovery?

What most of us would do is to open the PST with Outlook. What’s the big deal, right? Well, here are the problems:

  1. You’ll contaminate the file: Outlook changes PST files when it uses them. So, your ‘evidence’ loses its electronic fingerprint (i.e. metadata). Things like when it was created, last modified, and last accessed.
  2. You’ll waste a lot of time. Outlook is slow, and it can’t search email attachments. Also, it’s designed to be used by only one person at a time. When you sign in under one profile, you can’t search through emails belonging to another profile. So, if you’re reviewing multiple accounts, each with a different PST file, you’ll have to sign in to one account, search, then sign out. And repeat the process with the next account. This is far from ideal.
  3. You can’t do the real work of ediscovery because Outlook doesn’t let you tag, redact, and ‘produce’ emails.

If not Outlook, then what?

There are many apps out there that handle email ediscovery. The problem is most of them are complicated to use or don’t have the features you need. For example, Google Desktop can help you search files, emails, and attachments. But its search options are limited. Microsoft Exchange Server can handle basic ediscovery. But it’s not designed to work with PST files. DtSearch Desktop has a powerful search feature. But it uses command line syntax. Which means you need a background in something like MS-DOS.

Your best option? Use GoldFynch.

GoldFynch is ediscovery software that reads PSTs. Just drag-and-drop a PST file into GoldFynch. It gets processed automatically, and all the emails become searchable. Most importantly, GoldFynch preserves all the metadata-i.e. information like when the file was created, who created it, when it was last used/modified, etc.

And, GoldFynch goes beyond just reading PSTs.

  • Search your files with GoldFynch’s advanced search engine. Tell it what to search for. Give it combinations of keywords, names, dates, etc. You can even tell it what not to search for. This will save you time when you’re reviewing hundreds (or thousands) of files.
  • Tag files quickly and easily. This will help you sort and categorize your evidence.
  • Redact privileged information.
  • ‘Produce’ documents in the format you need, with just a click.

Best of all, GoldFynch is easy to use. It’s as simple to figure out as any other app. And you won’t need to install any software. GoldFynch runs off the internet, and you access it through your web browser. So, you can start working right away.

Intrigued? To find out more about Goldfynch…

Want to learn more about ediscovery for small law firms? Check out these articles: