Following the Wells Fargo inadvertent disclosure episode, I wrote a blog post describing several ways to find hidden content in Excel files. In this post I discuss another feature of Excel that all lawyers, but especially legal document reviewers, should know about: the comment box.
Excel allows you to attach comment boxes to particular cells (just click Shift + F2), and also provides several visibility options. Depending on the options set by the original user, the comments may be fairly easy to identify and read, or quite challenging. When reviewing Excel files in discovery, it is important to find and review all the comments – they might contain information important to the case, or reflect privileged information. Here’s an example of a spreadsheet with comments from the Enron corpus (download the file if you like):
In this (default) view, each cell with a comment attached has a tiny red flag in the corner. When you hover the mouse over such a cell, the comment box pops up.
You can change the appearance of comments by going to the Review ribbon and clicking on Show All Comments, but that is no guarantee that some of the comment boxes won’t escape your attention. You would have to visually scan the entire used area of each worksheet to find them.
What about Relativity, you ask? Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to review comment boxes thoroughly in Relativity. Here is a view of the same Enron file shown above (in Excel), as viewed in the Viewer mode in Relativity:
Notice that the red flags used in Excel to indicate a comment are not visible in Relativity. Hovering over the cells does not bring them up, either.
The underlying comments do make it into the OCR text, albeit not very helpfully. For some reason the text of the comments is extracted and dumped at the end of the OCR text for the affected tab. In the view below you can see that the comment “Stephanie K McGinnis: When EPC contract is officially turned on” can be found by searching the extracted text. But this comment text is sandwiched between the last OCR text on this tab, and the OCR text at the beginning of the next tab. There is no telling which cell this comment was attached to.
Finding all of the comment boxes in an Excel file and reviewing them in context requires reviewing the native file in Excel. The good news is, there’s a straightforward technique to find and review every comment. Launch the Find dialog box (e.g., with Ctrl+F), and follow these steps:
- Click the Options button to open the additional tools
- Under ‘Find What’ type a single asterisk (*) – this is Excel’s wild card
- Under ‘Within’ select “Workbook”
- Under ‘Look in’ select “Comments”
- Click “Find All”
Excel will then launch a results window that helps you navigate to every cell with a comment box attached.
Clicking on a reference in this results list will navigate to the appropriate tab and cell, while (helpfully, I think) keeping this window on top.
Note that the material in the Value column reflects the visible content of the cell where the comment is attached–you will have to navigate to the cell and hover over it to see what the comment actually is. For example, in the Find results shown above, the sixth result is cell H16 on the tab called NTP or Sold, which contains the text “Fr 6B 50hz power barges”; click somewhere on that line to jump to that cell. When you hover over it, you’ll then see the comment attached to the cell, viz., Stephanie McGinnis’s comment “left outside and water got into gauges.”
Of course, if an Excel file does not have any comments, you can confidently skip this routine. How do you know if a given spreadsheet has any comment boxes lurking to begin with? Simply click on the File ribbon – the area called Prepare for Sharing will list issues with the file, including the existence of comment boxes.
Under Prepare for Sharing, the first issue listed is Comments – now you know how to find and review them. To get a more thorough analysis of the file, including a count of hidden worksheets, columns, and rows, click on Check for Issues and follow the prompts.
A disclaimer: If there are comments attached to cells in hidden worksheets, using Find All as described above will not identify them, unless and until you unhide the hidden worksheets. (But the Prepare for Sharing box will alert you to the presence of both the hidden worksheets and the comments.) During any kind of legal document review, you’ll want to unhide any hidden worksheets in an Excel file whether there are comments or not.
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