Avoiding an E-Discovery Disaster

This summer the whole country, particularly those of us living on the gulf coast, anxiously watched the seemingly endless images of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico following the deadly explosion on the BP oil rig Deepwater Horizon.  While the leak has only recently been capped, litigation stemming from the oil spill has already commenced.

In a recent article on law.com, Fred Blum and Nader Mehizadeh noted that much of the litigation stemming from the BP oil spill will depend on volumes of electronically stored information in BP's control.  After noting the potential e-discovery disaster that may come upon BP if its electronically-stored information (ESI) is not properly handled, the authors outlined the following six factors that can help anyone avoid an e-discovery disaster:

1.  Preserve Relevant ESI. 

2.  Confer with your opponent.

3.  Collect Data Intelligently.

4.  Rely on your vendor.

5.  Consider using hosted databases.

6.  If all else fails, go to court.

The underlying principle behind all six factors is that retention and production of relevant ESI is something that parties in litigation simply cannot afford to ignore.  The risks are simply too high.  However, electronic discovery disasters can be averted if parties are willing to take the time, and expense, to ensure that relevant information is preserved, communicate with the opposing party and experts in the field, and utilize technology to their advantage. 

 

 

The Ringmaster or the Clown? Dealing with the E-Discovery Elephant in the Room

It is rare to find one of those shared tenets that defy all cultural, geographic, and chronological boundaries -- some fundamental underpinning of life found everywhere from the days of the caveman to the modern age. One we can all agree on, however, is that a professional's worth is and always has been commensurate with his or her experience. The senior dragon slayer of King Arthur's round table received a shinier suit of armor than the new guy. The master caveman's time and worth rose above the apprentice's. And in present day law firm culture, the value of the Associate is often dwarfed by that of the Senior Partner in the cozy corner office.

Electronic discovery, however, has turned this fundamental dynamic on its head. In most areas of the law, change is effected in small increments, opinion by opinion and statute by statute. Sage senior lawyers add to their existing knowledge by keeping up on recent developments -- no fundamental change in thinking is required. Electronic discovery, however, has forced a radical, qualitative change in almost every aspect of how discovery is conducted. Heck, an entire Federal Rule of Civil Procedure was rewritten to account for it. And the dreaded "it" -- that virtual elephant in the room -- is everywhere. As Judge Shira Scheindlin of the Southern District of New York observed in an interview, "We used to say there's e-discovery as if it was a subset of all discovery. But now there's no other discovery."

This ever-expanding nature of e-discovery is carving out a unique dynamic in the three-ring circus that is the Law Firm and the in-house legal department. In short, the problem is that the two parts of the equation needed to master e-discovery (expertise in discovery law and procedure, and expertise in electronic media) are currently located in two separate circus rings: the Ringmaster's and the Clown's.
 

  • The Ringmaster: In one outer ring you have the partner, our Ringmaster, an experienced and respected litigator so well-versed in discovery procedures and law that he or she can write interrogatories and respond to document requests while juggling oversized balls of Case Strategy, Knowledge and Experience for the client in the front row. It is true that there are Ringmasters who are also well-steeped in the art of e-discovery, who have taken the initiative to learn everything about it and keep up on the latest social networking arrivals. This article is not addressed to these Ringmasters. It is addressed to the more litigation-centric ones -- and there are many -- who view discovery as more of just another step on the way to the ultimate trial and motion practice, than a living entity in its own right. Ask such a Ringmaster for electronic search protocols and you will receive a list of terms that do not capture the depth and breadth of materials needed. Say "Twitter" and he or she will ask about your bird-watching hobby. E-mail them about Flickr and you'll get berated for spelling mistakes.
     
  • The Clown: In the other outer ring you have the young associate, our Clown, who is still on some level struggling to appreciate the distinction between general and specific objections to document requests. But at the same time, our Clown has a unique appreciation for electronic discovery that the Ringmaster often does not.  The Clown is intimately familiar with all potential bastions of electronic communication, from e-mail and iPhones to Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook. He or she appreciates from personal experience that social networking sites are interactive and amorphous circus animals, such that the only thing unchanging about them is the fact that they change several times a day. Even coming up with electronic search protocols requires a working knowledge of computer technology nowadays. Judge Scheindlin observed that, "People think they've searched and they haven't looked in the right places, haven't communicated with the right people, they haven't used best technology to go through materials they do have." Younger associates know where and how to find the most obscure information online. They cut their e-teeth on Google. They have run countless word-searches on Westlaw, learning from experience how to best craft searches to obtain the results they need. They know what types of computer applications to find documents in. Microsoft is their friend.

There is no doubt that Ringmasters are more than capable of learning the basics through articles, lectures and other means. But there is a difference between knowing that and knowing how. For Clowns -- many of whom check Facebook and Twitter before they brush their teeth in the morning -- the intricacies of electronic communication are as intuitive as the art of humor. To expect many Ringmasters to extract secondhand a deep understanding of how these new innovations work and to obtain what he wants from them, is like asking a law student to fully comprehend the Federal Rules based on a first-year Civil Procedure class. Just as it takes practicing in a real courtroom for the isolated rules to "click", immersion into electronic communication is needed to truly appreciate its fine points. Plenty of Ringmasters can and have done this. But plenty more have not. As Judge Scheindlin observed, "Those of us who are a little older, shall I say modestly or immodestly, [ ] it's too late for us. We can't really change completely. But for these young people coming out the world will change with them."

And it is. Just a couple of weeks agok, the court in Chen v. Dougherty, 2009 WL 1938961 (W.D. Wash. July 7, 2009) implied what would happen in the e-discovery circus if, in a sequel to blockbuster flick I am Legend, a genetically-engineered cure to a devastating illness had the unintended side effect of wiping out the associate population -- and since Will Smith's character was snuffed out in the first movie, there was no one to create a cure. The answer: the partner may find himself balancing the trapeze without a safety net. The Chen court refused to award the prevailing plaintiff its attorneys' fees based on its attorney's normal hourly rate, for the time the attorney spent on e-discovery. Why? The attorney, a partner with twenty years of experience, almost certainly knew general discovery law inside and out. No matter:

"[The attorney's] inhibited ability to participate meaningfully in electronic discovery tells the Court that she has novice skills in this area and cannot command the rate of experienced counsel."

There is no doubt that this was a good lawyer -- she won the case, after all. And the defendants had to pay her regular fee for all other portions of the case. But the court ordered the attorney's rate to be reduced on e-discovery matters to $200 for, as an example, "failing to offer search terms for the delivery of relevant ESI." Given that some partners in Seattle bill out at over $400 an hour, it is possible that this attorney's e-discovery fees were halved. Ouch.

This divide between Ringmasters and Clowns will only widen as social networking expands. Niche social networking sites are emerging every day -- some recent new ones include Ning, Sodahead, Bebo, Fanpop, Imeen, and Eons. The British government has published a guide to help ministers understand how to use Twitter, with the aim of extending its news and corporate messages online. And major companies are now using these resources as networking and branding tools to communicate with consumers and offer an inside look at the company in more intimate, real-time fashion than a website. As noted in a recent U.S. News article, Victoria's Secret, Southwest Airlines, Mastercard, The Gap, and Starbucks are using Twitter and Facebook. And now smaller businesses are joining the Twitter fray. As Zappo CEO Tony Hsieh recognized via Twitter update, borrowing a phrase from the eminently-quotable Winnie-the-Pooh, "You can't stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You've got to go to them sometimes."

The resulting interactivity -- and the brazenness with which these social corporations are lifting the veil that separates individual consumers from company executives -- is astounding. And it foretells the inevitable legal tangles to come in all types of litigation, from false advertising to employment, patent, defamation, government investigations into off-label promotion practices of pharmaceutical companies, and many others. (A defamation lawsuit was just filed in Chicago against a woman for "twittering" that her management company was tolerant of moldy apartments.) Unfortunately, most of the legal issues posed by social networking have yet to see the inside of a courtroom. The area is new, and the old rules may not apply. Social networks such as Facebook change appearance by the minute, making it difficult to track down the specific version relevant to a litigation. On the other hand "Tweleted," a site that digs up deleted Twitter Posts from Twitter's search engines, is now taking the world by storm. Even more confusing, all social networks -- even any two Facebook accounts -- are not created equal. Whether their content is fair game for e-discovery may depend on individual privacy settings: whether an owner allows general access or access only by "friends."

Think of a social network like the typically elaborate circus car rolling into the Center Ring. A Ringmaster may see a car with a capacity for four or five occupants, each of which the Ringmaster will question thoroughly. The Clown will more often see a car in which an unlimited number of occupants can fit -- every friend, every follower, every update, post, blog, tweet and related "app". He or she will know that each of these occupants should be questioned, but will not be quite sure where to go from there. It is clear that one way or another, the Ringmasters in their circus ring of discovery knowledge and experience, and the Clowns with their technology expertise, need to come together in the Center Ring. This can be done any number of ways:

  • Encourage more Ringmasters-Clown Collaboration. Partner-associate interaction in e-discovery should resemble more of a shared collaboration than a senior person doing the higher-level work and delegating the lower-level tasks to a junior. Unlike many areas of the law, a young associate may have significant input to offer on e-discovery matters -- where to look, what to look for -- even if he or she does not recognize that at first glance due to lack of in-depth knowledge about discovery procedures.
     
  • Make Clowns the Ringmasters of the Center Ring.  Choose a small number of young associates and turn them into "one-stop shopping" experts by deepening their knowledge of discovery law and process to supplement their knowledge of electronic media. Send them to CLEs. Give them 50 non-billable hours for the year to read up on discovery issues. Have them present CLEs, or write law journal articles or blog entries applying the law and process to new social media. As e-discovery options and procedure expand, these younger associates will be best poised to recognize the issues.
     
  • Sole practitioners and small firms are in the hardest position.  The Chen attorney was a sole practitioner or close to it, with little to no associate knowledge to rely on. This is typically the case in very small firms. As the role of e-discovery and social media in litigation expands, these partner-shareholders will need to master these new e-media themselves -- mere knowledge of discovery in general will not be enough, and relying on non-legal e-discovery consultants who do not know the case, and/or are not attorneys, is risky. Alternatively, they should consult with younger attorneys on a part-time basis, who can provide some focus on what to look for, where, and how.
     
  • Graduates of Clown U.  Senior associates and junior partners are not yet Ringmasters, but have left their Clown days behind. They grew up in the tail end of the Paper Age and the beginning of the E-paper Age. E-mail emerged in junior high or high school, the World Wide Web in college or law school, and Westlaw a couple of years before or after they started law school. These lawyers are almost as savvy at the technology side of e-discovery as the Clowns. The difference is that (1) they do not take it for granted, because they spent formative years without it; and (2) it is not as intuitive for them; they have to work at it a little more, particularly the newer forms of e-communication. Facebooks and Twitters are divergences that they understand and even use, but without quite the same level of immersion. Their advantage, however, is that in being less fascinated with the bell-and-whistle details they are more apt to see the 'big picture' -- to view these tools as the latest but not greatest fads, and to be able to anticipate, given their knowledge of both law and the technology, what will come next. Yes, they have things to learn both from the Clown and the Ringmaster, and they (like Ringmasters) must make an effort to keep themselves fresh when it comes to each new wave of e-communication, something that comes more naturally to Clowns. If they do, their knowledge of both outer circus rings may propel them farther and faster than Ringmasters or Clowns.

These are not the only solutions. The point is, however, that now is the time for firms and corporations to position themselves for a future in which e-discovery will play an even larger role, by recognizing that the traditional bright-line Ringmaster-Clown, partner-associate dynamic cannot function in this area. If they fail to do so, they may find themselves in the middle of the circus, hanging from the trapeze with -- like the Chen attorney --only half a safety net below.
 

Back to the Basics for 2009

Over the past several years e-discovery has blossomed into a multi-million dollar industry. Businesses and the legal community alike have struggled to keep up with evolving court rules on e-discovery and their interpretation. When it involves the technical arena, we are often reactive rather than proactive on finding the right tools for the right job. As a result, we fall prey to system vendors' promises of superior products that can solve all our discovery problems.

In this economic climate, most businesses are probably moving cautiously when it comes to securing licenses or system purchases. More than ever, we are doing more window shopping than buying. But when we decide to buy, mistakes can be made due to the following reasons.

  • Poor needs assessment. While technologies can do wonders, it is how they are applied that matters. The mantra is implement the appropriate technology with some leeway for expansion. Because all technologies have shelf lives (the length of time given before they are considered obsolete or unsuitable for use), it presents a business risk to put all the eggs in one basket. Before purchasing any particular products, assess the vendor's business strength by checking its market share, user feedbacks/reviews, ease of implementation, and portability (data being integrated or migrated to another platform). It is also important to examine the interdependency among its business partners to assess its long-term viability should one or more of its business partners fail. In addition, it is crucial that the product fits into the internal technology infrastructure and does not create an impediment to workflow issues.
  • Lack of collaboration. Not only that it is to the advantage of all parties involved in litigation to examine what information is needed and the in-house systems that are readily available to facilitate the retrieval process, FRCP Rule 37(f) demands it. If a third party vendor is needed, both sides might want to work with the same vendor to negotiate discounted services. This in turn creates an added incentive for both sides to make extra efforts to ascertain the type and volume of information that is most relevant for successful litigation and results in potential cost savings for the clients.

While there is no magic bullet against e-discovery, following the ground rules listed above can make the discovery process more productive and less painful.