Electronic Evidence – Fear and Loathing in the Legal Profession

by Lee Gesmer on October 26, 2006

Microsoft Network Schematic

The best aspect of law school is the subordination of math. Anon

The schematic displayed above (click for a blow up in pdf format) is a simplified illustration of a corporate network which Microsoft provided to the Federal Rules Committee in connection with proceedings on electronic evidence. It was intended to illustrate a generic corporate computer network.

If you are a lawyer and this seems like an alien concept that no lawyer should ever be required to understand, you’re not alone. Lets face it – like most stereotypes, the old joke that lawyers go to law school to avoid math and technology contains a large element of truth.

So, it’s not hard to sense the anxiety emanating from the hallways of the nation’s law offices as the electronic discovery tsunami picks up speed. Yes, there’s a new technology boom, but it’s not the kind that sent clients flocking to their lawyers for legal representation in the 1990s. Many lawyers in their 50s and 60s can barely find the caps lock key on a computer keyboard, much less learn the intricacies of “IT“.

Nevertheless, every day emails and brochures arrive announcing seminars and warning that the era of electronic data discovery (EDD) has finally, truly arrived. Luddite lawyers are warned that –

  • 99% of all documents created today are in electronic form.
  • Changes to the federal rules of civil procedure that will take effect on December 1st will require lawyers to be far more familiar with client information systems than in the past, and to work cooperatively with opposing counsel to preserve, retrieve and produce electronic data.
  • Ignorance of the law (or of technology) is not a defense (!) The poster child for just how bad this can get is the Morgan Stanley case in Florida, where the trial judge ordered the jury to draw an adverse inference based on Morgan Stanley’s failure to turn over electronic documents, leading to a $600 million plus jury verdict against Morgan Stanley.

Of course, the law being what it is, the full implications of all of this are impossible to forsee. And the more you think about it, the worse it gets. How do you locate relevant electronic data in your client’s network? How do you review electronic data for relevance, work product and privilege? How do you designate individual documents “confidential” or “attorney’s eyes only” when they are part of a massive data file? How do you capture metadata? (What is metadata? Helpful hint: “metadata is information about information”). How do you capture and review data that uses software systems the client has abandoned (a surprisingly common problem)? How do you ensure that attachments accompany their original emails?

If you think the last question doesn’t present a problem, our firm can tell you about an opposing party that produced a massive Outlook email file that had been converted to an ASCII text file, and in the process had all the attachments stripped away. It took quite a bit of explaining on our part for the opposing lawyer to even understand the problem. Then, rather than incur the cost of reviewing this mass of material, the opposing party produced its entire email database for a several year period, disclosing not only irrelevant, privileged and technical client information, but personal medical records of employees.

Of course, what’s bad for the lawyers and courts is always good for the experts. The demand for computer forensic experts that can address these questions (and a hundred more), as well as take potshots at the opposing party’s EDD, will undoubtedly flourish. Kroll has already staked out a big piece of this business, but there is room for countless smaller players as the industry evolves. Courts and lawyers can’t possibly be expected to understand all of this stuff themselves. In the end, the losers will be the lawyers and law firms that can’t master this process, and the clients who are forced to pay for it.

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