eDiscovery Daily Blog

eDiscovery Trends: Sharon Nelson


This is the sixth and final installment of our Holiday Thought Leader Interview series. I interviewed several thought leaders to get their perspectives on various eDiscovery topics.

Today’s thought leader is Sharon Nelson.  Sharon is the President of Sensei Enterprises, where she has worked on the front lines of computer forensics and eDiscovery topics that are also discusses on her blog Ride the Lightning. She is a graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center and is the president elect of the Virginia Bar Association.

Last week, I interviewed Sharon’s husband, John Simek, who is vice president of Sensei. John is a technical computer forensics expert, while Sharon provides the legal perspective on eDiscovery issues. Together, they are frequent speakers and authors on computer forensic issues.

As a lawyer, how did you get into the world of computer forensics? What is the role of an attorney within a computer forensics firm?

I stumbled into computer forensics along with my partner John Simek. Peter Greenspun, one of the leading criminal attorneys in Virginia, had a case in 1999 involving electronic evidence and he asked if we could help as experts. That case is still taught by the FBI. It got me thinking that Sensei should expand from information technology to computer forensics – and I knew it was a field that only a true scientist could excel in, so the wannabes of the world would not be able to truly compete. The role of an attorney is to stay up with the law and the cases and render expert advice to both clients and employees – and act as corporate counsel of course.

How has your blogging at Ride the Lightning influenced your legal career?

Within the context of Sensei, I operate as an expert, not as a lawyer, although I retain a separate law office. Certainly Ride the Lightning has helped Sensei’s marketing enormously, which ultimately helps to attract clients. I was honored when RTL was named to the American Bar Association’s Blawg 100 for the second year in a row and also when the Library of Congress asked my permission to archive it and to make it available to scholars and researchers. And it is just plain fun writing it!

Have lawyers begun to grapple with social media issues or are many still in denial?

There are still some lawyers in denial but their numbers are declining. In fact, I organize a lot of CLEs and many of the social media sessions are standing room only. Many lawyers want to learn how to use social media and how to avoid the ethical pitfalls. Things simply go viral in this new e-world. It is amazing how far social media (which includes blogs) extends your reach. Blogs, in particular, tend to attract reporters, which can be really helpful to marketing a law practice.

I believe you are involved in a lot of family law cases and disputes involving individuals. How has social media changed these cases?

It’s a veritable gold mine. People are unbelievably foolish in what they put online. We had a case where the husband was discussing his latest hookup with his lover on his Facebook page. He knew his wife was not his “friend”, but he had forgotten that a mutual acquaintance was his friend and she simply printed out all his postings. It’s not just family law though – social media is particularly helpful in personal injury cases where the Plaintiff who is “wholly disabled” is using a chain saw and dancing a jig (and yes, that’s from a real case). I almost can’t think of an area of law where social media isn’t a treasure trove – law enforcement has wholly embraced it as evidence against criminals who post astonishing admissions online.

As people increasingly live their lives online, do digital records ever really go away? Are we going to be followed around by our digital selves forever?

Some digital records will certainly go away – the problem is that you’ll never know which ones. People forward your communications or preserve them for their own reasons. Your business competitor may be archiving your website and anything that is open on your social media sites. Social media sites let you deactivate your account or delete posts, but that doesn’t help if someone else already has the information. And, indeed, it does not appear that social media sites truly delete your information since law enforcement has been known to get data that was supposedly no longer online. Trusting social media sites to respect your privacy is foolhardy. The only privacy we have is in the sheer volume of data out there – but once someone lasers in on you, your privacy is gone.

On Ride the Lightning, you discuss sanctions and electronic evidence blunders. Is there a common reason why lawyers make mistakes with digital evidence? What are the keys to making the profession smarter about handling computer records?

Education is the key, and we’re slowly getting there, but it is very slow. Most lawyers are technophobic and find it difficult to understand electronic evidence. They really need to call in well-qualified experts early on – that saves the most money because good experts won’t let you spend your money foolishly. As an example, an order to “preserve everything” is nonsensical, but we hear it all the time. If the attorneys on both sides are reasonable and they have good experts, it’s amazing how fast they can come to a strategy that saves everyone time and money. And for heaven’s sake, why not go after the low-hanging fruit first? That might cause the case to settle early before vast sums of money have been expended. You can always go back and do more digging if necessary.

How have you and husband John Simek managed to make a career out of computer forensics and eDiscovery? You seem to be busy with speaking and professional engagements- how do you make it work?

That’s the new world – our offices are in our laptops, so we carry our offices with us as we travel. There is very little that we cannot do remotely. We have fine-tuned the art of entering a hotel room and bringing up the laptops while unpacking our suitcases. People ask us all the time how a husband and wife can run a business and not make each other crazy. We really have a bright line – John makes the technical decisions and I make the legal, business and marketing decisions. We talk across that line, but we respect the line. It works for us – that and being in love of course. We always say that we get paid to play – we don’t know anyone who enjoys coming to work as much as we do. The word retirement is anathema to both of us!

Thanks, Sharon, for participating in the interview!

And to the readers, as always, please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic!