eDiscovery Daily Blog

Tom O’Connor of Advanced Discovery: eDiscovery Trends

This is the fourth of the 2016 LegalTech New York (LTNY) Thought Leader Interview series.  eDiscovery Daily interviewed several thought leaders at LTNY this year to get their observations regarding trends at the show and generally within the eDiscovery industry.  Unlike previous years, some of the questions posed to each thought leader were tailored to their position in the industry, so we have dispensed with the standard questions we normally ask all thought leaders.

Today’s thought leader is Tom O’Connor.  Tom is a nationally known consultant, speaker and writer in the area of computerized litigation support systems.  A frequent lecturer on the subject of legal technology, Tom has been on the faculty of numerous national CLE providers and has taught college level courses on legal technology.  Tom’s involvement with large cases led him to become familiar with dozens of various software applications for litigation support and he has both designed databases and trained legal staffs in their use on many of the cases mentioned above. This work has involved both public and private law firms of all sizes across the nation.  Tom is the Director of the Gulf Coast Legal Technology Center in New Orleans and he is the Senior ESI Consultant with Advanced Discovery.

What are your general observations about LTNY this year and about emerging eDiscovery trends overall?

{Interviewed the first morning of LTNY, so the focus of the question to Tom was more about his expectations for the show and also about general industry trends}.

When I got here to the show, I bounced around a bit and talked to several people here and I think there’s a lot of uncertainty in people’s minds.  I hate to say that we’re at a crossroads, but a couple of different things are going on in technology right now and I think people are worried that they made the right decision.  I’m talking about both vendors making the right technology decision on where to take their company and clients making the right choice.

I was at a presentation given by the CEO of a major company in our space recently and he was asked “what keeps you up at night?”  He responded that what he was most worried about was whether his company was flexible enough to make quick changes and adaptations in the market, because if you can’t do that, you can lose business really quickly.  You can sink in 18 months no matter what your market share is.  So, as a vendor, you have to be thinking “can I see something and react and respond?”  I think that goes across the board in every segment of the EDRM.  Technology changes so fast and we’re a profession that works by looking in the rearview mirror.  We work with precedent; we don’t want to be that first person out there trying something new.  So, there’s a lot of uncertainty.

Related to that, I think that tension between corporate clients and big law firms is becoming intensified.  Once again, it revolves around questions such as “am I getting the best technology?”, “am I getting the best ROI?”, “should I be bringing eDiscovery in house?”.  I’m seeing a lot of corporations going to master services agreements (MSAs).  That’s something that we do a lot of at Advanced Discovery.  It’s almost like an in-between state where corporations are deciding not to bring eDiscovery fully in-house, but not giving it to the law firms either and they’re saying to companies like ours “why don’t you run it for us?”  If there’s a trend right now, I would say that’s it, especially based on discussions that I had with other show attendees last night.

I always seem to ask you about the state of attorneys and their knowledge (or, rather, their lack thereof) about eDiscovery.  Do you think there has been any positive change in the past year with regard to attorneys’ knowledge about eDiscovery?

A couple of months ago, I asked a well-known judge in the field that question and he said that he’s seen minimal change.  I’ve seen some change, but I think the word I would use to describe it is “glacial”.  There has been some movement.  We’re seeing many more law schools embrace technology training of some sort.  Unfortunately, many of those are not full-time faculty, they are either adjunct faculty or CLE, like the Georgetown eDiscovery Training Academy that I’m part of – that’s actually run by their CLE department, it’s not part of their core curriculum.  Judge Facciola teaches two courses at the school full time and Craig Ball is teaching one at the University of Texas Law School.  But, overall, I haven’t seen schools really embrace the idea that this should be part of the curriculum.  Until that happens, I think the change will continue to be slow.

A great case in point: I think Craig and I did one our standup routine videos for the eDiscovery Channel, where we talked about the California Bar’s recent Formal Opinion (No. 2015-193, which we covered here when it was still a Proposed Opinion) and they listed nine things you need to be able to know how to do.  But, are they going to train people on this?  Who is going to be responsible for educating people on this new duty that they’ve imposed?  Now, it’s only early February, so maybe the Bar in California is going to come up with some sort of program.  But, that’s the quandary that I see – “you have this duty, good luck with that!”

Of course, nobody has the resources to provide that for a million lawyers.  There are some excellent resources out there, like the Georgetown Academy, but we cap that at about sixty students.  Do the math – once a year, sixty students.  Mike Arkfeld has a great course at Arizona State that he has been developing – let’s say, maybe, a couple of hundred people show up there and half of them probably already know everything.  It’s a little bit here and a little bit here, but there hasn’t been a sea change.  I don’t mean to point the finger at the law schools, but it’s just that they would be the most obvious to implement change, along with the bar associations.  But, nobody wants to own responsibility.

I think the third thing is that I’m surprised that there hasn’t been a big commercial attempt at this.  That somebody like a Thomson Reuters or a LexisNexis hasn’t said “we’re going to offer a course”.  It’s almost like everyone is afraid – no one wants to say they’re offering certifications because they’re not willing to take the risk that something might “go south”.  It’s the quandary that ACEDS has had from day one – how to you say that someone is certified when, in many states, it’s considered the providence of the bar association to say that you’re a specialist in a field.  There was a Federal court decision in Florida, I think back in September or October, where a firm who had people with 20+ years of experience indicated that they were specialists and the Florida Bar challenged their right to call themselves specialists without taking the Bar exam to designate specialists.  The firm sued and the court agreed that they had every right to call themselves specialists if they had that much experience.  After that, the bar association backed off and decided not to go after anybody else who does that.  Of course, there’s no standard as to who can call themselves an expert or specialist – is it 10 years or 15 years?  Who knows?  But, it seems to me that’s a door opener that benefits organizations like ACEDS that provide training.

So, in that regard, maybe this year things will open up.  But, it’s like pulling teeth.  Actually, it’s worse than that, it’s like pulling teeth without Novocain.  It’s frustrating.  I remember going around with Browning Marean to law schools 14 or 15 years ago and trying to get education programs going back then, so people have been trying for a long time.  It’s just frustrating.  I understand that people don’t go to law school to learn technology and their wish is fulfilled.  Unless they seek out one of these specialty courses, they don’t get it.

Part of the issue is that we’re faced with bureaucracy – we’ve got state bar associations and the ABA.  You’d think that maybe somebody like the ABA would take the lead on it, but that hasn’t happened.  Without naming names, there are a couple of bar associations where just getting a CLE course approved is like joining the Navy – there are ten page forms to fill out and certify.  Thankfully, not all states are like that.  I do a CLE 3 or 4 times a year for the Louisiana Bar on the basics of technology where we don’t even focus so much on eDiscovery as opposed to just helping them understand how a computer works – teaching them things like what a “bit” is, what a “byte” is, what’s a “temp file”, what is “slack space”, how data is actually stored on the computer.  We’re not trying to give them a PhD in Computer Science in this course, we’re just trying to teach them some basic concepts.  If you want to take on a medical malpractice case, you need to know the difference between an aorta and a fibula.  That’s the level we’re trying to teach – basic stuff.

In the meantime, we’re still encountering people who don’t understand things like why metadata is important and still get in fights over productions about that where they propose to give us just TIFF and text files and we say “no, you’re not”.  There was an appellate decision recently in Texas where Craig was the expert and the producing party claimed it was actually more expensive to produce native files.  What is your native file system, stone tablets?  How can you say that with a straight face?  Of course, if they already have the documents in a Relativity database, maybe they think it’s less expensive than producing native files, because they can simply perform an export.  But, the native files must still be there in the database, the client probably provided them to you and they can be produced.

Advanced Discovery just acquired Millnet, a London-based company.  We’ve been having meetings, trying to do the “vulcan mind-meld” and we were talking about this and they were laughing and I didn’t understand why.  They said that over in the UK, everybody produces native files.  I said “what about Bates numbers” and they started laughing again.  They said that nobody cares about Bates numbers over there.  Of course, it’s a different system over there, less adversarial, and loser pays, but it was like “wow, somebody understands the best way to do this”.  They were aghast to hear that it’s commonplace here.

What are you working on that you’d like our readers to know about?

It’s been literally a year now (since last year’s show) since I’ve been with Advanced Discovery.  I’m doing a lot of CLE, a lot of “lunch and learns” and a lot of client consulting – all about these various issues that you and I have been discussing.  The company has grown a great deal, so I’m jumping around like a “cat on a hot tin roof” (to use a New Orleans analogy) as we have offices from DC to all over California, just purchased a small service bureau in Pittsburgh and have a couple more on the horizon.  As one of my colleague said this morning, “Tom is in New York preaching the gospel of ESI”.  I also write a weekly blog for Advanced Discovery and put it up on my personal blog as well.  So, I’ve been doing a lot of education work.

Also, about once a month or so, Craig Ball and I amuse each other on the eDiscovery Channel on Youtube.  Craig has stepped in where Browning was.  We think we’re the funniest guys in eDiscovery.  Occasionally, we’ll get somebody else to sit down with us as well.

I miss Browning, especially when I come to a show like this.  He was just a genuinely nice guy.  He and I were opposites in so many ways.  Though we were both from the Boston area, he was what they call a “Boston Brahmin”, a “yankee”, a protestant and a partner at a huge firm. I’m South Shore, Irish and a blue-collar worker.  He was hard-core Republican and I’m a hard-core Democrat.  Despite all that, we got along famously.  I think much of that related to our sense of humor, but he also reminded me of the lawyers I knew when I was growing up that made me want to be a lawyer, where the profession was much more collegial.  He became Of Counsel for the firm and I asked him “don’t you miss having a clientele?” and he said “I miss going to court, I miss trials”.  But, he added, “the last ten years, the majority of my clients only wanted a ‘hammer’ – they wanted me to beat the crap out of the opposition, they weren’t concerned about getting a solution.”  Despite that, Browning never lost that collegiality.  I’ve never known anyone who had a bad word to say about him – he was universally liked and respected, even when he didn’t agree with you, he could disagree with you in a very respectful way.

Thanks, Tom, 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!

Disclaimer: The views represented herein are exclusively the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views held by CloudNine. eDiscovery Daily is made available by CloudNine solely for educational purposes to provide general information about general eDiscovery principles and not to provide specific legal advice applicable to any particular circumstance. eDiscovery Daily should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a lawyer you have retained and who has agreed to represent you.