My Analysis of Calbar Formal Opinion 2015-193: eDiscovery & ESI? “Don’t Be Stupid”

The last three words from this short Beverly Hills Cop video clip sum up my analysis of the opinion:

I wrote public comments to COPRAC (The State Bar of California Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct) re their interim versions of the opinion and, in a rare step, I’m posting a verbatim excerpt because my assessment of this opinion remains unchanged.  One modification – I bolded a quote, because the Committee adopted my definition verbatim in their opinion (page three, footnote six):

“I’m seeing a very common thread in COPRAC’s reasoning that afflicts those who understand technology at a more surface-level; the tendency to think of it in physical, rather than ethereal terms.  In other words, the Committee has focused on the word evidence, instead of the word electronic.  Take water, for example.  Whether it exists in a lake, a bathtub, or a glass, it’s still water.  It’s the same with evidence.  Whether it exists as writing on a tombstone, a paper document, or in electronic form (e.g. sitting on a flash drive), it’s still evidence.  It’s the medium that should distinguish it for your purposes.  That’s the contrast missing here.

Whereas the Committee has done a better job of defining parameters such as clawbacks and laying out accurate mistakes by our hapless attorney, once again, it descends into conduct that isn’t eDiscovery-based; but competence-based.  This opinion relies too much on unrelated reasoning, such as “assumes”, “relying on that assumption” and “under the impression”.  That’s not an eDiscovery problem; that’s a general competence problem.  It’s also not what the audience needs.  If they’re attorneys licensed in California, they’ve presumably passed both a Professional Responsibility course and the MPRE exam and know – or should know – their duty of competence.  It’s not as if an attorney retains a med-mal case, then immediately “assumes” or is “under the impression” that s/he’s a doctor and can read an x-ray.  But I could intertwine those facts with this opinion and make it about medical experts.  What attorneys specifically need to know is how their actions, or lack thereof, in the procurement, assessment and handling of electronic evidence morph into a violation.  This is a highly specialized area unto itself.  See my previous example.  The x-ray is electronic evidence.  Proper acquisition is one matter; analysis, forensic or otherwise, is quite another.  That doesn’t just include the adversary’s evidence.  It also includes the Client’s evidence.  In this scenario, one is seeking to exculpate the Client through all available means – not just via the adversary.

Contradictions also exist in Footnote Six on page three that states, “This opinion does not directly address ethical obligations relating to litigation holds.”.  I respectfully submit that the opinion goes on to do exactly that.  Perhaps this is due to the criteria set forth in Footnote Six being inaccurate as defined.  In a legal setting, Attorney is charged to know what the Client does not, and this may involve issuing litigation hold instructions to their own Client; not just third parties or adversaries.  If attorney was interacting with the CIO or CTO (The “Information”/”Technology” chiefs, perhaps s/he could reasonably reply on their assessments.  But here, attorney is interacting with the CEO who likely has no intimate knowledge of what goes on in the IT department.  It should read, “A litigation hold is a directive issued to, by or on behalf of a Client.”  Otherwise, how does the competent Attorney protect a Client who, in good-faith, endeavors to do the right thing or protect themselves when a Client, in bad-faith, engages in intentional spoliation?  One of those scenarios exists on page two, when the eDiscovery expert, “tells Attorney potentially responsive ESI has been routinely deleted from the Client’s computers as part of Client’s normal document retention policy”.

Understanding these nuances and acting on them is the very definition of competence as applied to an eDiscovery attorney – or an attorney who engages the services of a third-party eDiscovery vendor.  In this arena, eDiscovery is like a game of falling dominos; once competence tips over, the rest (acts/omissions, failing to supervise, and confidentiality) will logically follow.  As they say, timing is everything.”

Conclusion:  The opinion does a good job of explaining fundamentals of the eDiscovery process, but in my opinion, doesn’t go nearly far enough.

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