05 February 2010

Legal Risk: Early Case Assessment...

After a few days at LegalTech New York this week, it's now confirmed that a very small percentage of small to medium enterprises (SME) are truly ready for the Operational Risk of litigation. How can a General Counsel achieve a defensible standard of care in this vast sea of software, technology and vendors that are trying to address the modern day business problem called "Electronic Stored Information?" (ESI)

Yet the likes of Bank of America and the Attorney General of New York are well aware of the importance of the "Meet-and-Confer" process as the allegations of fraud look for the "Digital Smoking Gun". Let the metadata wars begin:

Legal action has begun against Bank of America and its former bosses, accusing them of duping investors and taxpayers during the takeover of Merrill Lynch.

The defendants are accused of intentionally withholding details of huge losses Merrill was suffering.

New York state officials have filed the action against the bank, former chief executive Kenneth Lewis and former chief financial officer Joseph Price.

Principle 12 to the Sedona Principles states: Absent party agreement or court order specifying the form or forms of production, production should be made in the form or forms in which the information is ordinarily maintained or in a reasonably usable form, taking into account the need to produce reasonably accessible metadata that will enable the receiving party to have the same ability to access, search, and display the information as the producing party where appropriate or necessary in light of the nature of the information and the needs of the case. Sedona Principles 2d Principle 12

The issues faced by legal counsel at large Fortune 50 organizations are no different with the Small to Medium Enterprise when it comes to the "Meet-and-Confer." Making the decisions on what is relevant and the scope of eDiscovery is increasingly about the economics of litigation. Law firms are trying to reduce their costs and impact of billable hours with their clients and General Counsels are making sure that internal IT records management tasks are a top priority.

What many vendors are advocating in process and tools at LegalTech is the idea of Early Case Assessment (ECA). In other words, the Plaintiff is going to have to show their hand early and without slight of hand. These interviews with the Hon. James Holderman explains:

Editor: Doesn't that pretty much move in the direction of requiring the plaintiff to provide specific facts about the basis for the complaint? How can the discoverable "ESI" to be preserved and produced be determined unless the plaintiff comes forward with the specific facts on which its case is based?

Holderman: It cannot be done, and that is why the plaintiff needs to cooperate by divulging that information at the outset. Hiding the ball is a concept from the last century that can't be a part of present-day litigation. This is reflected in the Supreme Court's decisions in Iqbal and Twombly . Discovery is expensive and let's get the information out early. What is the benefit of bare-bones pleadings when the expense of e-discovery is so great? If the plaintiff has information then let's see whether the plaintiff has a sufficient basis for going forward to withstand a motion for summary judgment.

Where is the information you seek? In more places than you may realize as the investigation, forensics collection and rules of evidence are engaged. The risk of sanctions is real. The analysis of custodians Blackberry e-mails, BBM's and just plain text messages will be overwhelming as the Attorney General builds the case for fraud. The US Treasury, Federal Reserve and other government agencies will also be producing Terabytes of data for inquiry.

Regardless of the General Counsel's approaches at Bank of America or Merrill, the key risk items that they should have been addressing long before this trial with outside counsel are some of the following topics, again from LegalTech:

  • Cloud-based email and records management provides a new approach for cost-effectively managing law firm content
  • Securely archive information assets and maintain compliance with all regulatory standards, including the FRCP
  • Meaning Based Computing to enable automatic categorization of ESI for the application of retention policies
  • Sophisticated retention policies that enable non-critical data to be purged appropriately
  • The ability to easily and transparently retrieve archived data, prepare the data for potential future legal holds or preservation, and to rapidly respond to a litigation and investigation pertaining to the firm
  • How has legal changed the way we think about back-up?
  • What does "inaccessible" mean in discovery?
  • How can you implement a reasonable, defensible information management strategy that reduces risk?
As a law firm you always have to look at the fine print. B of A's procedures with outside counsel are available for review online:

These Procedures shall constitute the written engagement, or contract, of the firm for any matter for which it is engaged on behalf of Bank of America, and shall govern the terms of the engagement. These Procedures are applicable to all law firms and attorneys providing legal services to Bank of America. Law firms retained by Bank of America should ensure that a copy of these Procedures is provided to all attorneys, paralegals, administrative, clerical or other assistants assigned to a particular matter before work begins on any matter.

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