The "Zubulake" of Legal Holds

The Judge of Zubulake fame (various decisions in 2004 and 2005 which became the handbook on e-discovery obligations and the precursor to the amended Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in December 2006), has written a lengthy opinion outlining the obligations of parties to issue a properly worded, written legal hold to employees who might be relevant to an anticipated litigation.

In late 2003, plaintiffs’ counsel was retained for a lawsuit, which was filed in February 2004. The case was stayed for a number of years and finally a document production was made in 2007. This was found to be deficient and having gaps in what should have been produced.

While the Judge did not grant defendants’ motion to dismiss the case, she did grant an adverse jury instruction, stating that plaintiffs were grossly negligent and that relevant ESI had been destroyed, which the jury may presume was favorable to the defendants. She also imposed monetary sanctions of reasonable costs, including attorneys fees for dealing with the declarations, added depositions and this motion.

So what was the evil done by plaintiffs in their preservation efforts?

Plaintiffs’ counsel telephoned, e-mailed and distributed a memorandum instructing the relevant employees to be over, rather than under, inclusive, and noted that emails and electronic documents should be included. Counsel indicated that the documents were necessary to draft the complaint, although they did not expressly direct that the search be limited to those documents.

So how was the legal hold deficient?

  1. It did not specifically direct employees to preserve (and not destroy) relevant documents
  2. It did not create a mechanism for collecting the documents
  3. It placed total reliance on the employee to search and select what the employee believed to be relevant records

Problems were discovered when the defendants noticed gaps in the plaintiffs’ production. Follow up questions revealed some specific problems:

  1. Some plaintiffs destroyed backup tapes in 2004 after their duty to preserve arose
  2. Declarations on collection efforts were at best vague, lacked detail or at worst were an attempt to mislead
  3. Counsel failed to properly monitor/supervise the employee preservation and collection efforts. They could not identify which files were searched, how the search was conducted, who was asked to search or what they were told

A helpful reminder: The duties to preserve documents when litigation is anticipated are clear and they include a well-written instruction plan for preservation and collection and the guidance and supervision of counsel.

What Are Your (Legal- and Business-Related) New Year's Resolutions?

OK, this is just a different (some might say lame) way of asking what your goals are in 2010… but ‘tis the season, eh?

There’s never been more at stake in the legal profession than there is now. There’s a palpable sense of change in the air… especially concerning the new legal model of law firms and the impact it will have on the way law is practiced and billed. But I’m not one to wait around for that to truly happen, so why not start moving forward? Here are just a few of the things attorneys have to tackle in 2010:

True cost containment of legal expenses … If you’re one of the thousands of in-house managers who has taken the reigns of your budget, designed new processes, brought more work in-house, cultivated new outside counsel relationships, and engaged alternative legal services providers… well, here’s hoping that you get more sleep in 2010, because you’ve likely been busier than ever. Those who’ve undertaken the commitment to cost containment should be applauded and hopefully the work they’ve done will make life easier down the road. This process will continue to evolve for these good people, and thousands more will start down this path anew in 2010. The point: This is the new way of life for corporate legal departments.
 

Alternative Fee Arrangements … Many of you have spent the last few months working on new billing structures with outside counsel, and many are still in the process. There are scores of conflicting reports about these arrangements, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out. My guess is that we’ll hear plenty about the arrangements that work – after all, law firms have wonderful PR people – and we won’t hear much about the efforts that fail. But here’s the key: AFAs must be mutually beneficial, or they simply won’t work long-term. A certain amount of risk-sharing must take place and there must be value. I think AFAs have the ability to change the age-old approach utilized within law firms – and who handles what -- but a lot of the AFAs in use might really just be window dressing.

The Document/ESI Retention Policy… Interest in the design of document retention policies (or ESI Management Policies, as Barry likes to say) exploded in 2009. There’s just so much data now that companies are overwhelmed, and everyone is leery of 1) the smoking gun e-mail that’s been sitting in someone’s inbox for six years and 2) getting exposed for not implementing a solid policy. There is an obvious marriage between these two fears that in-house lawyers must officiate, and there’s no sign this responsibility will ebb in 2010. The key is in the implementation, and as our wise scribe Barry likes to say: “If you’re not enforcing your ESI policy, you have no ESI policy.”

Consistency, Process Across the EDRM… Everyone is dealing with e-discovery at some level, and many companies already have created some sort of approach to the actual review of documents when litigation hits. At the same time, most have spent their time and resources trying to figure out the document retention policy first before fully diving into project management, software and the attorney review. But this is where real dollars are saved and the spotlight will continue to shine on the processing, review and production of documents and creating a cohesive model encompassing all phases of the discovery process.

Convenience Versus Cost … Ah, the age-old question! Traditionally, when an in-house department has overflow work, it’s sent to outside counsel. Litigation, due diligence, employment work and other heavy lifting might also be completely turned over to the law firm simply because a department doesn’t have the resources. This approach is being evaluated, to say the least. But it doesn’t end there; many in-house departments now seek unit pricing that blends services (software + attorneys) for e-discovery matters because it makes budgeting easier and there is (or should be) some risk-sharing with the partner. The key for those who must closely monitor their legal spend is to understand that some providers don’t exactly assume any risk in this scenario because of the excessive padding they’ve built into their per-unit price. A general rule of thumb: if you can’t buy a super-value meal for the price you’re paying per-document, you’re paying too much.

Of course there are myriad other issues that in-house managers must create goals around in 2010, and we look forward to discussing many of those in the coming months. In the meantime, I hope you have a wonderful and prosperous 2010.

The Document Retention Policy: A Tough One

As part of its ongoing series of discovery savings throughout the discovery process, Clearwell’s e-discovery 2.0 blog has a post up about document retention policies. This issue was a very hot topic at Counsel On Call’s Discovery Symposium 1.0 in May and panelists on our “Retention and Holds” session said it is one of the most pressing issues facing litigation managers today.

Attendees at DS1.0 cited several very specific examples of why they have a difficult time implementing company-wide document retention policies, including:

  1. Different departments within the company are required to hold onto different documents for different periods of time. While a corporate employee at headquarters can likely delete e-mails at any time, an engineer in a field office may need to retain documents for reference purposes, often for years.
     
  2. Some departments/employees do not have computers, so they have everything in hard copy form. The cost of reviewing these documents would be a considerable expense, and the company cannot simply dispose of the documents without reviewing them.
     
  3. How do you decide what to keep and appropriately define it so that everyone is on the same page? Try defining “necessary business records.” The scope of this phrase is often difficult to get one’s arms around and can be very arbitrary.
     
  4. The goal is to make the document retention process both “defensible and practical,” but questions linger about how to balance the scales between these two goals.

These challenges are independent of a company’s size; we heard the same issues discussed by both small and large companies. There were several companies that had implemented successful procedures, and a common theme was that their respective IT departments were running point on the process with support from legal and security.

Some of the solutions to these challenges – along with policies for litigation holds -- were discussed at length during DS1.0, summaries of which can be found here. We’re also looking forward to updates on the implementation of successful protocols from attendees during future discussions and at Discovery Symposium 2.0, and we’ll post updates as they become available.