Say it with me: competence includes tech competence.
In most of my posts on the topic, the unstated message is that a lawyer who fails to satisfy the duty of competence violates Rule 1.1 and risks having a sanction imposed against his or her license.
Here’s my post on Competence, ESI, and E-Discovery. In it, I wrote that the duty of (tech) competence includes:
- knowing that “it” exists,
- knowing that clients, their adversaries, and witnesses have “it;” and,
- knowing how to protect, preserve, produce, request, review, and use “it.”
What is “it?” It is Electronically Stored Information (“ESI”).
In addition, I cited to an advisory opinion from the State Bar of California that includes the following quote:
- “Attorney competence related to litigation generally requires, among other things, and at a minimum, a basic understanding of, and facility with, issues relating to e-discovery, including the discovery of electronically stored information (“ESI”).”
Today, I blog to call your attention to other risks. Namely, the risk of having a court impose severe sanctions against you and your clients if you fail to preserve ESI.
Melinda Levitt and Peter Vogel are partners at Foley & Lardner. Yesterday, The National Law Review posted their article Bad Preservation in eDiscovery is Still Very Costly!
Give it read.
The article begins by reporting that there is both “good news” and “bad news” when it comes to discovery sanctions for failures to preserve ESI.
The good news is that relative recent amendments to the civil rules reserve the most severe sanctions for situations in which the failure to preserve resulted from an “intent to deprive.” As the authors note, “the ‘bad news’ is that bad preservation behavior continues.”
Next, the authors point out that:
- “[i]t has been twelve years now since the federal rules were first amended and explicitly came to recognize ‘ESI’ – that is emails, electronic documents, excel spreadsheets, PowerPoints, and a myriad of other electronic materials – as documents” within the meaning of the discovery rules.”
They also point out that, over those 12 years, all of us have become increasingly reliant on technology, without necessarily developing any clue how it works.
- ” . . . there are some basic things that people at least in the business community should have come to understand over the last 12 years. Among them are if litigation is occurring or is about to occur, a company is obligated to take reasonable steps to ensure that its relevant (or potentially relevant) ESI is preserved. That means getting out the word quickly – whether by way of a formal written litigation hold or otherwise – that employees and electronic systems managers/overseers need to take steps to stop either conscious or system-wide deletions or purges of potentially relevant ESI. By now, business owners, their IT employees, and their in-house and outside counsel really should have no doubt about this obligation and how to accomplish it. Granted, meeting this obligation can get dicey and difficult when it comes to things such as employee text messages, social media postings, telephone messages, and structured data. However, in terms of emails and basic electronic documents – the mainstays of business life – there should be no question or hesitation about what needs to be done.
Then, the meat of their message:
- “And yet . . . and yet, very recent decisions demonstrate that executives, managers and yes, even lawyers, either remain willfully ignorant of how these business systems work or are determined to pass the buck, having assumed that some mysterious “someone else” in the company was handling things. Well, while courts no longer can impose the most draconian of sanctions, no one should kid him or herself – judges continue to have very potent sanctions options available and are very willing to use them when confronted with preservation misconduct borne of ignorance, indifference or good old-fashioned boneheadness. The following are a few telling examples – and were issued in just the last few weeks – and each leaves us with the question – what were they thinking?”
From there, the article goes on to recount several cases in which significant discovery sanctions were imposed against lawyers and their clients as a result of failures to preserve ESI. Some might strike a nerve. If so, there’s still time to sign up for tomorrow’s first-ever VBA Tech Show.
Tech competence. The lack thereof impacts much more than a lawyer’s license.