Why learn legal tech?

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Annoy us old farts

With job prospects for many law school graduates and young lawyers still dismal, it makes sense that many might see the world of eDiscovery as a refuge. eDiscovery is indeed a bright shiny world, but it’s a bubble, and those of us inside the bubble tend to be the true believers (well, except for us heretics). True believers tend not to have a lot of patience for the uneducated, uninitiated, and unaware; you can spend a lot of time on the outside looking in, trying to make sense of what we say and write for each other on the inside—and still not have the slightest idea what we’re really talking about. Above the Law has been looking for somebody on the inside to show those on the outside the way in. That’s where I come in.

My name is Michael Simon. I’ve been in the eDiscovery industry – inside the bubble – for a long time. I started as a trial attorney back in Chicago in the 1990s. I took advantage of the first dot-com boom (talk about bubbles!) to leave the daily grind of law to join a start-up that created an automated legal research system. It was great . . . until the money ran out. I moved into eDiscovery because, well, that’s where the money was. It still is, and by most accounts still growing every year. Since then, I’ve worked with legal technology providers, litigation support service providers, and consulting companies – and with a friend founded our own small consulting firm about a year ago. Look for it here: www.seventhsamurai.com – our site explains the name, why we are “Ronin” (which would be so much more awesome if that Keanu film hadn’t sucked), and why we start every article with a haiku. Along with another friend of mine, I teach a class in eDiscovery at Boston University School of Law.

So let’s start this off with a story (surprise! An old-fogey lawyer who loves to tell stories!), one that will seem to have absolutely nothing to do with the bubble . . . and yet, it has everything to do with it.

Back when I was in law school in the early 1990s, before we had all laptops to type out our own papers (see our artist’s recreation of this, below), we had to use the law school computer lab do to our work. The lab was usually crowded, without enough computers, so those of us on law journal (yes, standards must have been lower in those days) often “borrowed” the law journal office computers instead. And not to get all Grumpy Old Man about it, but back then we didn’t have pretty WYSIWIG word processors like Microsoft Word. We had Word Perfect 5.1: a blue screen with low-res white type and a sincere hope that what would print would look something like what was on the screen and that it would be within the page limits the professor set.

If you were something of a computer nerd wanna-be like me, you could set Word Perfect to display a paragraph symbol “¶” where you had a hard return; that would give you a slightly better fighting chance to get the pages printed out correctly. And then one of the computer lab guys showed me something really cool: you could use some obscure codes to change the ¶ to pretty much anything – a box , a star  or, as I decided I liked best, a smiley face . So, being the “helpful” kind of guy that I am, I of course had to change all of the computers that I could access to display smiley faces instead of paragraph symbols.

There weren’t all that many computer nerds or even nerd wanna-bes in law school in those ancient times. My buddy Paul was one of the few others. Paul had even achieved uber-nerd status at the school as he liked to hang out in hacker chat rooms and tell us how his kung fu was the best. That explains why, the day after I had tried to cheer up folks with my WordPerfect “improvements,” he ambushed me between classes with “Simon! I could have totally busted you – you owe me, big time!” It turns out that one of the top journal editors had run into one of Paul’s classes in a near blind panic, in the middle of the class, and breathlessly apologized to the professor that it was an emergency because they needed Paul immediately: the law journal computers were all infected with a terrible virus—the “Smiley Face Virus!”

What’s the point of this, you might ask? It isn’t that the generation ahead of you, my generation, the one that is starting to run the firms and legal departments, doesn’t know a damn thing about computers. We’ve learned enough to be generally functional. But the point is that we had to learn. We didn’t just grow up with it, and it is always going to be somewhat new to us and somewhat outside of our nature. In our hearts, we will always be waiting for the next Smiley Face Virus to arise and once again bare its, ummm, smiling face. Of course, the generation ahead of us, the Baby Boomers who are really running the show and who will continue to do so until somebody pries that power out of their cold, dead hands, got through much of their lives, law school, the practice of law, without computers on their desks – that is why we still see this kind of stuff at “Legal Tech” show booths.

So this is what I tell my eDiscovery Law and Practice students (especially before the add/drop date) and young lawyers: you can go into any law firm and tell the partners all about your new-found amazing skills in litigation or contracts or tax or whatever. If the partner is feeling charitable, they might throw a terse “that’s nice” at you before herding you back to your real work of poring through redwelds of paper and reviewing discovery documents on the computer. Those partners have already done and know more than you will ever know about those areas of substantive law, at least until you hit their age.

On the other hand, telling those same partners that you know how to do something that didn’t really even exist until about 10 years ago and is still rapidly changing AND that secretly terrifies them . . . well, that’s something that makes you stand out and makes you potentially valuable.

Michael S. Simon is the Co-Founder of Seventh Samurai, an eDiscovery expert consulting firm. Michael is a former practicing trial attorney and he has provided strategic development plus marketing, sales and operational support for eDiscovery and Legal Technology market leaders for over 15 years. Michael is also an adjunct professor at Boston University School of Law, co-teaching a class on eDiscovery Law and Practice.


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