Understanding Electronic Discovery: Its Not Just About Protecting Your Client
Reading a recent Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, I spotted an item in the Bar Discipline column that highlighted the dangers of not staying up to date with technology. A litigation attorney, let's call him Paul, failed to understand the rules governing electronic discovery, resulting in his client deleting electronic data and the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers issuing a public reprimand.
Paul represented a client accused of taking confidential information with him when he left his employer to work for a competitor. Allegedly, the client had transferred the information from his old laptop to a new one, used a computer software program to delete the stolen information from the old laptop, and then returned the old laptop to his former employer. In late 2006, his former employer sued him, and obtained a TRO requiring the client to return to his former employee any information that he had taken. Instead of complying with the order, the client instead deleted the files from the new laptop. About five months later, plaintiffs' counsel advised Paul that they planned to file a motion to obtain turnover of the new laptop, and that documents on the new laptop had to be preserved. Paul did not advise his client not to delete relevant files from the new laptop, and his client subsequently deleted some additional files - although without Paul's knowledge.
Then, the court ordered the new laptop be surrendered to the plaintiff's IT expert. Notified of this event, the client told Paul that the new laptop contained confidential information belonging to his new employer and unrelated to the lawsuit. Paul advised his client that these documents could be removed from the laptop before turning it over. When the laptop was turned over, and the deletions discovered, the Court held that the client had engaged in spoliation of evidence.
Reading the reprimand didn't give me the impression that Paul was acting in bad faith - instead he had failed to comprehend the nature of the information on the computer and the need to keep all of the information preserved once the litigation commenced. Used to a paper world, he failed to anticipate and guard against a client who was tempted to delete information, and failed to understand that deleting information from a computer can leave a gap - showing that information was removed but leaving wide open the question of what the removed data contained. By issuing proper warnings to his client, being alert to the possibility of non-relevant trade secrets residing on the laptop, and following appropriate protocols to avoid the release of trade-secrets stored on the laptop, Paul could have avoided the damage to his client.
In its reprimand, the BBO indicated that Paul's failures violated his duty to provide competent representation. In 2012, the American Bar Association adopted revisions to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct
, including this language added to the commentary for Rule 1.1:
To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology...
That's a simple change, but one attorneys should take to heart lest they, some day, end up like Paul. Massachusetts hasn't yet adopted the 2012 revision in its commentary to Rule 1.1, but the Massachusetts BBO clearly expects its attorneys to understand the new world of handling electronic evidence.