Skills, Savvy & Something More: The New eDiscovery Project Manager

If you know hard drives, tape back-up systems and electronic data exchange protocols from A to Z, you won't necessarily make a good electronic data discovery project manager. If you're a legal professional, intimately familiar with the laws and regulations governing a specific issue in a specific jurisdiction, you may not make a good EDD manager, either. If you're a 20-year veteran of corporate or law firm management and administration, you can fall flat on your face trying to manage an electronic discovery monstrosity. If you consider yourself a budgeting expert, good for you-but don't consider yourself a shoo-in for this job.

If you're all of the above, you still might not make it as an EDD project manager. In today's multimillion-dollar, multimillion-document lawsuits and regulatory inquiries, the ideal PMs are a new, absolutely unique breed.

Technician? Paralegal? Genie in a Bottle?

Electronic discovery vendors rely on talented project managers to steer the e-discovery task from start to finish. Simultaneously, this professional functions as the primary liaison between the vendor and client. Similarly, in-house support departments rely on these individuals to ensure attorney expectations are met throughout an e-discovery project. Traditionally, the role was mainly one of communication. The project manager would keep the client/attorney abreast of progress during discovery operations, reporting on work that had been accomplished, work remaining and estimated timetables for completion.

The tremendous growth in electronically stored information (ESI) has complicated the discovery process. One result is a more complex relationship between the project manager and client. Progress reports still are part of the job -- but they're now the easy part. In a real sense, today's project manager, whether an outside service provider or an in-house support resource, truly partners with the client. The manager must understand the client's underlying needs and establish a common vocabulary with the client's project lead. At times, the client is served best if the vendor can redeploy its operational resources in mid-project. The PM must know how to make that happen.

E-discovery service providers initially assumed technical expertise was the most important trait in EDD management, because the work entails many different types of electronic documents. They deal with multiple back-up formats, tapes, hard drives, CDs and computer forensic images. A tremendous amount of technical understanding is necessary to be able to comprehend all this and communicate with the client. Previous task management experience and legal expertise were secondary criteria.

That formula wasn't always successful. While technical people may be brilliant, they may not be good at communicating, understanding emergencies and facilitating solutions.

More recently, vendors have shown a primary interest in project management candidates from the legal realm. These may be paralegals who worked for large companies, dealing with numerous projects that involved communication with attorneys and clients, or litigation support project managers from large law firms. They are used to working within the legal community -- which functions very differently from other work environments. The time frames, the turnarounds, the expectations are unique. Scheduled phone calls at 9 a.m. on Saturdays are not uncommon for law firm associates and partners. The lawyers expect the same from their litigation support personnel and, in turn, from their EDD vendors.

It's tough for an outsider to understand that environment. New PMs from technical backgrounds, although warned to expect unusual stress and strange requests from client firms, may be in for a shock. If they throw in the towel in mid-project, it puts everyone else in a bind.

Project managers from legal backgrounds, on the other hand, come aboard because they're eager to do the work, fully understanding the special requirements. They want to expand their knowledge and influence, typically having reached the ceiling in their previous positions. Paralegals usually have been with a company for a decade or longer, doing the same things, filing the same forms, year after year after year. Project management is enticing to them because they get exposed to a lot more tasks. They'll deal with wide-ranging cases, from intellectual property issues to financial situations, involving different people in various industries.

As for special technical skills, they can learn what they need to know on the job. They learn by seeing it done over and over again. Vendors have technical experts on staff who deal with different media and details from day to day, so they don't need to look for technologists with computer science degrees when hiring project managers. If new hires have the aptitude to learn and absorb that type of information quickly, they'll step out.

Think Fast!

E-discovery teams often have to switch gears on the fly. Let's say, for instance, the service vendor's client is a law firm, the law firm's client is a company, and the company is sending its back-up tapes to the vendor. The law firm tells the vendor in advance, "You're going to be getting 10 of this type of tape in this format, and we want user files off of file servers." What actually show up are 50 tapes in a different format, and almost all of them are e-mails from an e-mail server, requiring a different process. The project manager must be able to communicate with the law firm and the company, decide on a new course of action and reallocate the project accordingly.

In that type of scenario, one troublesome complication often arises: Prices change for different things. This means the project manager has to be part salesperson. It's tough to up-sell in mid-project, when the client is thinking in terms of pre-established costs. Ultimately, therefore, sales savvy also is important in EDD project management. New project managers normally don't have that when they join a service company, but they acquire it; vendors in the service industry are driven by sales.

Practically all PM applicants who have legal experience already possess communication skills. They've learned to be a paralegal or litigation support professional by learning how to communicate quickly, clearly, concisely and calmly. They certainly need that skill in electronic discovery. The vendor may have twenty ongoing projects, most of which are updated on a daily basis. Project managers can't spend half an hour composing one e-mail. They have to know where the information is, grab it and click the send icon.

Stress comes not only from sudden surprises and time pressure, but also from the fact that the project manager must communicate effectively with three different groups. You're communicating with clients, providing updates and letting them know their project status. You're communicating with your own salespeople, who want to get the job done and billed in order to get paid. And you're dealing with the production staff who are processing and producing the data. There are challenges in communicating with all three groups. Salespeople sometimes grow very impatient. People in the production group are focused on processing the tapes, and they don't always have an appreciation for a client's expectations and sense of urgency. Most clients are easy to work with (as long as they get the updates they want on a regular basis), but occasionally a client will deliver thirty tapes to the vendor on Tuesday and want it processed by Wednesday.

New Complexities

Over the past few years, e-discovery project managers have had to work out increasingly specific issues with clients. They're doing the same basic things as before, but the new FRCP requirements, the amount of detail and questions to be resolved, and the number of possible variables have increased tenfold. Electronic data can be saved in many different formats. What types of tapes are involved? What types of back-ups? Is it a Unix environment? Linux?

E-mail poses its own set of complications. Consider how many more e-mails you write than paper memos, how much easier it is to type an e-mail and hit send than to draft a written memo, sign at the bottom, then create a distribution list. It's infinitely easier with e-mail, so there are infinitely more electronic documents out there now -- and they're not all stored in a standard format.

An especially critical concern for the project manager, in adjusting to ESI volume growth, is properly maintaining the chain of custody -- the documentation of what's coming in and what's going out. Most vendors use some type of job management system to track production information from receipt to return delivery. All of the electronic media that come into the facility -- thousands upon thousands of tapes -- are logged in, and a chain of custody is created. The vendor can track every item of media all the way through the process.

In EDD, a job may go through a dozen different steps. One task of the project manager is to receive and review an update when each step is completed.

Much in Demand

High-caliber management is the linchpin in an EDD project. It connects the client data, technology architecture and legal presentation. The successful project manager in electronic discovery today is, by necessity, an amazing individual: part manager, part paralegal, part litigator, part technical expert, part salesperson and part problem fixer.

The project manager must be able to establish for the client transparency and trust in the process, from inception to completion. The possession of top-level communication skill goes without saying. So does the ability to handle stress. It isn't a profession for everybody. But those who can bring this diverse skill package to bear on a major EDD project are in great demand, and they find their work personally rewarding.

Courtesy of Brett Tarr, Esq.