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Professionalism and eDiscovery: Going beyond ethical considerations

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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Professionalism and eDiscovery: Going beyond ethical considerations

During the last few years, there has been much discussion, and even some interesting debates, about ethical eDiscovery issues.  Much focus has been on the topics of duties to preserve records, duties to disclose records, and the state Rules of Professional Conduct.  But, I believe it is not sufficient to consider only the ethical issues involved.  We must also focus on the professionalism of eDiscovery.  Some of these professionalism issues are raised in discovery generally, but others are unique to eDiscovery.

I believe it nearly universally true that the most professional and ethical lawyers are usually the best lawyers.  They have either long ago abandoned, or never acquired a taste for, unprofessional conduct.  They have mastered their craft and find no use for unprofessional behavior.  The same could be said for business leaders; if they are not professional, others would rather do a business deal with someone else.

Attorney Civility Rules

Some states have developed civility rules that are guidelines only.  These rules are not intended to be enforced against lawyer conduct the way that the Rules of Professional Conduct are enforced.  However, these are excellent guidelines for ensuring that lawyers maintain professionalism in eDiscovery.

Included in New York’s Standards of Civility rules are standards are obligations to be “courteous and civil in all professional dealings with other persons.”  This includes a requirement that lawyers “should act in a civil manner regardless of the ill feelings that their clients may have toward others” and “[l]awyers can disagree without being disagreeable.”
The New York Standards of Civility also state that “[a] lawyer should not use any aspect of the litigation process, including discovery and motion practice, as a means of harassment or for the purpose of unnecessarily prolonging or increasing litigation expenses.”  ESI requests are particularly prone to abuse in this area as it can be used to harass and increase litigation expenses.

Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten
In Robert Fulghum’s popular essay about what he learned in kindergarten, he discussed a few basic principles that both lawyers and businesses should abide by.  Included among those are basic professional principles like “share everything,” “play fair,” “don’t hit people,” “clean up your own mess,” “don’t take things that aren’t yours,” “say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody,” and “live a balanced life.”  A healthy dose of these basic ideas would serve the lawyer well in eDiscovery practice.  Although the pressing matter may seem most important at the time, conduct will create a reputation, and an unprofessional reputation is difficult to lose once it is gained. You can play fair while vigorously representing your client.

What Professionalism Should Govern eDiscovery Practice?

In eDiscovery circles, there is much discussion taking place about “proportionality.”  Essentially, this is an issue of reasonableness.  I believe reasonableness is also an issue of professionalism.  Recall that the scope of discovery is what is “reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.” Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 26(b)(1).  By narrowly tailoring requests to what is reasonable will enhance eDiscovery professionalism. eDiscovery costs should never be used as a way to bludgeon the opposing party into submission.   If ESI the scope of a request can be narrowed without harming a client’s case, then it should be narrowed.  The New York Rules of Civility state that “[a] lawyer should avoid discovery that is not necessary to obtain facts or perpetuate testimony or that is designed to place an undue burden or expense on a party.”

While many crack jokes about the professionalism and ethics of lawyers, most lawyers I know take both ethics and professionalism very seriously.  I believe that the best lawyers are not only ethical but highly professional as well.  Some clients act professionally as well, while others may will push for unprofessional practices.  It is the lawyer’s job to reign in his or her client.  While a lawyer must zealously advocate for a client, no case or client is ever worth squandering one’s reputation.  Never allow a client to cause you to do something unethical or unprofessional.

Lawyers involved in eDiscovery should strive for not only meeting the basic Rules of Professional Conduct but also the Rules of Civility.  By doing so, we serve the judicial system, our colleagues and our clients with integrity.

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