In this special collaboration between Write.law and Thine, we explore the relationships between legal professionals and technology. Each piece will share a story about a professional and their tech. Our goal is to shine a light on how real folks rely on technology every day in the legal industry—and where they think we are heading next.
by Joe Regalia, Write.law
Robert Keeling’s resume is all you would expect from a top litigator at a leading law firm—University of Virginia Law School, federal clerkship, and an impressive client list. Then you keep scrolling and realize that this is not your everyday Biglaw partner. Among his long list of publications are technical papers on machine learning, predictive coding, and “algorithmic approaches to discovery,” to name a few.
Robert never set out to become one of the most well-known eDiscovery leaders in the nation. A preeminent litigator and partner at Sidley Austin LLP, Robert says he “fell into” his practice area. He thought he was going to be an appellate and regulatory lawyer. But a data-heavy case early in his career, coupled with his fascination for things that don’t sound very lawyer-like—machine learning, structured data, and complex eDiscovery challenges—put him on a different path. And we are lucky for it, because he has a trove of insights to share with us.
Robert started his career, like most lawyers, imagining that he would spend it penning briefs and motions. And he did plenty of that. But one of his first cases involved a large backup-tape restoration project. He was then known as the “guy who worked on that big data case.” So he was staffed on more cases with data challenges. And eventually, he realized that eDiscovery was a great place to practice.
“It’s a little like a puzzle. There’s lots of data, most of it isn’t responsive. Some of it is. And I had to figure out which was which. Then there were layers of challenges, some technical, some practical. For example, efficiency is always important. Figuring out how to do more and spend less of the client’s money. I realized I enjoyed this stuff.”
He was entering the e-discovery field at the right time. Robert recalls how one of his first clients stored emails by printing them out and filing them in Bankers Boxes. Yet within a few years after starting at the firm, managing data was becoming one of the hottest practice areas. Companies were collecting more data, in different ways, and legal disputes over data were becoming commonplace.
Managing data as a lawyer is “partly legal, partly logistics, partly technology, and a lot of creativity,” he says. “The field changes so rapidly, and so you are always facing new challenges.” As time went on, Robert found that he was good at solving these problems.
That’s good, because these days, the challenges are coming faster than ever before.
“Structured data and machine learning are becoming more important. And technology keeps changing.” For example, “your experience with predictive coding five years ago may still be informative, but the technology has changed a lot in just that short time.”
All this change and challenge doesn’t scare Robert. The creativity and problem solving that eDiscovery practice require are part of what has kept him fascinated with his job. That and his clients. Clients bring Robert and his team their most complicated disputes involving data. And there’s often not one tool or approach that can solve them. That’s why Robert says an essential requirement for new lawyers in e-discovery is not particular technical skills or a special degree—it’s “curiosity.”
“I had a statistics background, which helped some when I entered this field. But nothing like that is needed. The single most helpful trait is being willing to learn, to experiment, and to come at problems from different directions.”
So where does this data maverick think we are going next?
“We are seeing the emergence of modern discovery. It used to be that eDiscovery and discovery were separate concepts, but not anymore. eDiscovery is a given now. In most cases, we are dealing with massive volumes of data. A simple discovery request can bring in millions of documents.”
Instead, he says, “we are focusing on new problems, like dealing with the huge variety of data companies generate these days. Emails and shared drives are the easy things. People aren’t writing interoffice memos anymore. Our clients are mired in personal communications in different formats and on different platforms, like Slack. You have to adapt every day.”
Robert’s journey offers vital wisdom for us all, but especially young lawyers.
- Don’t ignore the value of being staffed on bigger matters. “Big cases can equip lawyers with skills and experiences they can’t get on smaller cases.” Like dealing with the logistics of operating on a large team, developing more flexible problem-solving skills, technology fluency, and management techniques.
- Seek out new training opportunities whenever you can. For example, Robert has a six sigma expert on his team, and those different skills add a lot of value.
- Skills you might not learn in law school, like technology, project management, and logistics, are in high demand. Many lawyers are still skeptical about new technologies, and that creates opportunities for those willing to pick up the skills. Technology challenges “are not going anywhere. They are only becoming more relevant.”
- Don’t assume that because you are good with technology that means you won’t need to learn new skills to handle challenges like eDiscovery. “Newer attorneys don’t always take the time to learn the best way to do things. For example, in e-discovery, they may not learn about principles like de-duping, sorting by thread, and so on.”
- Planning and strategy are just as important to eDiscovery as they are to other types of lawyering. “Planning and process are critical.”
- Take advantage of the e-discovery and legal tech communities. “It’s a unique community. There are academics, technologists, vendors, practitioners, judges, and government regulators.”
About Robert Keeling
Robert Keeling is a partner at Sidley whose practice includes a special focus on electronic discovery matters. Robert is co-chair of Sidley’s eDiscovery and Data Analytics Group. He represents companies across a range of industries in civil litigation and government investigations that contain complex eDiscovery issues. Robert is a published author and frequent speaker on topics relating to eDiscovery, information governance, machine learning, and attorney-client privilege. Robert can be reached here.
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