Teleconferencing Tips: Are You Ready for your Closeup?

  • “Is Bob on the call? Will someone PLEASE e-mail Bob?
  • “Everyone, everyone, PLEASE mute your #$%^& line!”
  • “THERE’S there’s, AN an, ECHO, Echo, echo, ech….”
  • “How do we share our screen again? Wait I see it. No, that’s not it.”

It’s 2020; one year AFTER the events of the film Blade Runner. Still no flying cars. No androids. And apparently no lawyers capable of carrying off a flawless video conference.

COVID-19 is pushing everyone to videoconferencing. I’ve long used it to webcast and teach law classes, so thought I’d share a few tips to exorcise the gremlins.

SOUND: While the microphone on your laptop may suffice, a quality microphone makes a big difference in sound quality, especially amidst ambient noise. My buddy Ernie “the Attorney” Svenson has a quality microphone and scissors-arm stand in his office/studio. It’s great, and you could probably rig up something similar for under a hundred dollars. For my money, I adore my $50 Blue Snowball microphone and stand. Great pickup and timbre. It plugs into any USB port (no fumbling for a mike jack) and just works every time. Bulletproof.

LIGHTING: There’s a reason cinematographers spend so much time fussing over lighting. It’s important because much of what we “say” in teleconferences is conveyed by facial expression and small gestures. Overhead lighting casts ghoulish shadows. The shadows caused by back lighting (e.g., a window behind you) make everyone look like they’re in witness protection. Your face needs to be brightly and evenly lit, best accomplished by diffused and/or reflected light.

I’ve struggled to rig up suitable webcast lighting. I even had studio lights on tripods flanking my desk and a big overhead hair light on a boom balanced by a sandbag. Not quite law office. Not quite sound stage. All quite hideous.

I found a better way. My desk faces a white wall, so my compromise solution was to position a single $39 softbox studio light behind my center monitor and bounce the light off the wall and ceiling. I only turn it on for conferences, but it would be great for those struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Videoconferencing is the new normal so invest in purpose-built lighting. There are loads of low-cost options designed for the task, from LED light rings to studio setups worthy of Steven Spielberg.

CAMERA: If you’re going to be working from a desktop machine, get a decent camera. You needn’t spend a fortune. I’m currently content with the Logitech C922 USB webcam. It has 1080p resolution and is sturdy and stable perched atop my monitor. I can adjust it easily, and it’s built-in microphone is a solid backup for my (never fail) Blue Snowball.

SCREENS: I use and love Zoom as my teleconferencing platform. In conjunction with PowerPoint, I regularly hold classes on Zoom ranging from 90 minutes to three hours. Zoom offers loads of features and flexibility, but it also dumps three windows across my screens. Alongside PowerPoint, an active presentation window, plus chat and question boxes, I’m frequently shifting and sizing six or more windows in search of an optimum layout. So, if you’ve not yet embraced the convenience of multiple monitors, make the coronavirus your excuse to upgrade. I position whatever content my students see via screen share to be as closely aligned below the camera as possible. That way, I can face the camera and not appear to be looking sideways.

BACKGROUND: I’ve tried professional draping and chromakey backgrounds. They just got in the way, and they were a pain to put up, take down and stow. In the end, I just cleaned up the room and assembled a wall of New Orleans art, photos and mementos behind me. My advice is minimize distractions.

You Don’t Want to Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans this May 7-8

My bosom buddy and lifestyle mentor, Ernie “the Attorney” Svenson, has spent much of his career trying to share the smart stuff he’s learned with other lawyers. The last few years, aided by his wonderful wife, Donna, he’s focused on lawyer marketing and systematized practice efficiency. Ernie has a large cadre of avid followers who periodically convene at the feet of the master to learn the Tao of perfected practice and taste the sweetness of New Orleans. It’s always a great group and this May, the conclave will be bigger than any before. Ever dedicated to labor saving, Ernie drafted copy to help me invite you to join our merry band. It’s not my voice, but it’s an excellent voice; so, I share it here verbatim:

I want to let you know about a special conference for solo and small firm lawyers (which I’m speaking at)…
It’s a two-day conference for lawyers who want to make big improvements in their practices, specifically…

—More streamlined workflows

—Less email overload

—More document automation

—Less paper and less disorganization

—More clients (good ones, not just anything that walks in the door)

—More profit & more steady cashflow

—Less overhead & fewer worries

—More clarity about exactly how to simplify, automate and outsource the complex workload in a busy small firm practice.

Folks who register will get immediate access to online training so they can start making those improvements right away. And the conference organizer (my good friend Ernie Svenson) is also doing free weekly webinars leading up to the event.
The full price of the conference, with all the bonuses, is $1,295 but the special pricing is still in effect and so if you go to the website you can register for only $850.
Ernie gave the speakers a limited number of “speakers discounttickets and so I wanted to give you the opportunity to use one that I was given.
It will give you an additional $200 off the $850 discount. Go check out all the details here.
In other words, you can register with this link for $649
And use this discount code when you decide to register so you get that extra discount. But don’t procrastinate in using the special speakers’ discount.
There is only a limited number of these speakers’ discounts and they are available on a first-come-first-served basis.
So check it out and see if it’s something you can do, and will find helpful to your practice.
Best, Craig

P.S. here’s a detailed agenda of topics and times.

So, (the real me, again) what’s the worst that could happen here? You come, meet some great people, listen to good music, dance in the streets behind a second line brass band, eat delicious food, maybe laugh and drink a wee bit more than your norm? Too, you’re sure to leave with some splendid ideas for your law practice and broaden your network of like-minded solo and small firm practitioners.

We don’t call New Orleans “The City That Care Forgot” and “The Big Easy” for nothing. If you can’t have a wonderful time in NOLA, you can’t have one anywhere. Pair that with some practical strategies to improve the efficiency and profitability of your practice., along with a hefty 50% discount. Now, how can you NOT come? Trust me, you don’t want to know what it means to miss Ernie and Donna’s New Orleans, May 7-8.

Degradation: How TIFF+ Disrupts Search

broken searchRecently, I wrote on the monstrous cost of TIFF+ productions compared to the same data produced as native files.  I’ve wasted years trying to expose the loss of utility and completeness caused by converting evidence to static formats.  I should have recognized that no one cares about quality in e-discovery; they only care about cost.  But I cannot let go of quality because one thing the Federal Rules make clear is that producing parties are not permitted to employ forms of production that significantly impair the searchability of electronically stored information (ESI).

In the “ordinary course of business,” none but litigators “ordinarily maintain” TIFF images as substitutes for native evidence   When requesting parties seek production in native forms, responding parties counter with costly static image formats by claiming they are “reasonably usable” alternatives.  However, the drafters of the 2006 Rules amendments were explicit in their prohibition:

[T]he option to produce in a reasonably usable form does not mean that a responding party is free to convert electronically stored information from the form in which it is ordinarily maintained to a different form that makes it more difficult or burdensome for the requesting party to use the information efficiently in the litigation. If the responding party ordinarily maintains the information it is producing in a way that makes it searchable by electronic means, the information should not be produced in a form that removes or significantly degrades this feature.

 FRCP Rule 34, Committee Notes on Rules – 2006 Amendment.

I contend that substituting a form that costs many times more to load and host counts as making the production more difficult and burdensome to use.  But what is little realized or acknowledged is the havoc that so-called TIFF+ productions wreck on searchability, too.  It boggles the mind, but when I share what I’m about to relate below to opposing counsel, they immediately retort, “that’s not true.”  They deny the reality without checking its truth, without caring whether what they assert has a basis in fact.  And I’m talking about lawyers claiming deep expertise in e-discovery.  It’s disheartening, to say the least.

A little background: We all know that ESI is inherently electronically searchable.  There are quibbles to that statement but please take it at face value for now.  When parties convert evidence in native forms to static image forms like TIFF, the process strips away all electronic searchability.  A monochrome screenshot replaces the source evidence.  Since the Rules say you can’t remove or significantly degrade searchability, the responding party must act to restore a measure of searchability.  They do this by extracting text from the native ESI and delivering it in a “load file” accompanying the page images.  This is part of the “plus” when people speak of TIFF+ productions.

E-discovery vendors then seek to pair the page images with the extracted text in a manner that allows some text searchability.  Vendors index the extracted text to speed search, a mapping process intended to display the page where the text was located when mapped.  This is important because where the text appears in the load file dictates what page will be displayed when the text is searched and determines whether features like proximity search and even predictive coding work as well as we have a right to expect.  Upshot: The location and juxtaposition of extracted text in the load file matters significantly in terms of accurate searchability.  If you don’t accept that, you can stop reading.

Now, let’s consider the structure of modern electronic evidence.  We could talk about formulae in spreadsheets or speaker notes in presentations, but those are not what we fight over when it comes to forms of production. Instead,  I want to focus on Microsoft Word documents and those components of Word documents called Comments and Tracked Changes; particularly Comments because these aren’t “metadata” by any stretch.  Comments are user-contributed content, typically communications between collaborators.  Users see this content on demand and it’s highly contextual and positional because it is nearly always a comment on adjacent body text.  It’s NOT the body text, and it’s not much use when it’s separated from the body text.  Accordingly, Word displays comments as marginalia, giving it the power of place but not enmeshing it with the body text.

But what happens to these contextual comments when you extract the text of a Word document to a load file and then index the load files?

There are three ways I’ve seen vendors handle comments and all three significantly degrade searchability:

First, they suppress comments altogether and do not capture the text in the load files.  This is content deletion.  It’s like the content was never there and you can’t find the text using any method of electronic search.  Responding parties don’t disclose this deletion nor is it grounded on any claim of privilege or right.  Spoliation is just S.O.P.

Second, they merge the comments into the adjacent body text. This has the advantage of putting the text more-or-less on the same page where it appears in the source, but it also serves to frustrate proximity search and analytics.  The injection of the comment text between a word combination or phrase causes searches for that word combo or phrase to fail.  For example, if your search was for ignition w/3 switch and a four-word comment comes between “ignition” and “switch,” the search fails.

Third, and frequently, vendors aggregate comments and dump them at the end of the load file with no clue as to the page or text they reference.  No links.  No pointers.  Every search hitting on comment text takes you to the wrong page, devoid of context.

Some of what I describe are challenges inherent to dealing with three-dimensional data using two-dimensional tools.  Native applications deal with Comments, speaker notes and formulae three-dimensionally.  We can reveal that data as needed, and it appears in exactly the way witnesses use it outside of litigation.  But flattening native forms to static images and load files destroys that multidimensional capability.   Vendors do what they can to add back functionality; but we should not pretend the results are anything more than a pale shadow of what’s possible when native forms are produced.  I’d call it a tradeoff, but that implies requesting parties know what’s being denied them.  How can requesting party’s counsel know what’s happening when responding parties’ counsel haven’t a clue what their tools do, yet misrepresent the result?

But now you know.  Check it out.  Look at the extracted text files produced to accompany documents with comments and tracked changes.  Ask questions.  Push back.  And if you’re producing party’s counsel, fess up to the evidence vandalism you do.  Defend it if you must but stop denying it.  You’re better than that.

Don’t Let Plaintiffs’ Lawyers Read This!!

Be honest.  Wouldn’t you love to stick it to the plaintiffs?  Wouldn’t your corporate client or carrier be ecstatic if you could make litigation much more expensive for those greedy opportunists bringing frivolous suits and demanding discovery?  What if you could make discovery not just more costly, but make it, say, five times more costly, ten times more costly, than it is for you?  Really bring the pain.  Would you do it?

Now that I have your attention–and the attention of plaintiffs’ counsel wondering if they’ve stumbled into a closed meeting at a corporate counsel retreat—I want to show you this is real.  Not just because I say so, but because you prove it to yourself.  You do the math.

Math!  You didn’t say there would be math!

Stop.  You know you’re good at math when the numbers come with dollar signs.  Legendary Texas trial lawyer W. James Kronzer used to say to me, “I’m no good at math, Herman; but I can divide any number by three.”  That was back when a third was the customary contingent fee.

Even after you do the math, you’re not going to believe it; instead, you’ll conclude it can’t be true.  Surely nothing so unjust could have escaped my notice.  Why would Courts allow this?  How can I be such a sap?

The real question is this: What am I going to do about it? Continue reading

Preserving Social Media Content: DIY

Social Media Content (SMC) is a rich source of evidence.  Photos and posts shed light on claims of disability and damages, establish malicious intent and support challenges to parental fitness–to say nothing of criminals who post selfies at crime scenes or holding stolen goods, drugs and weapons.  SMC may expose propensity to violence, hate speech, racial animus, misogyny or mental instability (even at the highest levels of government).  SMC is increasingly a medium for business messaging and the primary channel for cross-border communications.  In short, SMC and messaging are heirs-apparent to e-mail in their importance to e-discovery.

Competence demands swift identification and preservation of SMC.

Screen shots of SMC are notoriously unreliable, tedious to collect and inherently unsearchable.  Applications like X1 Social Discovery and service providers like Hanzo can help with SMC preservation; but frequently the task demands little technical savvy and no specialized tools.  Major SMC sites offer straightforward ways users can access and download their content.  Armed with a client’s login credentials, lawyers, too, can undertake the ministerial task of preserving SMC without greater risk of becoming a witness than if they’d photocopied paper records.

Collecting your Client’s SMC
Collecting SMC is a two-step process of requesting the data followed by downloading.  Minutes to hours or longer may elapse between a request and download availability. Having your client handle collection weakens the chain of custody; so, instruct the client to forward download links to you or your designee for collection.  Better yet, do it all yourself.

Obtain your client’s user ID and password for each account and written consent to collect. Instruct your client to change account passwords for your use, re-enabling customary passwords following collection.  Clients may need to temporarily disable two-factor account security.  Download data promptly as downloads are available briefly.

Collection Steps for Seven Social Media Sites
Facebook: After login, go to Settings>Your Facebook Information>Download Your Information.  Select the data and date ranges to collect (e.g., Posts, Messages, Photos, Comments, Friends, etc.).  Facebook will e-mail the account holder when the data is ready for download (from the Available Copies tab on the user’s Download Your Information page). Facebook also offers an Access Your Information link for review before download. Continue reading

Privacy: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?

Next week is Georgetown Law Center’s sixteenth annual Advanced E-Discovery Institute.  Sixteen years of a keen focus on e-discovery; what an impressive, improbable achievement!  Admittedly, I’m biased by longtime membership on its advisory board and my sometime membership on its planning committees, but I regard the GTAEDI confab of practitioners and judges as the best e-discovery conference still standing.  So, it troubles me how much of the e-discovery content of the Institute and other conferences is ceded to other topics, and one topic in particular, privacy, is being pushed to be the focus of the Institute in future.

This is not a post about the Georgetown Institute, but about privacy, particularly whether our privacy fears are stoked and manipulated by companies and counsel as an opportunistic means to beat back discovery.  I ask you: Is privacy a stalking horse for a corporate anti-discovery agenda? Continue reading

A Primer on Processing and a Milestone

Processing 2019Today, I published my primer on processing.  It’s fifty-odd pages on a topic that’s warranted barely a handful of paragraphs anywhere else.  I wrote it for the upcoming Georgetown Law Center Advanced E-Discovery Institute and most of the material is brand new, covering a stage of e-discovery–a “black box” stage–where a lot can go quietly wrong.  Processing is something hardly anyone thinks about until it blows up.

Laying the foundation for a deep dive on processing required I include a crash course on the fundamentals of digitization and encoding.  My students at the University of Texas and at the Georgetown Academy have had to study encoding for years because I see it as the best base on which to build competency on the technical side of e-discovery.

The research for the paper confirmed what I’d long suspected about our industry.  Despite winsome wrappers, all the leading e-discovery tools are built on a handful of open source and commercial codebases, particularly for the crucial tasks of file identification and text extraction.  Nothing evil in that, but it does make you think about cybersecurity and pricing.  In the process of delving deeply into processing, I gained  greater respect for the software architects, developers and coders who make it all work.  It’s complicated, and there are countless ways to run off the rails.  That the tools work as well as they do is an improbable achievement.  Stilli, there are ingrained perils you need to know, and tradeoffs to be weighed.

Working from so little prior source material, I had to figure a lot out by guess and by gosh.  I have no doubt I’ve misunderstood points and could have explained topics more clearly.  Please don’t hesitate to weigh in to challenge or correct.  Regular readers know I love to hear your thoughts and critiques.

I’ll be talking about processing in an ACEDS/Logikcull webcast tomorrow (Tuesday, November 5, 2019) at 1:00pm EST/10:00am PST.  I expect it’s not to late to register.

The milestone of the title is that this is my 200th blog post and it neatly coincides with my 200,000 unique visitor to the blog (actually 200,258, but who’s counting?).  When I started blogging here on August 20, 2011, I honestly didn’t know if anyone would stop by.  Two hundred thousand kind readers have rung the bell (and that’s excluding the many more spammers turned away).  I hope something I wrote along the way gave you some insight or a chuckle.  I’m intensely grateful for your attention.

By the way, if you’d like to come to the Georgetown Advanced E-Discovery Institute in Washington, D.C. on November 21-22, 2019, please use my speaker’s discount code to save $100.00.  The discount code is BALL (all caps).  Hope to see you!

Dig We Must: Get It in Writing

This isn’t a post about e-discovery per se, but it bears on process and integrity issues we face in cooperating to craft e-discovery expectations.  Still, it’s more parable than parallel.

My home in New Orleans sits at the intersection of two narrow streets built for horse and mule traffic.  It’s held its corner ground since 1881, serving as abattoir, ancestral home of a friend and now, my foot on the ground in the Big Easy.  New Orleanians are the friendliest folks.  You can strike up a spirited tête-à-tête with anyone since everyone has something to say about food, festivals, Saints football, Mardi Gras, the Sewage and Water Board and the gross ineptitude of local government in its abject failure to deliver streets and sidewalks that don’t swallow you whole or otherwise conspire to kill or maim the populace.

That’s not to say the City does nothing in the way of maintaining infrastructure.  Right now, New Orleans is replacing its low-pressure gas lines with high pressure lines.  Gas is a big deal where everyone eats red beans on Mondays, but it’s also useful for heating and, even now—still—for lighting.  So, every street must have new subterranean lines installed and new risers brought to gas meters.  I knew nothing of this until I awoke to find a crew with an excavator on my property destroying the curbs and antique brick sidewalks I’d lately installed at considerable expense. Continue reading

Apple Card: Heavy Metal

IMG_4773I just got my Apple Card and, while I hardly need another credit card, I thought readers might be curious what the fuss is about. After all, it’s just a credit card, right?

Right, but it has some fancy features that set it apart from the other plastic in your wallet or purse.  First, it’s scarily easy to obtain.  On my iPhone, it took under a minute to be issued the electronic card with a $9,000 spending limit available in Wallet.  That was Tuesday.  Thursday morning, a courier dropped off the physical card packaged in the sleek style of all Apple’s premium products.  The fun began even before it was out of the box!

IMG_4777Although my Apple Pay credit account went live in a minute, as with all physical credit cards, the Apple Card must be activated before use.  For most cards, this requires time online or a phone call where you dial or speak a lot of digits.  With the Apple Card, you just hold the colorful sleeve it comes in against your iPhone and the NFC contactless communication capability embedded in the card does the rest.  

The next surprise is that the card is crafted from laser-etched titanium, giving it a striking heft and rigidity.  Hone the edge of this baby and you’re MacGyver (or Oddjob, hat in hand).  Investing so much in the aesthetics of a credit card may seem silly; but, I confess that the, well, the beauty of the card impressed me.  Is it so wrong that something we touch several times daily be pleasing?

The next surprise is what’s not on the Apple Card versus every other card: There are no numbers.  No card number.  No CID security identifier.  No expiration date.  No signature block.  Just your name, three corporate logos, a chip and a swipe strip.  Here are photos of both sides of my Apple Card, something I’d never post for a conventional card:

IMG_4774If you want to know the card number and CID for the Apple Card, you must retrieve them in Wallet.  That’s a genuine layer of security.  By the same token, heaven help anyone who comes across a neanderthal with a carbon charge slip (anyone remember those?) who tries to rub transfer the card number.

There are some nifty usage management features, but the major marketing hook for the Apple Card is daily cash back on purchases.  How much cash back?  I’m not entirely sure because it varies.  It seems you get three percent back for purchases made from Apple and a handful of other merchants like Walgreens and Uber.  But for the most part, the cash back percentage looks to be two percent if you pay with Apple Pay.  If a merchant isn’t set up for Apple Pay, then it appears you must use the Apple Card as a conventional MasterCard, and get just one percent cash back.  That’s about the same benefit I now get with my AmEx Membership Rewards program with (in my mind) less exposure to a whopping interest charge if I’m ever late with a payment.  Too, the AmEx offers many perks to protect my purchases and travel.  Now and then, those behind-the-scenes benefits have proven really worthwhile.   I wonder whether Apple will stand behinds its card users as reliably as AmEx?

Cash back is a splendid benefit, and beats the pants off cards that don’t offer rewards and perks.  So many cards do offer mileage benefits, club access and other rewards that it’s not easy to know which one is best.  The Apple Card carries no annual fee, making it worth a try, and if you buy a lot of Apple merchandise, that instant three percent back is a no-brainer.  Maybe the Apple Card will become my principal card; maybe not.  But, I’ll tell you one thing:  that titanium card is going to be hell to cut in half should I decide to close the account.

One last thing if it’s not already clear: Only iPhone users need apply.  An Android user might be able to finagle getting the Apple Card, but the real benefits only flow from using Apple Pay.

Cryptographic Hashing: “Exceptionally” Deep in the Weeds

We all need certainty in our lives; we need to trust that two and two is four today and will be tomorrow.  But the more we learn about any subject, the more we’re exposed to the qualifiers and exceptions that belie perfect certainty.  It’s a conundrum for me when someone writes about cryptographic hashing, the magical math that allows an infinite range of numbers to match to a finite complement of digital fingerprints. Trying to simplify matters, well-meaning authors say things about hashing that just aren’t so.  Their mistakes are inconsequential for the most part—what they say is true enough–but it’s also misleading enough to warrant caveats useful in cross-examination.

I’m speaking of the following two assertions:

  1. Hash values are unique; i.e., two different files never share a hash value.
  2. Hash values are irreversible, i.e., you can’t deduce the original message using its hash value.

Both statements are wrong. Continue reading