Explaining Ediscovery at a Family BBQ

“So, what do you do for a living?”

While the question above is not uncommon during small-talk, it may be challenging for ediscovery professionals to answer in simple terms. Sure, it’s easy to talk about document discovery with lawyers who understand the process. And with any luck, explaining predictive coding and de-NISTing to a tech person shouldn’t be difficult. But what if you find yourself in the dreaded position of talking about your job at a family reunion or a social gathering? Are you prepared to demystify the esoteric field of ediscovery for curious friends, inquisitive in-laws, or a new date?

How to Explain Ediscovery to Friends & Family

Amy Bowser-Rollins of Litigation Support Guru tackled this scenario in her article, suggesting a few great explanations for that first date. Inspired, I decided to share a few of my own strategies. I developed them in the process of explaining ediscovery to my parents, who are doctors based in Taiwan, and know of few professions beyond medicine. When I was first hired at Everlaw two months ago, they spent a good portion of our weekly Skype conversations trying to figure out exactly what I had gotten myself into. Thankfully, delivering an ELI5-version of my industry became easier as I learned on the job. I also found that teaching my family helped with my own understanding, true to the Latin phrase docendo discimus (“by teaching, we learn”). I came out of this reciprocal learning experience with three reliable tactics for discussing electronic discovery in layman’s terms:

1) Don’t worry about going deep

You may absolutely love your job (after all, legal tech is fascinating!) and can’t wait to share everything you know about the interplay between different parts of the EDRM. But keep in mind what your conversation partner wants to get out of the explanation. Chances are, your in-laws or neighbors just want to make casual conversation, or get to know you a little better. Target your response to these expectations, accept that you’re going to miss some details, and don’t stress out about being exactly correct. In most cases, even something reductively simple will do.

For example: “I make software that helps lawyers sort out all their electronic information, such as emails and word documents. It’s a key part of getting justice for people.”

2) Use analogies

This is helpful for more technical concepts like predictive coding. After your initial explanation, you may get a follow-up question like, “But how do you sort out all those documents?” At Legaltech West, I heard a great analogy comparing predictive coding engines to the online radio station Pandora. You can use that example, or come up with your own comparison that you think is accessible to most people.

For example: “How do you find relevant documents? Easy! Do you use Pandora? You enter a song you like, and based on that song, it makes suggestions for other music you might like. You can like or dislike each suggestion, and over time, Pandora uses those ratings to make the music more and more accurate to your taste. It’s the same with technology-assisted review, except you search for and rate documents instead of music. Eventually, the computer can accurately and precisely figure out what documents you want.”

3) Role play with your listener(s)

This is a good approach to use when your listener has a high level of interest. Putting you and your conversation partner(s) in the shoes of plaintiff and defendant makes it easy to visualize the litigation process. (A verbal demonstration is sufficient; costumes are optional.) In particular, if you’re talking to more than one person, you can play the ediscovery savior who jumps in and helps the plaintiff and defendant sort out their huge stashes of information. Using a famous court case that involved ediscovery can also help clarify why ediscovery matters in the real world.

For example: “Ediscovery is helping lawyers figure out which documents to use in court. Did you hear about how Apple sued Samsung for patent infringement? That case involved a lot of electronic evidence in the form of emails. Let’s say Abby works for Apple, and Barbara for Samsung. Since Apple is suing Samsung, Abby is going to ask Barbara for all emails that might prove there was infringement. That’s when Barbara calls me in, to figure out which emails are relevant enough to hand over to Abby. Now Abby needs me too, to figure out which of those emails she can use to make her case strong enough for Apple to win in court.”

I encourage you to try out these tips if you get the dreaded “work question” at your next family dinner or BBQ. Let me know in the comments how it works out!