One popular way to stay current with developments in e-discovery law is to attend a conference or “boot camp” for an intense immersion into the subject matter. Conferences are an excellent way to learn about technological and legal developments, and they also provide an opportunity to compare notes with peers to see what others are doing to provide competent and effective advice in this area of the law.
E-discovery conferences have sprung up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, though, and it can be difficult to decide which best matches your specific needs, much less determine how carefully the conference has been planned. “E-discovery practice” has broadened considerably since it was first identified as a specialty area, and educational conferences have evolved to the point that they can offer targeted content that speaks to different skills and challenges in the field. Choosing the right conference can be an educational and enlightening experience. Choosing the wrong conference, however, can be a boring and unhelpful waste of time and money.
1. What Do You Want To Learn?
Before looking at conference invitations, it’s important to keep in mind your personal goals. Are you looking for a general introduction to working with electronic fact evidence? Are you looking for analysis of specific legal issues? Are you looking for insight into which tools you should be using to accomplish specific e-discovery tasks? These are the types of questions that are useful in deciding which conferences make the most sense. A popular and well-regarded conference can still be unhelpful if it doesn’t cover material that is relevant to you.
E-Discovery conferences today tend to focus on one of several broad areas. Compliance and records management conferences discuss pre-litigation strategies that individuals and organizations can proactively implement to reduce litigation exposure and minimize response costs when disputes do arise. Litigation-focused conferences examine ways in which e-discovery strategy should be applied in specific situations and for specific results. Closely related to these, conferences centered on government investigations and regulatory compliance actions review specific challenges in preserving, authenticating, and exchanging electronic information with government agencies. Finally, thanks to strong interest within the litigation support community, it’s now possible to find programs that focus exclusively on the technology and work flow processes used to manage electronically stored information, wholly separate from the legal theories that drive case development and analysis.
In addition to looking at a conference’s subject matter, it’s also important to look at the educational level its programs are targeting. One rule of thumb is that large conferences usually include a fair number of introductory-level courses that can offer something to the largest possible audience. Tightly focused or advanced subject matter tends to come up in smaller conferences or in breakout sessions within a larger program. A few conference organizers have begun labeling sessions within their programs as “introductory,” “intermediate,” and “advanced,” but there are no standards for what these terms mean. One lawyer’s advanced course on authenticating electronic evidence may be another’s introductory course. However, even though labels are imperfect, this information identifies a specific target audience for a conference, making it easier to understand whether it’s a likely to be a good fit for your needs.
2. Who Is On The Faculty?
As with any CLE event, an e-discovery conference depends on the quality of its faculty. Ideally, speakers should be both well-versed in their subject matter and seasoned public speakers. These two qualifications are not related, however, and it is not uncommon to hear an obviously qualified speaker stumble through a program because of poor presentation skills. Conversely, it is also possible to hear a highly polished speaker give a flawless presentation of platitudes that convey little substantive information.
One good way of gauging the quality of conference faculty is reviewing the speaker biographies that virtually all conferences provide as part of their marketing materials. Practitioners should be wary of conferences that do not identify their faculty or state that the information will be circulated closer to the conference. These may be “paper” conferences that won’t actually move forward unless a threshold number of people register. Practitioners should also look closely at conferences where all the speakers come from a single source, like one law firm or a professional educational group. While some of these speakers may be excellent, it’s quite possible that others may have been asked to speak on a topic for which they don’t have deep (or any) expertise. Professional educators also run the risk of speaking from a purely academic perspective, which can limit the utility of their guidance in the real world.
A great conference faculty will include a mix of professionals that speak the vocabulary of the target audience. Program speakers don’t have to be nationally recognized experts to be good, as long as they have the right background. And after all, every top-tier nationally recognized speaker had to give their first presentation somewhere, too.
3. Is The Program CLE Certified?
Certifying presentations for continuing legal education credit is a time-consuming administrative chore, especially when presentations must be certified in multiple jurisdictions. Bar associations must review presentation materials, including speaker outlines and handout materials, and judge whether they contain enough substantive content to merit certification. However, one unique characteristic of e-discovery conferences is that not all of their subject matter qualifies for CLE accreditation. In particular, sessions that demonstrate how to use specific products or technology to achieve objectives are viewed by some Bar associations as infomercials and not suitable for accreditation. Even without certification, though, these sessions may provide significant value, and they are not necessarily indicative of a low-value event.
Conferences that are not CLE certified should not be rejected out of hand unless a key personal objective is earn CLE credits. Even then, most bars permit attorneys to submit conference materials on an individual basis and seek CLE credit after the fact. As a practical matter, though, conferences sponsored by a single software or services company will be viewed more skeptically than programs sponsored by an organization with a more generalized focus.
4. How Much Should It Cost?
All of us have received “exclusive offers” for CLE programs that cost thousands of dollars. While it’s only a matter of time before someone organizes the first “e-discovery cruise,” many of the most expensive programs tout the amenities of the resort where the conference will be held. Other conferences justify their high registration fees by promising easy access to notable guest speakers such as sitting judges, corporate counsel, or “rock star” e-discovery practitioners. These opportunities may be valuable for some practitioners, but they don’t necessarily add a significant amount of educational content to the conference. Price alone is not an indicator of a successful e-discovery conference.
An increasing number of state and local bar associations, for example, have developed high-quality e-discovery programs that are extremely affordable when compared to national conferences. In addition, bar-sponsored e-discovery programs may lack catered lunches, but they’re almost always CLE certified. For example, the District of Columbia Bar’s recent e-discovery program offered four hours of CLE credit (accepted in for 30+ jurisdictions), insights from a sitting federal magistrate judge with cutting-edge e-discovery expertise, and handout materials that included model forms and discovery requests—all for $150. Other bar associations have offered somewhat less ambitious programs, but for even lower prices.
Local bar association conferences offer a different experience than destination CLE conferences, and it’s incorrect to say that one is better than the other. A national conference is more likely to offer a greater diversity of viewpoints and common practices, as well as a greater likelihood of nationally recognized speakers, but the material covered at that program may be less helpful than hearing how local judges have resolved e-discovery issues when they have heard argument on such disputes.
Not all e-discovery conferences are created equal, and finding the right one requires a bit of due diligence. Following the beaten path to a high-profile seminar is not necessarily the best option, as individual practitioners differ in their specific educational needs. In addition, because of the continuously evolving nature of e-discovery practice and e-discovery law, educational programs constantly adjust the topics they cover. Last year’s “perfect” conference will almost certainly be different the next time it comes around.