5 Questions with a Chief Discovery Officer

The tide of technical savvy among law firms is rising. There’s simply no alternative: exploding data volumes, increasingly complex cases, and rapidly innovating technologies make it the duty of every litigator to understand their e-discovery options.

One sign of this shift is the emergence of new leadership structures and roles among today’s law firms. At Milberg, for example, Paul McVoy was recently promoted to chief discovery officer. After hearing about his role change, we sat down to ask him a few questions about the evolution of litigation support and the industry at large.

Sam: How did you get into e-discovery?

Paul: I remember one of my first cases was an AOL merger involving a review of thousands of emails. At that time, it was particularly daunting to deal with so much electronic data, but I was comfortable with computers and eager to help. Back then, the lawyers would fill out coding sheets we then had entered into electronic databases, but the database only referred to paper docs stored in boxes—sometimes thousands of them.

In an effort to catch up with the times, we started scanning and storing the documents electronically. Even with that manual workflow, the better organization that came with an electronic approach just fascinated me. My interest—and the technology—really exploded from there.

How did the team at Milberg decide a chief discovery officer was necessary for the firm?

When I was hired about six years ago, the firm had a well-established discovery practice, but they wanted me to expand the practical, technological side, and take it to the next level. We’ve always taken discovery very seriously, and we saw an opportunity for a technologist—not just attorneys—to take part in the discovery conversations. Since then, we’ve become a go-to resource internally and also for other firms who need support with e-discovery technology. This is a different role than a traditional lit support manager; we now treat our e-discovery practice as a full service business.

On many of our cases, tools like text analytics have huge benefits and we want to help our internal teams and our clients see those wins. Every day, we need to be accountable to clients who are paying our bills, so a business-savvy outlook that’s cost effective and efficient is critical to our success and their satisfaction.

This dedicated attitude enables us to face e-discovery confidently despite the huge numbers of documents we’re consistently seeing. All of that building has led to this CDO-level role. Our firm wanted to make it clear that we take this part of the legal process seriously.

Paul_McVoy_HeadshotWhat responsibilities define your new role?

I manage our lit support group, so the first part of my day is usually touching base with them on current cases we’re running—I believe we’re up to 190 matters with 454 total users today. I’ll also check in with our attorneys to get insight on their caseload and see how I can help with their current priorities.

This position has also formalized my role with IT; we work closely and meet often to ensure our environments are running properly and we’re hitting growth plans. We do a lot of planning ahead instead of reacting. We want to stay ahead of our attorneys to make sure we’re anticipating their needs and ready to meet them.

Generally, I try to watch industry trends and consult with service providers, which I feel is critical to making sure we’re keeping on top of this space. I’m also a member of the Sedona Conference, so I’m often spending time on thought leadership exercises and supporting new materials for them.

Of course, most importantly, I also touch base with our clients frequently to make sure we’re exceeding their expectations and finding out what we can do better.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned in managing e-discovery?

When I first started helping to build this practice, I wanted it to be stellar. So instead of waiting for people to call me with their questions, I’d reach out to help them understand how we can help make this process easier and less expensive. I’ve learned that a proactive approach is a big component of our firm’s growth in this area. Naturally, earlier in my career, I was always ready to handle requests—but waiting for them to appear resulted in a lot of catching up, undoing, and redoing. For example, I’d have attorneys come in and tell me what they’d agreed to by such-and-such deadline during a meet and confer, and they would quickly realize I could follow through on that agreement as easily as I could build a rocket ship by 5:00 p.m. that day. Being proactive meant educating my colleagues and getting involved early on.

It also meant not being afraid to speak up. When I was brand new, I’d walk into a room full of attorneys and it was tough to suggest new ideas and have a voice in a group of such smart people. But I wanted to excel at my job. I just needed to be confident enough to suggest what they hadn’t thought of yet to help drive things forward. I found that if I offered sound advice and could back up my suggestions with expertise, they were happy for the insight.

What’s your top tip for attorneys who want to get a better handle on e-discovery?

Don’t hesitate to rely on the technology folks on your team. With the right people at your side—in a meet and confer, in court, or wherever you need the support—you can arm yourself with information and learn the strategies without feeling accountable for relaying every technical detail. Have someone you can turn to with questions along the way. I’ve been able to sit in court at the ready and have an attorney ask me mid-argument to answer a question. I simply stand up, answer it, and then sit back down, and the judge appreciates it. I think just having someone with you who knows e-discovery deeply proves your commitment and earns the respect of the judge.

Paul McVoy was promoted to chief discovery officer at Milberg in early 2015 and has been working in litigation support and e-discovery since 1999. Sam Bock is a member of the marketing communications team at kCura and serves as editor of the Relativity blog.