eDiscovery Leaders: Aaron Bath of Balfour Beatty US
Aaron and I talked about how teaching scuba divers has made Aaron a better legal professional, the value of understanding task loading and situational awareness, and his involvement with the Dallas Area Paralegal Association and ACEDS North Texas. We went into insights he has to offer about learning and applying artificial intelligence and machine learning and the value of getting one’s hands dirty, as well as advice for those wanting to move into legal operations, eDiscovery, and litigation management positions.
Recorded live on November 13, 2020 | Transcription below
Note: This content has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Welcome eDiscovery Leaders Live, hosted by ACEDS and sponsored by Reveal. I am George Socha, Senior Vice President of Brand Awareness at Reveal. Each Friday morning at 11 a.m. Eastern, I host an episode of eDiscovery Leaders Live, where I get a chance to chat with luminaries in eDiscovery and related areas.
Past episodes are available on the Reveal website. Go to reveal.com, select Resources and then select eDiscovery Leaders Live Chat.
This week, I’d like to welcome as our guest Aaron Bath. Aaron is a National Director of Litigation Management at Balfour Beatty U.S. Balfour Beatty is a multibillion-dollar British multinational infrastructure group with capabilities in construction services, support services and infrastructure investments. Aaron also is an Adjunct Professor of Legal Technology, eDiscovery, and Litigation Management at Southern Methodist University and a Technical Diving Instructor and Instruction Trainer with PADI and TDI. So we can talk scuba, if we want to, Aaron.
In the past, Aaron worked as National Director of Litigation at Copart and a managing senior paralegal focusing on complex commercial litigation at Bickel and Brewer. He has a B.A. from Southern Methodist University and a Masters in statistics and data science from MIT, as well as professional certifications in Artificial Intelligence from MIT and Columbia. In addition, Aaron is the President-Elect of the Dallas Area Paralegals Association (DAPA) and Vice President of Education for ACEDS North Texas. Aaron, welcome to eDiscovery Leaders Live.
Well, thank you very much, George. It is a pleasure to be here with you, and I’ve got to say it feels like I’m connecting with an old friend. We’ve been talking for the past half hour and it’s already been almost too much fun for a Friday morning. So thanks for having me.
Diving is to eDiscovery as…
Thank you and once again, welcome. I mentioned PADI; what can you tell us about how teaching scuba translates to your work and the legal profession?
It’s funny, anyone who’s ever worked with me, especially my previous and current bosses, they all know that as much as I love law and litigation, it’s definitely a second career choice. I love diving. I love teaching diving. I love training divers and even instructor candidates at the higher levels. There are a lot of parallels between what we do in legal operations, eDiscovery, litigation management, and teaching scuba. With divers, whether they’re at the recreational level, which is safe and fun and accessible, or the technical levels, which involve an element of risk – diving deeper, diving longer, diving in overhead environments like caves – people are out there most vulnerable. They have some element of trepidation and fear. And they need an expert who has confidence, they need somebody that can confidently guide them through a process that has real consequences. I think that’s very true in eDiscovery and leading litigation initiatives as well. You need somebody that really can take the helm and calm the players and take the experience where it needs to go.
There’s a mantra in diving that we teach new divers, which is to “know your limits”. As a diver, you have to know your limits in terms of how deep you can go, how long you can stay on the tank, are you qualified and skilled enough to go into an underwater cave? Probably not, right? That is very true in the legal industry as well. Whether you have a high level of expertise in litigation or eDiscovery, you need to know when to raise your hand and direct people to a better expert. I get questions all the time from attorneys I work with, where paralegals who have questions about privacy law or about different aspects of the legal operations pie that is just not something I have expertise in. There’s real consequences of leading them down the wrong path, whether it be sanctions or a financial loss or wrecking their reputation. It’s important to be able to point to people that really are experts and that’s the beautiful thing about our community. We’ve got lots of experts, we all become friends, and it’s nice to have that kind of support to make it a more comprehensive picture.
There’s a lot of overlap between scuba and law. Specifically with lawyers, I’ve seen kind of an evolution. When I started, you had a lot of lawyers that were overseeing eDiscovery and technology processes, but they weren’t necessarily the button pushers, they weren’t the people doing the job day to day. I feel like that’s changed a lot because of the complexity and the impact of all of this. Now you have a lot of folks like yourself, George, that are also attorneys, but are also true experts in the field. It just makes the environment safer, better, stronger, more efficient, like we have in diving. So, a lot of overlap.
Task Loading and Situational Awareness
I am a recreational diver, definitely not in the technical diver category, I am not about to try going into a cave. What I find each time I go diving, which is not very often, is that I’m really starting all over again in many ways. One of the things that happens, you will understand fully, is that I breathe too quickly and use up my oxygen too quickly. There must be an analog to that on the eDiscovery side, especially when working with attorneys. How do you help those attorneys who don’t do eDiscovery that much, who get in and are doing the counterpart of using up their oxygen too quickly?
I love that question and I’m glad you’re a diver. We were just talking at length about our times that we spent in Australia, and that’s clearly a diving mecca. I’m glad you got to go to some good places to dive.
In scuba, you have a concept and I’ll talk about two, one is “task loading” and one is “situational awareness”. Task loading is the concept of as a new diver, you master a basic skill like hovering, or maintaining your buoyancy at a certain depth, to where you can use your breath to control where you’re at in the water column.
But you take a diver that’s mastered that and then hand them a compass and tell them to navigate to a certain heading and then also give them a light to hold at the same time because it’s dark, and suddenly they’re buoyancy is all over the place. They have now lost that skill because they’re task loaded, they’re adding to what they know and it takes time, practice, and implementation to really get those all to gel together. I think the same is very true with attorneys or paralegals or anyone, really, getting into eDiscovery. For me, I came up, not as a technology professional, I came up more legally substantive as a managing paralegal of big firms, big cases. My first exposure to eDiscovery wasn’t super technical, it was document review – getting into the platforms and tagging documents and coding for issues and searching and segregating out different data sets that we want to look at. That’s what I learned first and that’s what I got really good at that over time.
It wasn’t until I started kind of leading legal departments and litigation departments and getting into the other aspects of the EDRM, the processing and the analytics, that I started to understand what those skills had to do with the downstream impact. I started to make the connections of “Ah! Okay, so processing, that’s my first real shot at controlling volume.” By being smart about this and learning what I can do about this, now I can task load and it will have an impact on the people that have to review these documents.
The same is true with situational awareness. When you’re first in the water and you’re handed that compass and the flashlight, you’re not even paying attention to your buddy. You have no idea what to do and you’re focused on yourself and what you’re doing and all the things that are being asked of you. That’s true in eDiscovery; when you’re thrown into something new, you’re focused on that one thing and you don’t yet see the big picture. And it’s adding to that over time, whether it be processing or analytics or setting up projects, or even just understanding what translates into effective and efficient review processes. As you start to ground yourself out as a diver, or as a eDiscovery professional, you definitely see the downstream impact of what you do up front. I think I have a lot of value.
As you start to ground yourself out as a diver, or as a eDiscovery professional, you definitely see the downstream impact of what you do up front. I think I have a lot of value.
Let’s switch gears a little bit. Tell me about the Dallas Area Paralegal Association and how it embraces legal technology.
I am glad you asked. I mentioned, I started my career as a paralegal and so paralegals and paraprofessionals are very near and dear to my heart. DAPA is a very long running professional association of paralegals. It’s been around basically since I was born, 1976, so it’s been in operation for a good long time and has a lot of members and a lot of relationships with legal vendors in the technology space and otherwise. Just like with attorneys that have their associations in the Texas bar to create a community, it’s really important for paralegals to have a group of people that they can network with, share ideas, help each other out, connect, and have educational opportunities through CLE or panel discussions or workshops.
I’ve only been involved with DAPA now for the past 2 years. I joined the board in 2018 and I’m the current President-Elect. That means next year I’ll be their President, which is exciting because we’re recovering from a very tough year. A lot of associations just haven’t had the same opportunities for engagement and in-person experiences like we’ve had in the past. One thing that has been true for DAPA, is they embrace legal technology, they have a lot of sections, specialty sections, whether it be litigation, IP, real estate, to where paralegals in those spaces can get together and learn.
We have a legal technology section that I’ve led for the past two years. I know you’re with Reveal, we’ve had Reveal come out and give really good presentations on workflows and best practices. Lots of other technology experts in the space come and speak to us about what’s out there.
And I’m really excited this next year, especially since I get to help steer some of the educational initiatives. I get questions all the time from paralegals that are new to technology, so this next year we’re going to have four or five technology workshops throughout the year that will focus on different aspects of technology, eDiscovery being one, but also on things like matter management, and case management, DMS, document management tools – different ways that as a working legal professional that you manage your work and your task, and your to do’s; even the small stuff, you and I were talking about Trello. There are a lot of tools out there that even just a brief introduction can have a dramatic impact on your ability to help a legal team.
I think DAPA has done a really good job about offering different content, not just education, but also in terms of career paths. Paralegals often think about themselves as one thing: I’m a law firm paralegal, I’m an in-house corporate paralegal. But I’ve got buddies, I’m sure you do too, that have really great careers that leverage that education and experience, whether it be working in sales, project management, legal operations. There are so many diverse opportunities for legal professionals that have technical proficiencies.
You’re involved not only with that, but with ACEDS as well. And an ACEDS Texas has an event coming up. Tell us about that?
The Rebranded ACEDS North Texas
It’s great and I’m really glad to see ACEDS branching out to have local engagement and local chapters. I think that’s really important, as I said, to give people a sense of community and so we recently rebranded from ACEDS Dallas to ACEDS North Texas and got a really talented board, really diverse board in terms of experience. I think recently you had my buddy Rich from Toyota on, he’s also on the board. Lots of good talent in the Dallas area.
We have an event coming up, which I think is really interesting, on December first. This is an interesting event to where there’s going to be different eDiscovery vendors offering a look at how their particular tool will solve different problems that you encounter, real case uses much like you encounter on the CEDS exam. Everybody’s going to be broken up into different rooms, with a different tool, given the same problem, and then have a post-mortem afterwards and talk about the workflow and how the tool came together. I think that has a lot of value, to look at how different people approach the same problem, because there’s a lot of creativity. That is December first. I think that in the chat, ACEDS may put some information on how to contact the ACEDS North Texas chapter on how to get involved and engaged with that.
To learn more about the event, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Artificial Intelligence Insights
Switching gears a little bit again. In the introduction, I mentioned the training and certifications you have in artificial intelligence. Given that training, how are you leveraging that in your litigation management practice? What types of problems are you trying to solve?
It’s interesting. You’ve had so many really smart people on recently and many of them are very well versed in AI and machine learning and some of the different aspects. I’m a big fan of feedback, good or bad. I get a lot of feedback of frustration from legal professionals that talk about, “Well I only hear about artificial intelligence machine learning in the context of eDiscovery, which is litigation focused, which is not what I do.” And I feel their pain, because I’m also limited in the fact that my entire career has been litigation, so that’s what I know and that’s my role and it’s hard for me to think outside of the scope of litigation. What I’ve learned through studying machine learning in particular, is that these are basically tools to solve problems. You pose the problem, what kind of problems are you trying to solve? And it’s interesting because when you’re using tools like eDiscovery platforms, most of us are pretty familiar with the workloads and how those come into play with investigations and ECA and predictive coding and all the models that we see at every CLE. But there’s a lot of stuff you can do with AI outside of the tool. Good examples, I work in the world of legal operations and litigation management, so litigation strategy, what ought you to do in a particular case, what is the proper path forward that’s going to minimize risk and minimize cost and have the best result. There are so many factors that come into that and even outside of eDiscovery, you think about metrics like all the big data that’s out there that’s collected on litigation globally. What do the courts typically do with certain kinds of motions? What is this particular judge’s rate on passing or denying a particular motion?
Then there’s opposing counsel. What is their rate with motion success, with case success? Do they tend to settle? Do they tend to litigate? If they litigate, are they winners, are they not? There’s lots of data that’s out there. And even if you don’t have a tool that can bring all of that into one place and help you point to a decision, there are ways to build your own tools and your own algorithms to plug into different sources of data coming at you, and have it make recommendations based on what we know.
A really good example of this is when you’re evaluating your outside counsel. That’s an area where we use AI to help us understand who we want to continue to hire and who we don’t. Analyzing invoices; that doesn’t sound sexy, but there’s a lot of value and a lot of money to be squeezed out of being very analytical about invoices. Are you finding patterns of attorneys that traditionally round their time up? What is their responsiveness rate? What is the blend of the invoices coming in? Are you seeing a good blend of paraprofessionals and associates doing the bulk of the work with partner oversight, which for a lot of cases is the appropriate mix? Or are you seeing the bulk of partners in a much higher billing rate, doing lower level work? And does that make sense for the case? Some cases, that’s completely appropriate and for some cases it’s not. So taking that data, using formats like LEDES for digital invoices, things like that, that gives you a universe of data that you can look up.
You can even go a step further and leverage a lot of that information you have to help make predictions as to what type AFAs or alternative fee arrangements that might be appropriate for the kind of work your department or firm does the most. There’s real benefit in exploring that, but I’ll be honest, not everyone’s an expert at all the different types of fee arrangements that are out there. A risk collar versus a reverse contingency, when and where would you use those? There’s an answer, and the data of your cases and how you spend your money can help point you to that. Getting more into the weeds with machine learning and learning about the different types of algorithms, whether it be linear or classification or regression, and what they do and what kind of data they need and what the output is, helps you really think about how to use them in the real world, in a legal department. There’s a lot of really good ways to utilize this technology in non-eDiscovery ways, which I know we’re eDiscovery Leaders Live, but it’s nice to round out some of the applications as well.
AI and Machine Learning: Get Your Hands Dirty
For someone who has heard the phrase “artificial intelligence”, has heard the phrase “machine learning”, doesn’t know a lot about it and wants to get more engaged, how do they start?
Yeah, how do you start? So, I recently had a friend, George, recommend to me, it is a seven-part mini-series on Netflix called the Queen’s Gambit. It’s about a very successful chess player. I just finished it and I loved it. It reminded me when I was a kid I loved chess, I had an uncle that was into chess. I read a bunch of stuff, read a bunch of books, but I had never played a game. And promptly, when I played my first game on a chess board, I lost very quickly because I’d never actually done it in practice.
My advice to people trying to get into eDiscovery, it is obviously great to have exposure by going to CLEs, and workshops and all of that. You’re going to learn through osmosis, you’re going to pick up terms, you’re going to pick up concepts, you are going to pick up workflows, but you have to get your hands on it to really understand it. You have to move the pieces on the board.
You have to get your hands on it to really understand it. You have to move the pieces on the board.
There’s a number of ways to do that, to really open up other ways of thinking about machine learning in law than just eDiscovery.
What I’d recommend specifically would be a couple things. There is a platform called TensorFlow. That is an open source platform for working with the language of machine learning, to be able to build algorithms from scratch, and see what inputs are required and what the output is and how they work. That gives you a scratchpad to really start getting your hands dirty, start playing around with things, making mistakes, understanding the math.
The one thing I’ll say about studying machine learning and data science and all these kinds of things, was I had no idea how math-intensive it was. I was expecting, as a legal professional, for it to be a lot more software-based – like push buttons and I get what I want – but no, it’s all math and it’s all programming, it’s coding. To understand how you get from A to Z, you’ve got to understand the language. Whether that be SQL or Python or R or getting to the machine programming languages, you really need to have a sandbox where you can make mistakes and practice.
The other thing, and this is very basic, but Google, with all of their work going to machine learning and development of the Google brain, they have a really good primer that they made for their employees, their primer on machine learning. You can Google it and it will take you to their development web site and they have a very good basic course on machine learning that is more hands-on. It actually has opportunities for you to go to a live environment and type code and see what it does. I found that they did a course, and they did a really good job of helping make that accessible to people that maybe haven’t ever seen it before.
For other folks, most of the tools that a lot of us use have elements of machine learning that you can play with. What I’d recommend and most vendors are very acceptable to this: Don’t mess with live cases, because you don’t want that to spoil or messed up for your review attorneys, but ask your vendor, set me up a practice environment, whether it be, of course the data that we’ve all seen a million times, all the different data sets, or whether it be a section of your own data that you can interact with. Have a test matter that you can get in it with and play with, whether it be working with the AI tools or doing analytics or actually doing kind of predictive coding or training models, practice doing it in an environment that’s nondestructive, that’s safe, nobody’s looking over your shoulder and laughing when you do something dumb. Because it happens every day. Those are the steps I’d recommend just to get your feet wet.
And on that point, I would highly recommend if it’s all possible to use some of your own data. I helped get the Enron data up and out and available through the EDRM. It’s all we’ve got in terms of publicly available data, but it’s old, it’s dated. If you’ve got data yourself that you can use, I think that will help you understand things a lot better.
It does and it helps you sell it to the members of your team as well, especially when you can explain it in the context of an investigation that’s meaningful. Yeah, it helps.
How has the evolution of your career prepared you for the specific work you do now?
It’s interesting. People come to legal operations and eDiscovery through different paths. Some of them come through technology backgrounds. In fact, most people that I know that are in jobs like mine come from a technology background versus a legal background. We’re seeing that shift a lot more, you’ve got a lot more attorneys, a lot more paraprofessionals that are in the space now. For me, I think because everybody has a slightly different set of responsibilities when they’re in the seat. There are some people that are more focused on databases and e-mail systems and those kinds of things, whereas my job has always been a little bit more legally substantive because of my upbringing as a trial paralegal and having spent years writing motions and defending companies. And it’s interesting, I think the job that I had before this one, I wasn’t head of litigation support, I was head of litigation, which is very atypical for non-lawyer, I was the only non-attorney department head. That’s a scary thing. Of course there’s oversight from the general counsel, but that comfort level of understanding litigation and understanding cause and effect and building relationships and confidence in talking to your outside counsel and opposing counsel and entering into negotiations, that really adds to your skill set, your confidence. I find with me, I’m still playing catch-up on the technology side, because I haven’t had the same upbringing a lot of my peers have. But I bring something different to the table and that’s where that cross-pollination really helps in events like this and having been in associations like ACEDS.
Advice for Those Wanting to Legal Ops, eDiscovery and Lit Management Jobs
One last question for you, Aaron. What advice would you have for legal professionals who are wanting to transition into legal operations, eDiscovery, or litigation management?
Great topic and this is something I spend a lot of my time talking about in my role at DAPA and talking with new paralegals, paralegals and people looking for a career change. I cannot oversell the value of learning from your vendors and developing those relationships. I can tell you, some of my best friends now are the very first eDiscovery vendors I had back 20 years ago. But these are the people that make you go to your job. These are the experts. When we’re talking about diving, these are the Dive Masters, the people you go to for the how-to. There’s no way I could do my job or jobs that I had prior without vendor relationships supporting me and holding me up and helping me look good. That’s very true. Leverage those, seek them out, build relationships, ask for their help because that’s what it’s all about. Obviously, any kind of exposure you can get through CLEs, you pick up vocabularies, you pick up ideas, concepts, through osmosis. Find a mentor, whether it be through ACEDS or DAPA. DAPA has a mentorship program, which I’m really proud of, that is a way for people to pair up with somebody looking for guidance.
Lastly I’ll say, be comfortable to get uncomfortable. You’re not going to be good at everything at first and you’re not going to understand it at first. Everything is new at some point. It is okay if you were in a database and you’re asked to do a search and you have no idea how to even start. I’ve been there recently, it’s a very common thing and that is okay. But you will figure it out, you’ve got a network, there are resources, we’re all smart professionals. Be comfortable going through that pain of having to really figure stuff out from scratch, because that will build problem-solving skills which is a very core of what we do as paraprofessionals and eDiscovery professionals.
Aaron, thank you very much for taking the time to sit down and chat with us today. Aaron Bath is National Director of Litigation Management at Balfour Beatty. I am George Socha, this has been eDiscovery Leaders Live, hosted by ACEDS and sponsored by Reveal. Thanks for joining us today, please join us again next week when we talk with Rachel McAdams, an Award winning litigation and eDiscovery specialist with the law firm of A&L Goodbody in Dublin.