eDiscovery Leaders: Rachel McAdams of A&L Goodbody
Rachel and I discussed how she made the move from plasma physics to eDiscovery, the Data Projects team at A&L Goodbody, and her thoughts and experiences bringing eDiscovery technology in house and new capabilities on board at a law firm. We also talked about the differences between building out eDiscovery capabilities at law firms and at service providers, the differences between eDiscovery in Ireland and the United States, and what a great legal community she has joined with her move to Dublin.
Recorded live on November 20, 2020 | Transcription below
Note: This content has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Welcome to 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 am Eastern US, I host an episode of eDiscovery Leaders Live, where I get a chance to chat with luminaries in eDiscovery and related areas.
This week I am pleased to have as our guest Rachel McAdams, who is an eDiscovery specialist at A&L Goodbody in Dublin. This is our first foray overseas. Rachael, welcome.
Thank you. And thank you so much for having me on your show.
Rachel comes to eDiscovery from a background that’s a bit different from some of us, most of us, at least educationally, in that Rachel has not one but two master’s degrees in mathematics, one from Université Pierre et Marie Curie (Paris VI) and the other from University of Warwick, and then to top it off a Ph.D. in plasma physics from the University of York. Somehow, Rachael, you went from that to eDiscovery; we’ll go into that later. Rachel spent time at PwC in computer forensics and eDiscovery. You were for a number of years at Baker McKenzie, and today you are at A&L Goodbody. To round it out, you are active in a couple of organizations as one of the board members of the ACEDS Ireland chapter and then as a content coordinator for ILTA. Once again Rachel, welcome.
From Plasma Physics to eDiscovery
Let’s start with that path from mathematics and plasma physics to eDiscovery. How did that happen?
It sounds incredibly random. It may not have been an obvious step, but I felt it was almost a natural step. When I was looking for a job after I finished my PhD, I obviously had no idea what eDiscovery was. I didn’t want to work in eDiscovery. When I was small, I didn’t pipe up and say, “Oh, I want to be an eDiscovery Specialist”. But a lot of the skills that I learned or had to learn during my PhD and some of that educational academic background, have come in so useful that it’s really been a smooth transition between the two.
I think the most important thing is how you communicate. When you’re doing your PhD, you spend a lot of time explaining what your research is, what your interests are, to other people. That could be your very close colleagues who understand all the minute details and why you would do one thing instead of something else. It could be people from the wider academic community, who sort of understand what’s going on. They might not understand all the details, but they’d understand the principles behind it. Or you could just be begging someone for some money so you can keep going and they don’t understand the physics at all, they just want to know what is the outcome of your research going to be, how is it actually going to benefit anyone.
You get really used to explaining what you’re doing at all these different levels. I’ve found that translates really well into eDiscovery when you’re talking with your colleagues about some of the minutiae of computer forensics or how you’re setting some workflow up all the way to how you’re talking to your clients about eDiscovery. It’s a much higher level on the technical side, but you’re trying to get a different point across. That is the one skill that I brought with me from my PhD that is absolutely indispensable. Even things like teaching or training other people, you do a lot of that with your PhD, with your junior colleagues, you teach in the University. That skill of being able to explain things, to communicate, is such a key part of any eDiscovery specialist role, that it gave me a head start when I started working in the industry.
And of course, anyone who’s done a PhD knows that it takes a tremendous amount of perseverance and self-motivation. If you’re working on one of those projects that everyone knows about, where it’s long hours, long days, high stress, tight deadlines, you need a little bit of presence of mind to keep going. That is also something I learned from my PhD, especially coming up to my deadline.
There’s a lot of soft skills that came across, a lot of analytical skills, that makes that transition less abrupt and more of a natural stepping stone. I’ve never regretted it.
It sounds like a great foundation in terms of the skills and experience. How though… why eDiscovery?
I had no idea what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something that would make use of the skills I have. It’s quite hard when you come out of academia to know what it is that you’re actually qualified for, except what you’ve studied. You’re at the mercy of the job market to try and show you the way.
When I was actually lined up by a recruiter for an interview as an eDiscovery associate and I started researching eDiscovery, it was absolutely fascinating. I had no idea anyone did any of this kind of thing. I had no idea about computer forensics and all the different aspects that you need to make an eDiscovery project successful. They were all things that I felt I could bring into the industry from my experience. The communication I mentioned, technical skills, problem solving, working to deadlines, being very detail orientated, analytical…. all those things I felt spoke to my strengths.
When I went to the interview, which was with PwC in Belfast, the people I met were so interesting, they had such good things to say about the industry and how it stretched them as individuals, that they sold it to me. I’ve never looked back, I’ve always really enjoyed the work that I do. I think it was the right decision, even if it was unexpected and I may not have known entirely what I was getting into. But I really enjoy the work that I do so, very happy.
A&L Goodbody’s Data Projects Team
Today you are A&L Goodbody and you are part of the Data Projects group there. What does that group do?
Well, it’s what the name implies. We work on projects with a lot of data, data heavy or document heavy, investigations, responses to regulators, obviously eDiscovery, Data Subject Access Requests, which all my colleagues in Europe will know and hate, as well as some of the sort of nebulous types of projects that don’t really fall into any of those categories but they involve data, they involve analyzing the data in the documents and trying to extract the important information from them.
We’re a really big team inside A&L Goodbody, which is incredibly multi-disciplinary. We have a legal team within the group, we have some senior lawyers and some paralegals working in that team. We have a group of project managers.
And then we have the technology team, which is the team that I run. We look after all the eDiscovery technology that we have in-house, advise our clients on how to use that technology. If we’re working with outside providers, we liaise with them to make sure things are being done the way we’d like them to be done. Between everyone in the group, we tend to take charge of all these projects. We run with it and take that burden off the partners’ or the associates’ shoulders. They know we’re a safe pair of hands to get those projects done on time, on budget, to the highest standards.
Bringing eDiscovery Technology In-House
You have had a role in building out the eDiscovery function at A & L Goodbody. Tell us what that’s been like?
It’s been very positive. Even before I joined the firm, which was in April 2019, a lot of preparation had been done to think about the kind of work we were doing in eDiscovery, the type of projects, the volume of projects, and what it would mean if we brought eDiscovery technology in-house and ran it ourselves. The first few months of the role when I joined was really heavy on projecting the volumes of cases we might have, how much utilization we would be expecting for a technology tool, how many people we needed to support the tool, how much training those people would need.
All that prep work really paid off because it meant when we did bring technology in-house, we were very prepared for it. We had a team in place. We had the training necessary, and we could start boarding cases very, very quickly.
It can only be successful with the support of the rest of the firm and the partnership. I found that even if there may have been some initial skepticism in some quarters that bringing the technology in was worth it. The volume of work would be worth it. That’s been really quickly overcome just by how successful it’s been and how we’ve been able to bring a better service to our clients because we have our hands on the tech and we know what we’re doing. We can build out the ALG way of doing things.
So it’s been a really lovely experience. The support and the recognition from the partnership at the firm has been lovely. We have a really high uptake of using our team for all these projects. It’s very rare that a discovery happens that hasn’t come through us at some point. I’d say it’s been busy, but it’s been very successful. And we have big plans, we have big plans to grow even further.
That high uptake is unusual in a law firm. What do you attribute that to?
I think part of it is that we’ve been able to demonstrate from the projects we’ve already done, just how much value we’ve brought. Whether that is, we’ve reviewed documents X times faster than we could have done before or we’ve reduced the volume more efficiently, that the budget that’s being spent is being spent in a more, not more sophisticated way, but a smarter way in order to make sure that the way we’re doing the projects is the best we can. This is something I was going to touch on over the course of this conversation; we are able to be really, really creative with how we use the technology because we control it. We are able to build solutions really quickly for teams across the firm, solutions that may not be a traditional document review, but we’re leveraging the technology in a slightly different way.
“We are able to be really, really creative with how we use the technology because we control it. We are able to build solutions really quickly for teams across the firm….We’re able to use our expertise to show them something new that can help them….”
We’re able to use our expertise to show them something new that can help them, we’re able to do things much more quickly. We have a really good level of flexibility and agility in what we do. We’re not wedded to say every single project has to follow these exact steps and you have to tag documents the same way every time or the whole system breaks down. We’re really, really wanting to listen to what our legal teams are asking for, to give them what they actually want, rather than what we think that they want, which I think can be slightly different things. And we’re not afraid of a challenge in building something that is complex but actually works, rather than building something which we’re able to set it up in a couple of hours and it kind of gets half the job done. We want to build something that is sustainable, it’s going to solve everyone’s problems. That success in doing that, and the word of mouth across the firm, has been really pivotal to that high uptake.
So good experiences and good feedback – working with the team and trying to meet what the legal teams want and give them that technology resource that is much more accessible to them now, much closer to them. When I’m in the office, I’m across the hall from one of the partners; there’s no escape. If they want something they can find me, they can find someone on my team and ask for it. I can’t hide. That closeness to them means that they trust us to get the work done. Because if we don’t, again they can find us, they know where we are.
I think that’s one of the challenges as we grow the team, because we’re growing, we’re taking on more work. The turnaround times that we have inevitably are going to increase because we have so much more on our plates. In the early days, we could turn around requests very, very quickly, even complicated requests, because we may not have had so many calls on our attention. As we grow and we get more projects, more conflicting deadlines that we have to manage, those turnaround times get longer because we need to prioritize different types of work. One of the challenges is managing the expectations about what can be done, but keeping our high standards up. I don’t want people to be complaining that it is taking us too long but at the same time, whether it’s feasible to maintain those really quick turnaround times, we’ll have to see.
Our technology team has grown from two people to five people just over the last few months. We’ve hired new people into the team to help us do that, who can hit the ground running, take some of these projects, run with them. That onboarding process has been really successful as well. We’re very happy with how it’s going and the team is expanding.
Bringing New Capabilities On Board
As you’ve expanded the team, what sort of capabilities have you brought on board?
My background is the eDiscovery side. I’ve done a bit of computer forensics from time to time, nothing official. We brought on someone who has a background in digital forensics and investigations. We’ve brought on someone whose background is more in software development and testing, for a different perspective. We have people in the team whose background is out of eDiscovery entirely; they are really focused on project management. We’re trying to bring a range of perspectives and perhaps fill in some of the technical details later. I think that’s really important because not being a project manager myself, I would just do things in the order that I received them. Whereas if I have a project manager shouting down the phone at me, telling me I was supposed to have done something three days ago, that really helps me. I wouldn’t have the presence of mind to manage all of that. It’s really about bringing those different skill sets into play and having this team that we function as one unit, looking into the data projects group, but inside we all have our own separate responsibilities. Looking outwards, we’re one team, one unit, and everything works really well together because we have complementary roles and complementary skills.
Law Firms and Providers: How Building Out eDiscovery Differs
You’ve been both on the law firm side and on the vender or provider side. What are the differences in terms of building out frameworks and capabilities in those two types of organizations?
That’s something I think about a lot. This is my own personal experience. Your mileage may vary. People might have different experiences from different organizations. I find in the law firm, as I mentioned before, you have to be more creative. It’s very rare that the answer can be either “Let’s just buy something to do it for us” or “We already have a piece of tech, we have a tool that does that already”.
I find that I have to be a lot more creative in what I’m doing and I have to be a lot more creative more quickly. You don’t necessarily have the resources that you might have on the vendor side. I don’t have access to a software developer. I don’t have access to someone whose job is coding. I don’t have access to a huge heap of collections software or multiple platforms. What I do have access to is the expertise of the team. One of the things that we really stress, and I think that we exercise a lot, is that creativity to use the technology we have and build something that works.
As I mentioned before, coming up with solutions quickly is something that is asked of us. Coming up with solutions quickly that work, is obviously important. I find that my brain is slightly more exercised on the law firm side because you get these weird requests in – the things that people want, and they want them yesterday, or they want them tomorrow for a huge project that’s about to land. Having the agility to jump on to that, come up with something quickly, build it, demo it, show people how it works, refine it as you go through – in my personal experience, I find I get that more in a law firm.
Having said that, when I worked on the provider side, there were things about that that I loved. You had access to this cool technology. If you had a problem, it’s likely someone has already solved that problem, so there’s a solution out there. You have a huge pool of resources that you can call on, whether that’s tech, whether that’s people. What that means is it’s very rare for you to get stuck on a problem where you can’t find a solution or you can’t find someone who has encountered it before and knows what to do. You’re very much supported within the team, in facing those problems head on.
The range of experience you can get at a provider is slightly different. You’re more likely to work on a variety of different types of cases for different types of clients whereas in the law firm a lot of our work is concentrated in, say, our disputes or litigation department. You sort of know what you’re getting in those cases, even if there’s quirks in them.You sort of know where you’re going, you’re working with the same people, which is nice because you know what they need, you know what they want, what they like, how they like to work. But with the variety of cases, I think probably the vendor provider side just has a tiny edge there. I certainly worked on some very interesting cases, which I won’t go into. I think that that’s where I come down on law firm versus provider.
Ireland and the United States: How eDiscovery Differs
You are, as we said at the beginning, in Ireland. Most of our audience is in the United States. Many of them only have a general or maybe very little understanding of the differences between how eDiscovery functions within Ireland as opposed to what they see in the U.S. What can you tell us about those differences? What practical considerations are different? What approaches are different? Any of that.
I think, in general, in the principles of what we do, there’s not a huge amount of variation. It’s in the details where there’s a slight difference. Different from the U.S., is we tend to do our productions in native format rather than pdf or image format. Although having said that, it’s not that uncommon for us to do pdf productions. A lot of the time, because we’re a smaller market, the law firm on the other side of a dispute might be smaller than us, they might not have our experience of technology. It’s actually very rare that we do a full production with native, text, images, load file. Typically we’ll hand over the natives or pdfs just with either just an Excel schedule of the documents, unless we’re reproducing to a regulator who’ve asked for a load file. It’s rare that we send a load file.
Speaking of the regulators, the regulators have slightly different standards. When I was working before, a lot of the regulator work I would have done would be in the U.K. or in the U.S. The regulators in Ireland are slightly different. Different types of regulators are more active than others. Our financial regulator is very active, so we do a lot of work responding to their requests. Their standards are very high for document production; that is when we would produce a load file and that formal production that we all think about when we all think about productions. Actually, their standards for document production are some of the highest that I’ve ever worked with. They are very, very strict on how they like to receive their documents in. Any mistakes, they are on it. You need to be very, very careful. That was certainly, not a shock, but a surprise to me for some reason.
We also spend a lot more of our time on things like Data Subject Access Requests, which I imagine everyone in the U.S. is probably sick of hearing about because it’s all we talk about in Europe. We spend a lot of time working on those and working on the most efficient ways to do them. They can be tricky because there’s the possibility that they will be a precursor to litigation or they’re being made in a contentious way. So while the actual process of doing the DSAR may be straight forward, there’s a lot of work that’s done in the background to make sure that we understand what’s in that data before you release it.
A Great Community
Finally, having moved to Ireland 18 months ago, the eDiscovery community in general, I think it’s very welcoming. It’s very friendly. I think I’ve probably met most, if not all people working in eDiscovery in Dublin already. Even over the last year, our ACEDS chapter was set up, we’ve had more networking. The community is, I suppose smallish, small enough, I could have met everyone in it. I think of my peers in the eDiscovery industry, they’re my colleagues in many senses. I might deal with them more than I would deal with any lawyers on opposing counsel. That really shines through in the spirit of collaboration that we have and of working together to find the best way to do things and move eDiscovery forward in Ireland. I think it’s a great community to be part of. There’s a lot of very smart, very talented people working in eDiscovery in Ireland so it’s an absolute pleasure to get to work with them.
Well Rachel, thank you very much for spending time with us today. Rachel McAdams is an eDiscovery specialist today at A&L Goodbody in Dublin. I am George Socha. This has been eDiscovery Leaders Live, hosted by ACEDS and sponsored by Reveal. Thanks for joining us today. We will be taking off next Friday – it is, after all, in the U.S, the day after Thanksgiving – and will return on December 4th, with Martha Louks, who is the Director of Technology Services at McDermott Will & Emery. And again, Rachel, thank you.
Thank you. Bye.