My Life as a Lawyer… ish ~ By Jeff Salling

On February 24, 2016

My Life as a Lawyer… ish ~ By Jeff Salling

desktop for blogLife does not always turn out the way you plan. At times, life planning seems like such a waste of time because your life will twist and turn regardless of how you wanted it to go. For me, the twists and turns have been a fantastic ride–moving towards eDiscovery consultation and education. This unexpected journey has combined my law background with my interest in research and technology. But how did I arrive here, and what steps in my career guided me in this direction?

I, like many future lawyers, planned on fame and fortune with the acquisition of my law license. I vaguely remember writing my law school admission essay about liking to argue and liking money. One thing I am sure of is that I did not have anything that even slightly resembled a career plan.

I graduated from law school in 2008, passed the bar exam on my first attempt, and got sworn in on Navy Pier—I was now a licensed lawyer.  Having an optimistic outlook on the world, I assumed I would have job offers pouring in (mind you, I wasn’t applying for jobs) but that wasn’t the case. Timing wasn’t on my side, because during 2008 and 2009 the legal market collapsed. Firms did not just stop hiring, they started laying people off.  I was entering a market with very little experience and competing for jobs with veteran lawyers.

In order to start paying my loans, I took a job as a promotional model. While that sounds nice, it is a fancy way of saying that I handed out free samples on the streets of Chicago. I learned a very young age that I was not above any job. If I was putting my (family) name on a job, I better do my best. I went to work each day handing out samples with a smile on my face. While, I was a lawyer, I was not a lawyer on these days. I was just a guy who was trying to get ahead. It turned out to be quite fun. I got to be outside, meet new people, and get some exercise. While it was not the high-powered job that I expected as a new attorney, it was critical in paying down my loans.

Still, I had not given up the dream of law. After struggling with a competitive and admittedly haphazard legal job hunt—I took a job doing document review.  While no one in the legal industry would plan to jumpstart their career in document review, I had never heard of eDiscovery or legal document review. I fell into this first project and figured I’d make the most of it. For those of you who are not familiar, document review has two models:

  1. You are reviewing documents to determine if they are relevant for a litigation (and not privileged). Those documents are then produced to the opposing party.
  2. You are reviewing documents to help with an internal investigation. There is no opposing party, but there might be at some point. You are just trying to help your client figure out what happened.

I had lots of questions, I wanted to know everything about the process, from collections to productions, but questions were not welcomed. You were supposed to come in, follow the review binder, and leave—Rinse. Lather. Repeat. This was my first look at eDiscovery and I did not like it.  This particular company treated reviewers poorly and was not willing to mentor or guide. However, I was working on interesting cases and could see what an integral role eDiscovery played (and would continue to) in litigation.  I spent the next few months bouncing around different law firms doing document review until I stumbled upon a Big Four firm that was staffing a document review in Chicago. From there, it was sheer luck that I found a mentor. She was a high-energy, no-nonsense, family-oriented workhorse. We clicked immediately. I remember her telling me, “there is a lot more to this than just reviewing documents. If you want to learn the industry, work hard and show me. This company is looking to hire a full-time person to run Chicago if we can sustain the work.” So, I came in with a good attitude, did what I was asked, and tried to do more whenever I could.

On the surface, there is nothing sexy about document review. This might come as a shock, but document review is reviewing documents. You come in and sit at a computer and get through as much data as you can throughout the day. Then, you come in and do it again the next day and the next. I never impressed anyone when I told them I was a document review attorney. While it might not be the most exciting career to discuss at parties, it is crucial to litigation. Many cases have been won and lost because of the information discovered during a document review. I started to think of myself as an electronic investigator.

My mentor was located on the East Coast, but traveled frequently to Chicago to run reviews. Eventually, the firm decided they wanted to expand permanently into the Chicago document review market. Because I had taken the time to learn the ins and outs of the industry, they offered me the job. Over the next few years, I (along with my team) built up the Chicago office. I sought out knowledge internally and externally—I learned about record retention and information governance from a NJ transplant, internal investigations and the FCPA from a new Senior Manager, Technology Assisted Review (TAR) from a Partner, and managing people and document reviews from an East Coast Senior Manager. I also looked beyond my firm to gain knowledge—when I saw an article, I read it. When industry experts talked, I listened. When Webinars launched, I joined. When a group met, I attended. By listening to and learning from others, I earned the trust of the firm to build the operation how I wanted it.

I treated every contract review attorney with professional courtesy and respect. I trained and mentored my contractors the way I had been mentored. In a short amount of time, I went from temporary work to working for one of the largest financial services companies in world. I could pay it forward….time and time again. I mean, why wouldn’t I? I was fortunate to find an amazing opportunity and I wanted to situate others so that they were in a position to do the same. Times were still tough in the legal market and I would do anything I could do to help those who wanted to work hard and learn.

Eventually, I got to the point where I had managed over a thousand reviewers for some of the largest companies in the world. I worked on matters for companies in numerous industries, including oil and gas, telecommunications, agricultural, construction, and mining. For these companies, I handled many different types of cases. I worked in antitrust, mergers and acquisitions, commercial litigation, breach of contract, employment and labor, and countless other types of matters. My largest project consisted of over 250 contract attorneys.

I spent a lot of time learning the entire EDRM even though my job only centered on a small portion of it (review). I sat down to evaluate what I enjoyed and where I excelled. In addition to my knack for eDiscovery, I enjoy talking with people, helping people with their problems, giving advice, forming relationships, and accomplishing goals. My entire life has been filled with friends coming to me for work and relationship advice. I have always enjoyed hearing the dilemma, finding the best solution, and helping them implement the solution. I realized that a career in document review management does not give me the ability to do what I truly enjoy on a large scale. As a manager, you fix lots of little problems, but do not get consulted on the bigger picture. I was ready to start focusing my attention on the bigger picture. A career in business development would allow me to do what I enjoyed most and what I did the best.

I became the Director of Business Development in the Chicago office for Complete Discovery Source (CDS). This was the perfect position at the perfect company. I am able to meet with clients and figure out the best way to solve their problems. That is my job every single day and it is marvelous.

CDS is a growing company that employs experts in the eDiscovery field. Yet, they are small enough that the team can accomplish what needs to be done without endless red tape. They built a process around efficiency, faith in their staff, and defensible processes. Additionally, they partnered with the review software that leads the market. I have to admit, I was expecting somewhat of a smaller organization when I joined the team. Then, I went to our office in New York and found a finely-tuned machine in the same building as the NFL!

Over the years, I worked with a large number of attorneys who knew very little about eDiscovery. This irked me. It still does. While I am happy they do not all know a lot (if they did, I would be out of a job), many attorneys do not know enough considering the Federal Rules now (December 2015) mandate knowledge of eDiscovery. I have never been one to just sit back and complain, so I reached out to John Marshall Law School and became an Adjunct Professor teaching eDiscovery, Digital Evidence, and Computer Forensics. Per usual, I decided to make sure I did things my way. I created my own course material based off of practicality. Since 2008, more and more law school graduates do not go on to practice law. Heck, more and more licensed attorneys do not go on to practice law. Thus, I did not see a reason to lecture two hours a week on the laws surrounding eDiscovery. I found it crucial to teach about the eDiscovery industry.

I was lucky that the Dean of John Marshall agreed with me. Of course, we cover eDiscovery laws in my class. In fact, we cover a lot of them. But we also look at current cases to see where eDiscovery played a role (one of the recent examples I used was “Deflate gate”). Additionally, we look at each phase of the EDRM and see how it works. Every attorney can benefit from seeing the technical side of eDiscovery. In my class, we look at all of the areas of the business and explore all of the careers available.

Why does this matter? The answer is very simple: the single greatest asset I provide to my clients is my knowledge of eDiscovery. As a sales guy, I do not bill them anything because I am not a billable employee. But I can give them hours and hours of expert advice because I have been in the trenches. I understand the end game. It is common knowledge that review accounts for the largest portion of discovery costs (some estimate as much as 70%). As a review manager, I know how to cut that down (sometimes by 80 or 90%). Thus, I can sit down and come up with a strategy that will save clients’ money and waste less of their time. I am not alone in my expertise. My GM in Chicago is an attorney who has been through the trenches as well. Our project managers offer the same kind of road-tested advice. They do not just push buttons. They know the legal industry and they know the end game as well.

As an educator and a consultant in the eDiscovery world, I’ve been able to blend my legal expertise with my drive for data analysis and organization. It’s a career path that I didn’t know about when I set out to earn my law degree, but which has been a great match for my talents.

I wrote this article for two reasons:

  1. Relate to others: I thought that others out there might be able to relate to my story. I thought that others out there may have had a rough time finding a job and might be getting discouraged. I wanted to tell them to stop. Stop being discouraged. Do not get discouraged because that only makes you less valuable. It makes you less valuable to employers and your family. Discouraged people do not come to the office ready to work hard and add value. Employers are not looking for them. While I understand the struggle and went through several lean years myself, you have to keep your head up. You have to keep going. You realize that your best chance of succeeding is to keep your spirits and effort high. It only takes one yes, one extra effort, one person being impressed to change your life. Why not? Why wouldn’t you stay positive when countless studies show how much positivity impacts every aspect of your life (Read: The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Anchor)?
  2. Legal Careers are everywhere: Think outside of the box. Fine, you didn’t get that great six figure job at the big firm. Neither did a lot of other applicants, so it is time to find what is next. What are other professions where you can add value? Data privacy and information governance are both huge right now. The eDiscovery market is supposed to double over the next 6 or 7 years. Do you like these areas? If so, find an entry level job and work your way up. While I realize it was not THE plan, it can be THE NEW plan…which is better than no plan. If you like something else, try to leverage your legal background so succeed there. Mark Cuban says, “Work like there is someone working twenty-four hours a day to take it all away from you.” I love this quote because it is true. Find the profession that makes you feel like you want to work to keep it, plan and execute. Do not think that your degree was a waste if you are not using it. You will be using it, even if your job title does not say Attorney-at-law.
  • By illinoislap  1 Comments   


    Posted by Jim Kelleher on
    • Mar 2 2016
    Superb article. I had similar career path in the law without the benefit of the JD. Started out automating discovery document productions using microfilm in the late 70's early 80's. One string that resonates in both out stories is the mentor. NOBODY gets anywhere in life without help. Glad to see you are dedicated to paying it forward. Very impressive.

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