Tag Archives: costs

Efficient Arbitration, Part III: Getting Control of Depositions

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In the last two articles in this series we noted that one of the main objections to arbitration is its cost.  Some folks are convinced that arbitration is just as expensive as litigation in court.  I have found that not to be true, but encounter that perception frequently.  I had a discussion about that with a lawyer just today, in fact.

The main thing that drives up the cost in arbitration – as in any adversary proceeding – is discovery.  So we began looking at ways used to reign in costs in arbitration starting with document discovery in general and electronically stored information in particular.

The next form of discovery that we will consider is depositions.

Do you need them at all?

Of course, the way to save costs would be to simply not allow depositions at all.  In fact, in some smaller matters, that is the default.  But, while arbitration matters usually don’t need the full range of discovery and cost we see in litigation, there shouldn’t be a “trial by ambush” either.  In fact, under AAA Commercial rules for example, the Arbitrator must “manage any necessary exchange of information among the parties with a view to achieving an efficient and economical resolution of the dispute, while at the same time promoting equality of treatment and safeguarding each party’s opportunity to fairly present its claims and defenses.”  So if depositions are actually needed to obtain necessary information, they should be allowed.

When are depositions really needed?

The first question you will want to ask is whether depositions are needed at all.  If they are, you will want to ask how to take only as much time as needed for them.

Here is a way to think about that.  With the advent of e-mail and electronic document storage, there is often a record of day-by-day events for important matters in a case.  This is particularly true for the kinds of cases often the subject of arbitration.  The contracts and formal documents are likely to be stored electronically, of course.  And people really don’t talk on the phone or in person quite as much as they once did.  So there is often a record of the parties’ communications in e-mail exchanges and the like.  E-mails tend to be fairly informal and candid.  Thus, you often don’t need to rely on someone’s memory of what happened months or years ago at a meeting or in a call.  Key events are often reflected in real time in e-mail and attached documents.

This often means you can eliminate the depositions we often see in commercial cases these days that go like this:

Q:  Marked as deposition exhibit 278 is an e-mail that appears to be from you to Mr. George Johnson dated January 7th 2013. Did you write this e-mail?

A:  Yes.

Q:  And here you say, “You’re right.  The entire shipment was defective, and we are really sorry about that.” Did you write that?

A:  I guess so. There it is.

Q:  And when you wrote that, did you mean that entire shipment was defective, and your company was really sorry about that?

And on it goes.  It’s hard to see how this kind of deposition is particularly useful.  You have the e-mail admission, and that’s what you will be relying on at the hearing anyway.

And yet, there are times when depositions are needed to understand technical terms, the importance of a sequence of events or other matters.  You may also want to see what key facts are admitted and which are not.  Often in a commercial arbitration it is more often the inferences and conclusions to be drawn from underlying facts that is really in dispute.  But there are sometimes actually disputes as to what happened.  Sometimes even the authenticity of an e-mail is an issue.  But not very often.

This suggests that depositions be limited to matters where testimony can advance the inquiry.  But you can’t expect the arbitrator to micromanage every question or topic.  That would be too expensive.

So the way to think about your case is to see if there is important information that can be gained from a deposition and to be prepared to explain, at least in general terms, why that is so and why there isn’t a different way to get it.

There are then useful approaches to making sure that depositions are not just being taken for the sake of taking them.  As with document discovery, an arbitrator can be fairly helpful in “saving counsel from themselves” by requiring an efficient process that forces everyone to get to the point quickly.

Limiting depositions when needed

Here are four approaches to consider.  I have seen a number of them work very well.  First, is simply limiting the time for depositions.  Each party could be given, for examples, ten hours in which to take depositions.  They can call anyone they want during that time, but still have the time limit.  Then the arbitrator can build in an “escape valve,” so the parties can come back for more if they can show they need them.  They usually don’t come back because they have used their time very efficiently and gotten what they need.   I’ve seen this work very well in cases I have handled both as counsel in arbitration and as an arbitrator.

Second is deciding at or shortly after the scheduling conference who the limited number of deponents will be and the general time for each.  It may only need to be one or two for each side.  Again, this will tend to get everyone to the point.

Third is to make at least some use of 30(b)(6)-type depositions in the case.  The Federal Rules allow depositions on identified topics where a representative who has looked into the issues speaks for his or her company on pre-designated topics.  It may seem odd to import a fairly technical federal rules-type procedure into an arbitration.  But in the right kind of case, I have seen this work to speed things up while still getting the information a party needs to present its case or defense. This can be combined with limits on time or number to make sure things don’t get out of hand.

The fourth is to simply have counsel agree to interview a witness on some specific topics just to clarify key issues.  Of course, both counsel would be present and the interview would proceed in questions and answers.  But it may not be necessary to have a formal deposition with all its expense to allow counsel to understand some technical matters or specific things raised in some documents.  This alternative probably won’t serve the purpose in every case, but in some situations it may well be all you need.   You can even agree to record it to have a record for those few times where the exact answer might be critical.

Electronics are cheaper than cars and airplanes

One final thing.  For many matters, phone or Skype depositions or interviews can work very well. Again, you can record them if you feel a record is necessary.  That can save time and travel.  In fact, there probably isn’t much excuse for not using available technology for fairly routine matters that simply need clarification.

Third party depositions and subpoenas are another tricky and sometimes expensive area in arbitration.  We’ll take that up next.

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Efficient Arbitration, Part II: Getting Control of Electronic Discovery

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In the last article on this topic, we identified cost as one of the major complaints about arbitration.  While arbitration is supposed to be faster and cheaper than litigation, the perception often is that it is not.  The culprit, as usual in legal disputes, is discovery.  If we are to maintain – or at this point perhaps re-establish – arbitration as a preferred alternative to litigation, we will need to deal with the cost of discovery.

One way to do that is to forego the sort of one-size-fits-all approach we have seen to discovery in court in favor of an approach thoughtfully balancing the need for information with the expense of getting it.  Arbitrators, who typically have a deep background in the sorts of issues presented in the arbitrations before them, are well suited to help the parties with the balance.

The last article in this series noted the general help provided by CPR’s document discovery protocol which presents different possible modes of general document discovery depending on the needs of the case.  We now take up discovery of electronically stored information, often called “ESI” for short.  This has the potential to be extraordinarily expensive if not handled properly.

The easy things to fix

Let’s start with the low hanging fruit. Not all cases require a great deal of electronic discovery.  More and more businesses simply have electronic versions of their files that are analogous to the paper files they used to keep. For many cases, the issue is no more complicated than simply looking in “the file” kept for the contract at issue and perhaps the related emails of those most involved.  But other cases may demand more.  And some counsel, used to federal court discovery, will demand a search of the opposing parties’ entire electronic storage system.  Dealing with electronic discovery at the initial scheduling conference will help determine how much of an issue this is likely to become in any given case and what level of expense makes sense to get the needed information.

At very least, if the case will involve electronic discovery  – and these days most cases will involve at least some – there needs to be some agreement on the format for electronic documents.  Some lawyers are used to producing documents in .pdf, others in native format, and others in .tif files, usually depending on their document management system, if any.  Before producing documents, counsel must discuss the format they want. Otherwise there will inevitably be a dispute about whether the documents should be produced in some other format and who should pay for it if they were produced in the “wrong” format.

Then there is the whole issue of metadata.  Metadata is data about data, including, who created it, when, where, in what form, what revisions were made, etc.  It is usually expensive to deal with and rarely critical.  It may be important to have it if the authenticity of an electronic document is in question.  But that is rare.  Normally, you will not want to require that extra effort be made to gather it for each document absent a showing it is needed for a specific purpose for specific documents.

Fitting the search to the need

Of course, the main issue is how to get information the parties need to prepare and present their cases without breaking the bank.  Again, CPR has a useful protocol that provides a way to think about this.

CPR posits different modes of electronic discovery.  The first is simply disclosure of copies of electronic information to be presented at the hearing, either printed out or in other usable form.  This would often be adequate for a routine matter.

The second mode includes disclosure in usable form of documents (a) from a specific, limited number of custodians, (b) provided from the time of signing the contract at issue to the date of filing the arbitration demand, (c) only from primary storage facilities with no need for disclosure from backup servers, tapes, PDAs, voicemails, etc., and (d) with no need to provide anything but reasonably accessible data.

The third mode would include the second mode, but with more custodians and a wider time period to fit the specifics of the case.  The mode would also allow require, upon a showing of special need and relevance, disclosure of deleted, fragmented or documents otherwise difficult to obtain by other than forensic means.

The final mode would be full discovery of electronic information relevant to any party’s claims or defenses, subject to limitations of reasonableness, duplication, and undue burden. This would be like federal court discovery in a large case.

Of course, these are just suggestions, but provide a good starting point for discussion and may even provide a basis for agreement between counsel for the parties.

Cost shifting

Another fairly simple approach to e-discovery sometimes proposed is to require the requesting party to pay the cost of responding.  Some arbitrators I know swear by this as the answer to overreaching demands requiring searching and production of electronic documents.  This seems like a simple solution, but may not always be as it may involve the arbitrator in determining whether the amounts charged are reasonable and the like.  For cases involving serious e-discovery disputes, however, this approach is worth considering.

Keeping a practical mind set

The key to all this is really a more sophisticated way of asking, “If I were this party, where would I go to find the important information regarding the dispute?”  In most cases, the starting point – and often the ending point – would be on the systems used by the people most involved in the contract and subsequent dispute for the time period of the dispute.  This normally would not require searching  all the company’s servers, PDAs, voicemails, and backup tapes or searching a whole system for key words, or using predictive coding .  Most disputes in arbitration are likely to be more discrete and focused than that.  If they aren’t, the parties need to be prepared to explain that to the arbitrator and maybe even pay the other side’s cost for extraordinary effort in looking.

That should go a long way to reigning in the costs of arbitration and making it a real alternative to litigation.

Of course, discovery isn’t only about documents.  Counsel is used to taking depositions for cases in court and will very often want to do the same in arbitration.  We’ll take that up in the next installment.

Efficient Arbitration, Part I: Getting Control of Document Discovery

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Arbitration offers many benefits over litigation in resolving commercial and intellectual property disputes.  The parties have an active role in picking the decision maker. In fact, they are generally given a listing of well-qualified arbitrators who are often experts in their legal field from whom to choose.  The whole system is set up to go faster with less formality and more emphasis on substance.  Continual procedural gambits and expense are easier to overcome, and the parties can count on a “date certain” for their hearing.  By contrast, a trial in court must be at the convenience of an often overburdened court awash in criminal and other matters.  In court you often are subject to call on a few days’ notice for a long period of time while the criminal matters go to the head of the line.

Why arbitration is not as favored as it used to be

So why isn’t every lawyer a fan of arbitration?  And I can tell you that there are many lawyers who are not fans of arbitration.  I’ve talked to them.

One reason we can’t do much about.  It is only natural to believe in the merits of your claim or defense.  When you lose, there is a tendency to blame arbitration.   The cure is to shun arbitration in the future if possible.  You normally can’t do that with court.

The other reason is cost.  The parties and their in-house counsel get the bill for the arbitration and conclude it is just as expensive as litigation.  The reaction is, “I thought this was supposed to be cheaper than court.  But here I have to pay arbitration fees and costs, and I also have to pay these large legal bills.  This isn’t cheaper at all!”  That may or may not really be true.  It could well be that court would have been more expensive. But the perception is still there.  In fact, while arbitration was once favored by corporate counsel, a study done in 2011 shows a significant decrease in use of arbitration in commercial matters since 1997 with cost being the main concern.  R. Lamare, The Evolution of ADR Systems at Large U.S. Corporations, Dispute Resolution Magazine, Vo. 20, No. 3 (2014)(online: http://ow.ly/NsI93).

Of course, the main thing that makes arbitration expensive, just as in litigation, is discovery, especially electronic discovery.

This should come as no real surprise.  Advocates want to be sure they have all the facts they can find to present their positions and maximize their chances of winning.  But this comes with what can be a huge price tag these days where the facts are to be found in computers, on servers, and even in smart phones, if you look hard enough.  But in many disputes the cost of getting all those facts can overwhelm the amount at stake.

Fixing discovery

This all suggests that, if arbitration is going to somehow provide an advantage over traditional litigation, containing discovery is a good place to start.  But how do you make sure the parties have the facts they need without breaking the bank?  Actually, there are plenty of tools available.  So let’s think about how to use them.

We’ll begin by focusing on normal document discovery.  Many lawyers in arbitration are focused on the traditional litigation-based rationale for discovery: parties may obtain discovery of any non-privileged matter relevant to a party’s claim or defense.  Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1).  This is true no matter whether or not the evidence is itself admissible so long as it is calculated to lead to discovery of admissible evidence, whatever that means. Id.   Usually one side’s “calculation”  looks to the other side like a “fishing expedition.”  The latest rule amendments replace “calculated to lead to discovery of admissible evidence” with “proportional to the needs of the case,” which is a welcome change.  But lawyers still know they are subject to later criticism unless they leave no stone unturned in search of that one critical clue that could turn the case around.  That is true whether such a clue exists or not. Besides, it is the opponent who actually has to turn over the stones in their trove of documents.  So why not insist that they do it?

Because arbitration is by its nature more flexible than litigation, the cost of discovery can be managed on a basis that makes the most sense for an individual case.  This is something we must take advantage of to try to manage the cost of discovery in arbitration.  And the arbitrator can usually save counsel from themselves regarding overly broad discovery by making sure the search for documents is rational rather than needlessly exhaustive.

A good place to start

A good way to begin to think about all this begins with the protocols issued by CPR on what it refers to as “modes” of discovery.  (Available under “Resources” at cpradr.org).  Different modes can be used, depending on the specifics of the case, including the amount involved and the likely location of information.

The first mode just requires provision of the documents a party intends to offer at the hearing a few days before the hearing.  That may be adequate in a fairly small-dollar dispute where the facts are straightforward.

The second mode requires the disclosures as in the first mode, but adds a prehearing disclosure of those documents “essential to a matter of import to the proceeding for which a party has demonstrated a substantial need.”  In other words, if a party thinks a certain category of documents needs to be provided by the other party, it needs to explain why.  It will be given the documents if the explanation is persuasive.

The third mode includes everything in the second, together with disclosure prior to the hearing of “documents relating to the issues in the case that are in the possession of persons who are noticed as witnesses by the party requested to provide disclosure.”  In other words, witnesses need to provide the documents they have that are relevant to the issues on which they will testify.

The fourth mode essentially tracks the scope of litigation discovery, requiring provision of “relevant documents regarding non-privileged matters that are relevant to any parties’ claim or defense, subject to limitations of reasonableness, duplication and undue burden.  This would be reserved for matters where there is enough at issue to justify this deep a dive into the documents.

These proposed modes are useful in suggesting the depth of discovery possible and, in many case, the parties will agree what makes sense for the matter.  In other cases, they will not agree.  That is where an experienced arbitrator comes in to weigh the likely burdens and expense against the likely value of the information.  The advantage of thinking of things this way, however, is it provides a basic structure for determining how far document discovery should go to begin to fit the procedures to the dispute.

Remember, these modes are just suggestions.  A careful study of the particulars of the case may reveal that there is another hybrid mode that makes more sense in the unique situation presented.  But these suggested modes are a good place to start and are quite a bit more helpful to crafting an efficient discovery process than general notions of relevancy, calculation, and burdens.

Of course, while the general scope suggested by the suggested modes are a good way to start getting a handle on discovery, there is still the complication of electronic discovery, which we will take up in the next installment.