Transformation: From Practicing Attorney to Litigation Support Professional, or How to Reprogram Your Brain in 5 Easy Steps (Okay, Not Easy and Not 5, But Worth The Bumps In The Road!)
by Diane Enoch-Poling, Esq.
The year was 2003. Do you remember where YOU were? Here’s some context: Rapper Eminem won the the 30th Annual Music Awards and Beyonce won the 20th MTV awards; Bill Maher piloted “Real Time With Bill Maher;” and Serena Williams beat her sister, Venus Williams, to win the 110th Wimbledon Women's Tennis championship. This was the year of the August 14th wide-scale power blackout in the northeast US; And of course, for you techies, 2003 was the year AOL Time Warner disbanded Netscape and the Mozilla Foundation was established the same day.
Ah, yes, 2003, the year my life changed FOREVER, when I made the leap from practicing attorney to litigation support “newbie.” Some background will be helpful: Amy and I had been friends for a loooooong time by 2003. We first met in 1990 when I placed an ad in the local paper (raise your hand if you remember ads in local papers!) for a roommate to share my townhouse with me and my two children, both boys, both bouncing with energy. So my ad said something like “looking for reliable roommate to share townhome with single mom and her two boys; single mom with kids welcome.” Amy answered the ad. We hit it off immediately and even better, she also had two high-energy boys about the same age as mine. It’s always challenging when two, or in this case, four strong-minded individuals attempt to live in a cramped household. But we all managed very well and a lifetime friendship was forged.
By this time, I had graduated from law school, passed the Maryland Bar Exam, completed a rad one-year judicial clerkship, and had landed my first job as an Associate in a firm specializing in claimant’s Workers’ Compensation. The road to getting that job was kind of shocking to this newbie lawyer and I could write a whole other blog post about that experience (perhaps another time) but for now, suffice it to say that the hours were long and the pay was not much better than my clerkship (low level State salary). Low. I traveled all over Maryland attending hearings, often meeting clients for the first time in the hallway moments before the hearings were to begin. That was the norm in Workers’ Compensation practice and I discovered, to my horror, that I did not LIKE going into Court without being fully prepared to argue cases I knew little about and knowing even less about the clients. Now, I worked with some extraordinary lawyers and they thrived on this type of law practice. Truly great people that I learned much from. But what I learned about myself was that this type of practice was extraordinarily stressful to me and was just not sustainable.
So, I decided to switch gears to another type of law practice and fortunately landed an Associate position in a firm specializing in Guardianships, Estates & Trusts. Very different type of practice, no doubt about it, I was way better suited to this type of lawyering. But by year three, it became apparent that I had maxed out my salary potential at an amount not even close to paying my household bills and my law school loans. So the big question for me was “Holy crap, NOW what?!?”
Enter Amy Bowser. We had stayed as close as two single moms with very busy lives could: We had dinners/lunches every few months and tried to figure out solutions to the things that troubled us. So I was complaining, again, about how broke I was one night as we ate dinner at The Mt. Washington Tavern in Baltimore (and totally monopolized a booth table for several hours – sorry about that servers, but in our defense we do tip really, really well). Amy said something like, “I’m looking for contractors for an electronic discovery matter my firm is handling – why don’t you come work for me and do that?” Huh!?! The closest I ever got to “electronic discovery” as a practicing attorney was a multi-page email to opposing counsel. When I explained this glaring shortcoming to my good friend Amy and pretty much called her out on how crazy her idea was, that’s when she first hit me with what has become a CLASSIC Amy Bowser statement. Amy said “Diane, I know you really well and trust you completely and you have a good, potentially great APTITUDE for learning just about anything, and maybe more importantly, you have a fantastic ATTITUDE and I want you on my team.” Wow, that knocked my socks right off! If you know only one thing about Amy Bowser, know this: When she says a person has the right combination of attitude and aptitude to make it in this business, she KNOWS what she’s talking about. So, I accepted and thus began my CRASH course in litigation support.
So, to recap, the year is 2003, and I am about to have my whole world view fundamentally turned upside down. It turned out to be the best thing I could have ever hoped for. One of the first things Amy did on day one was hand me (1) a laptop (2) a decked out laptop bag with every cable and connector known to mankind, and (3) a Blackberry. As I got that deer-in-the-headlights look, Amy explained to me that I would need to become comfortable with the “tools of the trade.” Now there was an understatement. GULP!
I remember that first day Amy asked me how many emails I would normally get in a day as an attorney and I said something like “I think in my last job I got maybe like 5 emails, um,…a week.” She just looked at me, blinked and said in perfect deadpan “Yeah, um, okay I have no concept of what you just said.” HAH!
I seamlessly and quickly (neither) learned how to hook up my laptop in the docking station (Hello Star Trek). Then I logged into my desktop computer (seriously, TWO computers, was that really necessary?) and OMG, there were the 450+ emails in my Inbox!! Amy explained, again simply, calmly, that I needed to review the emails in order to get “up to speed” with my case teams and their cases. She also said something like “Yeah, I just setup your account over the weekend so your email load shouldn't be too heavy.” WHUUUUUUTTTT?? That was definitely a “what the f***” moment for me! But, ya know what? I did it, and a good part of why I pushed through, indeed, the reason for accomplishing that goal was that Amy believed that I could. The next day, when I told Amy that I had reviewed all 450+ emails, she didn't act surprised in the least. This meant to me that she had full confidence in me…wow, that's actually pretty profound now that I think about it. Amy threw a lot at me but she always had complete confidence that I would rise to the challenge, even when I doubted myself. That is who she IS, a natural leader, a nurturer, a mentor whose faith in her students is unshakeable. Once you are Amy’s student and have experienced for yourself her incredible faith in YOU, then you can begin to comprehend how fortunate you are to have stumbled, fallen or fought to become part of her world.
So back to the first fateful days as a litsupp professional. To say I struggled with litigation support jargon and concepts is putting it lightly. Amy and the other team members soon had a taste of “Diane World” and my literal interpretations of certain words/phrases.
Remember when opening a new tab was something one did at the local bar or, for all you seasoned folks, Tab was something you drank? Or when LAW was something you practiced, not something you “ran some pdfs through to overlay with a bates label, tiff and OCR .” WHAT THE WHAT?!?
So here are a few examples of how I struggled with the new techie terminology:
Amy: “Now I'm going to teach you how to overlay the bates numbers onto a PDF.”
Me: (cricket sounds)
Amy: (doing a double take) “PLEASE tell me you know what a bates number is…??”
Me: (sheepish grin) “Uh, nope, not a clue…is it something important?”
AMY: (blinking) “Uh, yeah, a bates number is a unique alphanumeric number that is electronically assigned to each and every page of a litigation production.”
Me: “Oh is that all…”
Amy: (In an email to me, the 200th email that day btw, but who's counting?) “Now, we're going to take the PDF you just overlaid with a bates number and OCR it through LAW. I'll be right over.”
Me: (Amy having arrived at her usual place over my right shoulder watching me try to navigate) “Riiiiiight..so I got your email…ok, so isn't OKRA a vegetable that is prominent in southern cooking?”
Amy: (Giving me a look like “are you serious right now??”) “Uh, no, OCR, pronounced OH-See-Arr is a process by which words are broken down into searchable characters so they can be loaded into a database to make it searchable.”
AMY: (Again, over my shoulder) “So there are a few different types of load files you'll need to become familiar with…DII, CSV, OPT, DAT, LFP….”
Me: “DII? Isn't that something you are charged with if you've had one too many drinks and stupidly decide to drive home?”
Amy: (Sigh) ‘No, Diane. It's a Summation load file.”
Me: “Load file? Isn't that something you do with a bunch of redwelds into your car the night before a Court hearing?”
Amy: (With a slightly concerned look) “Hmmmm, no, Diane, it's a technical term for a delimited electronic file to load data into Summation, a database review software.”
Me: “Delimited?? Isn't that something that happens to a sports team at a playoff game when they lose?”
Amy: (Laughing now) “Uh, nice try, Diane, no, a delimited file is a text file with specific characters that help load the data into a database program, like Summation or Concordance.”
Amy: (Standing over my shoulder watching the screen as I clicked haplessly about) “Ok, that's good [it wasn't!}] now go to your Desktop, open up a window and find the dropbox..”
Me: (More cricket sounds; then as I'm desperately looking around the inner office cubicle) “Ok, so I’m sitting at my desktop (I was referring to my actual “desk top”), I have no idea where the dropbox is (I was looking for a real actual mailbox from the mailroom) and, well, there aren't any windows in this part of the building, soooooo……”
Amy: (Deep sigh) “I mean open a new window on your computer, that is, a new screen through this thingy right here called “the Desktop,” she said pointing to the computer screen.”
Me: (In my big Zoolander moment) “Ooohhh, it's IN the computer….?!? But it's so simple…in the computer…I got this!”
You get the picture. I have always been a bit of a smartass when I feel comfortable around people, and let me tell you, as tough as it was, Amy and her team ALWAYS made me feel welcome, and never, ever made me feel stupid because I didn't know ANYTHING about litigation support when I started in 2003.
Seriously, those first few weeks were REALLY hard. It felt like I was reprogramming my brain: See, in law school, it was pounded into us that we, as future lawyers, needed to become the confident masters of our domain, to understand “the Law”, to apply “the Law,” to practice “the Law.” We were taught to always find the answer to whatever legal issue was at hand using big, thick books filled with rules and regulations. We were taught to build on existing case law, to follow PRECEDENT. Legal concepts change slowly in “Attorney World.” Lawyers literally have huge sets of rule and caselaw books that tell them with a pretty high degree of confidence, what the answer is to any given problem. “Attorney world” is quite literal. As an attorney practicing Workers’ Comp, Guardianship and Estate law, I could rely on regulations or rules to give me the answers, not all of the time, but definitely most of the time. If things really got crazy, we turned to caselaw to interpret the legal issues. The legal concepts and rules I had learned before could usually be applied to the next similar instance I encountered. Sure, every now and then, a novel legal problem would arise, which, based on the particular circumstances, might eventually (I'm talking years) modify existing law.
As I discovered in 2003 when I made the decision to jump the lawyer ship and jump into the unknown sea of litigation support, THIS world was very different from lawyer world. There are of course, parallels: Litigation discovery follows pretty much the same path for most legal cases no matter which firm you are in. Litigation Support, however was more about having a tool kit of things to try, not just the big hammer of “The Law.” It took me awhile to fully grasp that there really was no one right way to do ANYTHING in litigation support, rather there are numerous software solutions, widgets and programs that one could use to go at a problem. This was a fundamental mindshift for me and it was PAINFUL! But, for whatever reasons, the litigation support gods were kind to me and gave me the most amazing gift to see me through the tough times: That gift was my mentor and friend, Amy Bowser-Rollins. Not only did she show extraordinary patience as I struggled with the transformation, she even found humor in how I perceived certain things. Rather than see me as a burden, Amy saw my lack of tech knowledge as an opportunity for her to positively impact my life, to make things better for me.
I will illustrate. My second week into my new job, Amy and I were working on a large production with a tight deadline. Somewhere into our 18th hour of working, I literally laid my head down on the counter and said something like “Can't make it…(pant, pant)…save yourself, go on without me!” or something equally as dramatic. I was telling Amy to go on without me because it was me, my lack of experience, my one-track lawyer mind that was seriously slowing us down. I was a burden and I felt horrible about it. So let me tell you what Amy's response to that was…in the throes of battle as I am telling her to save herself, she just smiled and said “Uh, no thanks, we’re doing this together.” In that moment, I realized how exceptional this woman was…at a time when she clearly, easily, in fact could have turned away from me and pushed ahead to finish the project, and at a time when I was begging her to go on without me, she seemed to grow calmer, more confident and refused to leave me behind. In this moment of “I ain't leaving you behind, man!” Amy demonstrated a level of leadership, compassion and grace under pressure that I had personally never experienced before and have not experienced since.
Amy was determined, beyond what most people would find reasonable or rational, that she was going to give me ANOTHER OPTION when it came to my career path. And, I will note that my career as a litigation support professional has been far more financially lucrative than my 5 year stint as a practicing attorney. Some day I may go back to practicing law, but because of Amy’s guidance, her teaching, her willingness to never give up on me, I actually have career options.
I was unbelievably fortunate to have Amy at my fingertips for about two years, then she left to pursue other opportunities and well, it just wasn't the same without her. Amy is one of those rare people that not only knows instinctively how to teach well even during, or perhaps, especially during the heat of the battle, she also knows how to inspire those around her to try harder. At the same time, she never fails to help them believe more deeply in themselves. She is the real deal, folks and I am so proud to call her my friend…