Today, December 1, 2011, marks the fifth “birthday” of the federal e-discovery rules amendments. Five is the age when we leave the idle idylls of early childhood and take our first steps on the road to becoming a skilled, educated and productive adult. Five years out from the rules amendments, we’ve yet to see the legal community embrace the ABCs of e-discovery.  Educational resources remain sparse and superficial. Worse, many lawyers cling to the delusion that they can be competent advocates without understanding digital evidence in a world where nearly all evidence is digital. Most lawyers lack any training or tools to examine, sort or search electronically stored information.  Lawyers have lost touch with evidence.

Birthdays and gifts go together, and I can’t imagine a better or more timely “gift” to the e-discovery community than the introduction of a spectacularly powerful software tool called Proof Finder.  For the breakthrough price of $100 dedicated entirely to supporting child literacy, purchasers of Proof Finder will snag a tool having the core capabilities of e-discovery platforms costing thousands of dollars more.  It’s a tool with the power and price tag to get lawyers back in touch with evidence.

Education is the only permanent solution to waste, abuse and incompetence in e-discovery. Not the faux education of feel good certification programs but genuine skill building honing real expertise in information technology.   Information technology, like law, is a deep and broad subject that requires time and diligence to understand. We need serious instruction made available to lawyers who are serious about understanding digital evidence. If we build it, they will come.

I’ve been beating that drum for a long time, crisscrossing the world preaching the gospel of better, cheaper ways to handle electronic evidence. Five years on, the pace of improvement has been lackluster.

But one noisy crusade is starting to pay off, and that’s the drive to get affordable, intuitive e-discovery tools into the hands of end users—and by “end users,” I include trial lawyers of all ages.  Proof Finder isn’t the only tool that I’m proud to hold up as a brilliant harbinger of things to come, but nothing else approaches it on the cost-value continuum.  For the price, it won’t just pay for itself in weeks or months.  It’ll pay for itself in minutes.

I know I’m gushing like a schoolgirl at a Justin Bieber concert, but I’m convinced making a tool like Proof Finder available at a crazy low price anyone can afford is a breakthrough in helping lawyers deal with ESI.  That the price goes to a charitable purpose is icing on the cake.

I’m enthused because tools are teachers. Is there anyone who hasn’t been educated via their Internet browser? Is there any lawyer who hasn’t benefitted from the availability of online legal research using Westlaw or Lexis? We learn to use tools, and tools help us build and master new skills.

Empowering end users by pushing out tools has been a successful model for decades. Whether we speak of Apps, handhelds, Cloud computing, tablets, personal publishing, social networking, whatever–we’ve seen no retreat from individual empowerment achieved by putting potent tools in the hands of the masses.

When a lawyer has the tools to view native formats, the lawyer sees data in new ways and better understands what he or she sees.

When a lawyer has the tools to manage and view native formats and rich container files, money wasted on intermediation (like petrification) can be saved.

When lawyers have the tools to look at data quickly and cheaply, they’ll explore new sources and forms of information, gleaning new intelligence and making short work of what’s not relevant.

Crucially, when tools are inexpensive enough that everyone can afford them, they become a new way to communicate and collaborate. If my opponent and I share a common platform, my opponent can see the noisy search term or quickly view data that changes the value of our case. We are closer to resolution. Common platforms also help solve problems with forms of production, identification of documents and inadvertent corruption of evidence.

How can I extol the virtues of pushing out powerful, well designed tools to the masses without taking a page from the Book of Jobs?

Steve Jobs showed us that we can love our tech tools.  We can develop a relationship with devices and applications that make them a natural extension of ourselves. A tool called Nuix is like that for me.  I use Nuix as a desktop app in the way others use their browsers or Google.  Nuix on the desktop has been something of a secret weapon in helping me to get to key information and make sense of it much more quickly than other lawyers.

Having the ability to quickly and deeply dive into rich data samples from key custodians is invaluable. Using Nuix and tools like it, lawyers will assemble the document seed sets needed to train predictive coding applications; they’ll flush out the noisy keywords and the common misspellings that explode the cost of e-discovery. Lawyers can pick up the lingo—the unique argot—of the case, product or business unit required get to the truly useful evidence. They’ll see the relationships between custodians and know who is a player and who is just taking up space. They’’ll spot the gaps, identify the missing pieces and know where the landmines are buried.

Why am I talking about a really pricy tool called Nuix in a post about a really cheap tool called Proof Finder?  It’s because Nuix and Proof Finder are one and the same, at least in terms of the daily, desktop needs of lawyers and others in routine cases.  Sure, Proof Finder is limited to just 10 gigabytes of data and doesn’t have all the export and review bells and whistles of its upmarket twin.  Proof Finder hasn’t the horsepower to compete with the capabilities of an e-discovery service provider.  That’s the point.  Proof Finder does most everything Nuix does but only serves a market that Nuix and its users don’t serve–a market no one yet serves well.

If the proceeds from the sale of Proof Finder benefitted some giant nameless, faceless corporation, I’d probably still be urging you to run out and buy a copy, because there’s just nothing else out there that does what Proof Finder can do for a hundred bucks.  But I’d feel like a shill.  So, naturally I’m thrilled that all of the proceeds from the sale of Proof Finder will be contributed to the charity Room to Read to support literacy in developing countries.  For a pittance, you get a tool that helps you down the road to ESI literacy, and kids in Laos get schools that help them down the road to a different sort of literacy.  Win-Win.

So, do yourself a favor: go to the Proof Finder site, watch the demo, confirm you have the hardware and operating system to run the program, then download the software to the computer where you’ll install it.  Run it, buy a one-year license for $100, and congratulate yourself on one of the smartest deals you’ve ever made.  I did, and snagged the very first copy.  I’ll race you to see who gets to buy copy 1,000.

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