If Actors Make Good Presidents, They Can Also Make Good eDiscovery Consultants -not another political expose
An interview with Chris Wycliff, A law firm Legal Technology Manager
By Khrys McKinney
Technology changes with ever increasing speed and opportunity. The resulting opportunities in legal information technology require the agility to manage current technology while mastering the next new solution paying attention to the affect that these technologies have on the practice of law. The flexibility of one Legal Technology Manager, Chris Wycliff, may be a result of the interesting start of his career and his ongoing fascination with the next new thing. His lifetime of learning exhibits how a career can be crafted in the midst of the feverish developments in legal IT.
1. What was the last job that you had before you entered legal information technology, and how did it prepare you?
I was acting before I got into litigation support. I worked mainly in Houston and Dallas, doing industrial films and commercials. Between acting jobs, I did temporary office work through Olsten’s (temporary agency). In July of 1982 they sent me to a company called Rust Consulting Group for an assignment that was supposed to last two weeks. I was there for sixteen years. Before that I had no legal experience and had never touched a computer. I learned everything at Rust.
Candidly, I don’t know that acting prepared me at all for lit support. I did a good deal of training early in my career and being able to present to an audience helped there.
After five years of splitting my time between Rust and acting, I committed to legal technology full time because in November of ‘86, my wife, Patricia and I adopted our first child, Emily. At the time Pat was working in pharmaceutical sales.
She made a lot more money than I did but she was always stressed to the max. Not so good for a new mom.When Emily was about six months old, Patricia said she wanted to stay home and care for Emily full time. That was pretty scary, but we made the change. I stopped acting and went full time at Rust. Later we had two more kids the old fashioned way.
2. Describe the path of positions you have held and how each led to the next.
I started off Bates numbering documents. Everything was on paper in those days. They sat me down with a stack of documents and a sheet of computer-generated labels. I stuck labels on documents all day. Didn’t have a clue why I was doing it. I had never heard of a Bates number.
The first few years I was at Rust we worked on a single massive case, the marine construction antitrust litigation where all the big oil companies were suing Brown & Root and McDermott for price fixing in the offshore construction industry. We got crates of documents from all over the world and Bates numbered them. After they were numbered, other workers would copy the documents, file them in a repository, code them (also on paper), key in the coding and load that data into an IBM STAIRS database on a mainframe in California. It was years before I got any sort of understanding of the whole process and where I fit into it. By then my boss, Cheri Miller, had promoted me so I was supervising the other temps on the Bates numbering crew.
In 1986, I went to California to work on a case we referred to as Long Beach. I don’t remember much about the case but by that time Rust was using personal computers. A guy named Mark Judge was our computer guru. Before I left for California, Mark pulled me aside and showed me how to use dBase2, one of the early PC-based database management systems. That’s what I used to keep track of the Long Beach discovery. It was my first experience with programming. I thought I was really high tech!
Rust was doing interesting, pioneering work in the industry. To my knowledge we were the first company to automate a case using PCs. That was the Westmoreland v CBS case. We loaded it into an Inmagic database. In the late eighties we transitioned from Inmagic to BRS which was the big database engine for a number of years. There was a wave of savings & loan failures around that time. We did a lot of work on those cases and I picked up a good bit of experience coding documents and managing coding projects. It was also about that time that we began to transition from paper coding to online coding using a Xenix-based data entry system (RustWare).
In the early nineties, the litigation support industry was moving away from paper repositories to the use of imaging technology. Like everybody else, Rust had to ride that wave or get left behind. We bought some imaging hardware from Laser Master, a company in Minneapolis where one of Rust’s main offices was located. As part of the deal, LaserMaster threw in the source code for their demo software. It was written in C which none of us at Rust knew. About a half dozen of us got together in Minneapolis to see if we could figure out what in the world we had bought. I was the first one to find the line of code that made an image show up on the screen. That was enough to get me appointed as our imaging guru. I spent the next 3 or 4 years working on RustImage, one of the first imaging systems for litigation. I think we were the first ones to link imaging to BRS.
In 1997 Rust was sold to F.Y.I., Inc. (now known as Source Corp). Since then I’ve been a nomad. I spent a short time at a consulting firm, Baker Robbins. And I’ve done independent consulting for a number of clients including the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. I got a little sliver of work on the Enron case. I’ve worked for several e-discovery vendors. In 2011, I came on board with Skadden, my first time actually working inside a law firm.
3. What has been your proudest accomplishment or project related to your work?
In spite of RustImage’s limitations (of which there were many!), it was not a bad product for its time. I was pretty proud of it and it helped out some clients. With a little more vision and maybe more resources, who knows …
I recently worked on a very large criminal matter. It went on for years and for most of that time the e-discovery component gave the client fits, especially since their exposure was over a billion dollars. When the case went to trial, the government pretty quickly realized that things weren’t going their way and they moved to dismiss. In the aftermath, our client was highly complimentary about my team’s role in their success. They said that in the run up to trial, when things got really crazy and they were nervous about how to manage the evidence, they were always reassured to hear “Chris is working on it.” I was amazed. We always work behind the scenes. It’s rare to get that kind of recognition from the lawyers.
4. What have you learned in your career about what motivates you and the work environment you prefer?
I’m a grass is greener kind of guy. When I worked in a small office, I wanted to be in a big office. When I was in a big office … you get the idea. I guess I’m fortunate at Skadden. I’m in a small office of a large firm.
Mostly I just like problem solving. I’ve always been a game and puzzle junkie and to me that’s what programming is. I like trying to figure things out, to make something happen.