Alexandra McCombs, Senior Project Manager at PAE, discusses working in government support, capturing dynamic website data, and falling in love with ediscovery
When you talk with someone who truly loves their work, you can’t help but be inspired by their enthusiasm. That’s why we were thrilled to get the chance to catch up with Alexandra McCombs, an attorney and Relativity expert who works as a Senior Project Manager at PAE Labat-Anderson, which provides logistical support to numerous departments of the U.S. government. Alex talked with us about learning ediscovery from the ground up, the data challenges she’s been working on lately, and why, after a decade of technological advancements, she’s still passionate about ediscovery.
How did you get started in ediscovery and then transition to ediscovery project management?
My career path hasn’t exactly followed a straight line! I studied Sports Management in college and then went to law school at what was then Franklin Pierce and is now the University of New Hampshire School of Law. I spent my first two years out of law school at a small firm practicing criminal defense and family law. Early on in my career, I heard about the opportunity to work on contract document review projects. The hours were long, but I was unencumbered and the pay was great, so I decided to do that for a while. That work was what put me on the forefront as ediscovery and contract discovery work were exploding onto the scene.
As I worked on individual projects, I noticed that there was always someone running each project, and I decided that I would learn as much as I could so I could eventually earn one of those roles. I briefly transitioned over to LEX On Demand, a former litigation-support vendor, before I found a position with CDS. My love for ediscovery and project management had already formed, but it was here that it really flourished. I was exposed to and was able to explore numerous tools and technologies and learn about every role as I gained additional experience as a project manager. it was a fast-paced environment that involved close client contact and intense work. After several years, I decided to step back from the long hours that are typical for ediscovery vendors. Thanks to everything I had learned along the way, I was able to move over to government support in a project-management capacity.
How is the work you do at PAE different from traditional ediscovery in the corporate world?
We definitely have a better work-life balance with government support; most of the time, it’s a more sustainable pace that I can see maintaining for the long term. That said, working with the government, we face an array of complex technical, contractual, and funding constraints that aren’t necessarily reflected the same way in commercial work. Because of that, implementation of newer technologies may primarily be addressed at the change of a contract. That’s starting to shift—the government has become more open to identification and implementation of technology that can help them work better, faster, and more efficiently.
One thing that’s quite different, for me at least, is that I don’t do much in the way of investigations. I work specifically with the Department of Justice, so by the time we get an assignment for a case, the investigation is already done. A lot of the work that I do is preparatory: I need to be up to speed and ready to provide immediate support if—or, more accurately, when—specific issues come up.
Because of that, I’m constantly navigating new challenges around social media, dynamic website capture, and other emerging technologies. Whenever new apps or tools pop up, I want to figure out how they work and learn how to capture or preserve information from them. So far, I’ve worked with several instant messaging and ephemeral messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, as well as Instagram, Twitter, and other social media sites.
Lately, we’re focusing more on devices from the Internet of Things (IoT): refrigerators, assistant devices like Alexa, movement trackers like Fitbit, connected cars—you name it, we’ve seen it. Each type of device has its own software and its own interface, but we have to be prepared to deal with these so that when they come up, we’re not scrambling. We’ve already seen people convicted of crimes on the strength of IoT device data. These days, everything in a home may be linked, with volumes of data constantly being collected. We’re ready to leverage that data to support DOJ.
But the majority of our requests are for online discussion boards, which can be another enormous data source for the DOJ in its cases. We get credentials to log in and then we have to learn the site and learn how to capture information in a way that’s authenticated and legally admissible.
What challenges do you face with capturing, preserving, and reviewing that type of online data?
It’s been quite difficult, but Hanzo’s Dynamic Review promises to change all that!
What we’ve had to do historically is to export DAT files, which would generate a separate PDF for each page that was captured—and there could be several hundred pages in any given capture. There’s been no way to export those pages in a particular order, so depending on how we clicked through a website and how the export process actually captured that information, we’ve had no idea where anything was in the export. That’s made it laborious and time-consuming to find individual postings within the DAT files.
With Hanzo Dynamic Review, we’ve seen how easy it can be to navigate and review these online boards. In Dynamic Review you can naturally navigate as if you were in the live website until you reach the exact page you need. Sorting through different PDFs is time consuming because you constantly lose the contextual experience. The possibility to review this content dynamically in Relativity will save a significant amount of time because we’ll be able to review and code information as we’re meandering through the preserved webpage.
We’re glad you love it! You’ve been working in ediscovery for over 10 years now—what other changes have you seen over that period?
The advent of new technologies and the push to use analytics have both created tremendous ripple effects. We’re finally seeing smaller data sets because we’re now better at targeting our collections, better at culling out extraneous or redundant information, and better at focusing on what’s actually relevant and proportional to a case. Instead of old-school data dumps, we’re seeing filtered data sets that are more helpful to the issues in the case.
A lot of that ediscovery scoping relies on tools that have been consistently improving over the last 10 years. We’re better able to use date filters, to identify and implement appropriate keywords, and to apply processing tools that enable analytics in the early stages of a case, long before review.
We also trust our tools more now, from analytics to technology-assisted review based on continuous active learning. People across the board are more open to using computer-assisted tools that allow us to effectively and efficiently take the big data that we’re all generating and reduce it down to a targeted data set.
What knowledge, skills, or personal characteristics do you think are most important for a good ediscovery project manager to have?
Personally, I think there are two aspects of my experience that have made me well-suited to this role. First, as an attorney, I’m able to communicate clearly with my clients and my case teams, understanding their points of view and their ultimate goals. I often play the role of a translator, taking what the attorney says and translating it to the data analyst, then translating the analyst’s questions back into legal-speak for the attorney. While you don’t have to have legal training to work in ediscovery, it definitely helps! But the key step is that you have to stop talking and truly listen to people. You can’t figure out why something isn’t working—or solve the underlying problem—until you listen.
Second, because I’ve come up through the ranks, I know what it’s like to be on the front lines. I’ve done contract review under completely unreasonable time constraints. I’ve worked with all kinds of software and done every type of front-end work. Having that perspective helps me design workflows that actually work. Plus, having “been there and done that” lends me credibility with clients and with vendors.
One of the key lessons I’ve learned is that you have to have pretty thick skin coupled with a sense of accountability. You’ve got to be willing to own up to your mistakes, but then you also must be prepared to fix them and—here’s the critical step—learn from them so you don’t repeat them. Stuff is going to go wrong. Maybe you miscoded something or started with the wrong production number. Whatever it is, first you have to admit that it happened. Yes, it’s going to drive up the cost of the project and probably destroy your timeline. But if you don’t take responsibility, you’re going to lose that client. And at the end of the day, what keeps you going are your client relationships and the trust they’re built on.
The learning mindset is another key component. I’m constantly taking notes and writing things down. If you don’t document your processes and keep track of what you’re doing, you’re going to forget the mistakes you’ve made, which means you’ll be doomed to repeat them. Great ediscovery managers have that sense of meticulousness; they know what they’ve done and how it worked out, so they have a better idea what to do the next time an issue comes up.
That careful problem-solving is what I love about ediscovery. I love helping a client get exactly the evidence they need to build a case. I love digging deep into databases, mastering new technologies, putting out fires, seeing projects succeed, and then getting those emails at the end of a case thanking me for all the hard work. Not to mention, it’s never boring: every day brings a different challenge to sort through. Solving my clients’ problems and making everything run smoothly just gives me a tremendous sense of accomplishment. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else!