Law firm adds practice group focused on managing data


More than 190 billion emails are being sent globally each business day, which means companies are generating data at an ever-accelerating pace, according to Dawn Garcia Ward, attorney at Warner Norcross.

That increase in data is one of the reasons Warner Norcross is adding a Data Solutions Practice Group.

The new practice group brings together a team of 30 — attorneys, records management specialists, data and information technology specialists and paralegals — to help manage the life cycle of data for clients. The integrated team will focus on areas including information governance and records management, electronic discovery, privacy and security, and employee education and training.

“The proper management of data has become much more important for organizations over the last five to 10 years,” said Jay Yelton, attorney at the Warner Norcross Kalamazoo office and co-chair of the Data Solutions Practice Group. “There are numerous landmines organizations need to be aware of.”

Yelton said one issue that is not necessarily new for companies but has become more challenging to manage with the increased use of email is retaining data in compliance with existing laws.

“Organizations get in trouble if they don’t retain certain data for a required time period,” Yelton said.

That information can easily be deleted by mistake and if a company ends up in litigation or part of a government investigation, it can face large fines, penalties, or even lose its case from the onset.

Another issue, which Yelton said is much more problematic, has to do with companies regularly maintaining far more data than necessary.

“From now to 2020, the amount of data an organization will maintain will double every two years,” Yelton said. “The average Fortune 1000 company has about 1,200,000 gigabytes of data, which is about 100 billion printed pages. When those organizations get involved in litigation or government investigations, to be having that much data gets to be a real problem.”

Privacy also is a growing burden on businesses. Federal and state laws continue to emphasize a business’s responsibility to protect customer data, and the penalties are significant. 

The financial liability on a company that falls victim to a data breach can be huge.

Yelton said the cost to shareholders of Target’s recent data breach reached $148 million.

“It really highlights how devastating a data breach can be,” he said. “You are going to be faced with civil litigation, government investigation, enforcement proceedings; you’ll have to reissue cards, pay if people have been subject to fraud on those cards.”

The shift from paper to digital information also puts companies at a greater risk of an employee walking out the door with trade secrets, confidential client information or other sensitive information.

“It was hard in the days when everything was on paper for a former employee to walk out the door with more than a couple of boxes of documents,” Yelton said. “Now, they are able to download information from an organization before or as they walk out the door really easily.”

Litigation or a government investigation escalates the risks Yelton mentioned, and is the time when poor data management can become the most costly.

“If all organizations are creating and maintaining more and more data and then a government investigation or litigation hits, if you go out and try to collect a lot of stuff, that is going to cost your client a great deal of money because you are not just going to turn around and produce all that data. You are going to need to review it.”

Warner’s new Data Solutions Practice Group is focusing its efforts on helping companies mitigate the slew of risks involved with data.

Yelton said the practice group team would meet at least monthly to help each other learn about data issues and solutions outside their individual practice areas.

“Even though I’m never going to become a data privacy expert myself, or a data security expert, I’m going to make the effort in my practice to learn more about it. It will help us identify issues quicker.”

He noted the advantage of working in collaboration with one another is seeing the bigger picture. For instance, a data privacy issue might actually have begun with a records management issue and a business not having the right policies and practices in place. The firm can help identify underlying issues and help those clients find solutions.

Yelton said one of the unique things about the practice group is the importance of its non-attorney members.

“We are increasingly relying on other types of professionals — IT professionals and records management specialists — who are going to be part of our team and don’t necessarily have a legal background but bring something to the table that is a value to us.”

Another unique component of the Data Solutions Practice Group is the addition of a data solutions project management center. Yelton said the 3,500-square-foot center would be located in Kalamazoo. Most likely it will be housed in a separate office space just down the street from Warner’s office there. The reason for the separate space is purely one of growth, Yelton said. He said Warner is outgrowing its Kalamazoo office.

“It’s going to be a large work area where we assemble in teams to work on our clients’ projects, and it’s very technology based,” he said. “We will have databases and we will process the data, review it and produce it.

“I think that is exciting in the sense that it’s not asking how can the standard law firm address these issues; it’s really asking what is the best way to do it and who are the best people to do it? That is what is fun about the practice: It’s not just law; it’s law, technology, accounting. I’m pretty excited.”

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