Although electronic discovery is increasingly important for court lawyers, only about 30 law schools nationwide offer e-discovery courses. To address the gap, Catalyst, an e-discovery service provider based out of Denver, has developed a practicum that aims to give law students the necessary experience to enter the workforce with adequate fundamental knowledge. So how does the program work and why is it important for future lawyers?
In this episode of Digital Detectives, Sharon Nelson and John Simek interview Bill Hamilton, executive director of the UF E-Discovery Project at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, about their use of the Catalyst practicum. They discuss the curriculum’s components, the program’s pedagogical design, and what this means for the future of e-discovery education in law schools.
- What a practicum is
- Digital evidence and students using e-discovery software
- Instructional videos, structured exercises, and quizzes with feedback
- Catalyst’s interest in education and their cloud-based platform
- Testing to strengthen retrieval capacity rather than as an assessment tool
- Applying the case law to concrete situations
- Grading process: low stakes testing and evaluation
- The need for law schools to provide more practical training
Bill Hamilton is the executive director of the UF E-Discovery Project at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. He teaches introductory and advanced e-discovery classes on campus and online.
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Sharon D. Nelson: Welcome to the 62nd edition of Digital Detectives, we’re glad to have you with us. I’m Sharon Nelson, president of Sensei Enterprises.
John W. Simek: And I’m John Simek, vice president of Sensei Enterprises. Today on Digital Detectives, our topic is, Catalyst’s Free E-Discovery Practicum for Law Schools. We’re delighted to welcome as today’s guest, Bill Hamilton, the executive director of the UF E-Discovery Project at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Bill teaches introductory and advanced e-discovery classes on campus and online. Welcome, Bill.
Bill Hamilton: Hello, glad to be here.
Sharon D. Nelson: You know, Bill, I didn’t even know what a practicum exactly was. So can you explain first what that is and then tell us how the ediscovery practicum came about at your law school?
Bill Hamilton: A practicum is a way for the students to get simulated experiences as much as possible. To do that, in ediscovery of course, we have to use ediscovery software. Think of a flight simulator at a training school. What the students don’t do is just sit in the classroom, they actually get out on the simulator. So what we do at the University of Florida is we try to provide that simulator for our students. Not only are we studying case law, but our students get a hands on feel for what it’s like to go out and practice in the field. The idea, of course, is that this enriches their background, enriches their understanding of electronic discovery and also makes them job ready.
John W. Simek: So, Bill, why did you think that practicum was important in an introductory ediscovery law school course?
Bill Hamilton: Well, you have to imagine yourself in a situation where you’re trying to teach electronic discovery or any subject and the students have a lack of understanding or experience with the very topic you’re talking about. Let’s take a very rough example. Suppose you were trying to teach someone what it’s like to cut the grass around your house and they were from another planet. They never cut grass, didn’t know what it looked like, didn’t know it was green, didn’t know it grew, didn’t know water, and never been on a lawn mower and never tried to do anything. Your class talking about that would leave your students blank. They would really have no reference model to draw from. So what we try and do at the University of Florida is create that reference model. So we spend a significant amount of time breaking down computers and talking about what digital evidence is. And at the same time, they can’t handle digital evidence without using software in the process. So we make sure they have that experience as well. What we want to do is help our students have a rich experience where they’re not necessarily talking the talk but they’re actually walking the walk as well.
Sharon D. Nelson: Well, I’m guessing there’s a lot of moving parts to this practicum. So can you tell us about the components of it?
Bill Hamilton: Yes. The components are three different parts and there was a little bit of an experience that we had to have with it with Catalyst and Patty Daly who helped us and was the main person there working on the project. Working in a law school environment, you need to respond to the demands of the students. We have a limited amount of time. The students aren’t just taking electronic discovery, it’s not 8 hours a day that we have a training program for them there. They’re doing many different things. They’re doing interviews for different jobs, they’re talking to other professors, they’re taking other courses that they’re interested in. Of course, we all know that they’re excited about electronic discovery but it can absorb all their time. So what we have to do is integrate what they’re doing in the classroom. When we were talking about, for example, search, we have to provide them with search tools and search software and help illustrate the lessons by having them do the software. One of the modern approaches to pedagogy is that you really don’t learn unless you struggle with something a little bit. So we talk a little bit about search, what search is, what ruling in search is, what stemming is and those kinds of things to refine and improve the search. But then we turn the students loose with structured exercises. I have to commend Catalyst for helping me on that because you can make exercises so hard that it befuddles the students and then they come away with a negative experience or you can make exercises so easy it all seems a routine. So what we’ve done is come up with a series of exercises that test the students a bit and at the same time provide them with some encouragement. So what Catalyst has done is it created some videos that talk about their software at Catalyst Insight. Then we have some practical exercises that the students do, and the practical exercises are designed to allow them to expand themselves in terms of what they’ve learned in the videos. What we have also is access to Catalyst’s Sandbox. So one, the students are watching the videos on the educational channel that Catalyst offers. They could also experiment in Sandbox and test out what they’re doing. Then they work on the exercises. And then finally after a period of five, typically, a week, what they do is take a quiz that gives them feedback on how they’re doing and helps them understand whether they’re grasping the fundamental concepts or not. And of course I’m grading the exercises and providing tips and insights and constructive comments on how your search design could be improved and in some cases not improved. A lot of the students just take this like a duck takes the water. They do really well from the get go.
John W. Simek: Well, we’re big fans of Catalyst ourselves, and you’ve talked about some things that they provide, the videos and Sandbox and all of that other stuff. But can you elaborate a little bit on why they’re a good partner for this practicum?
Bill Hamilton: Well, we originally went to Catalyst in a large part because John Tredennick, the founder of Catalyst, has been involved in ediscovery education for a while. So one, Catalyst had the impulse to do it. And at the same time, their platform was perfect for us. One of the struggles we had and law schools do have is installing software on student’s machines. That becomes very problematic and very difficult and troublesome. So in the early era, ediscovery software was basically an application loaded on a machine and not hosted in the Cloud. It presented challenges for us. So Catalyst was one of the first to say, “Look, we have our platform in the Cloud, you can access it just through any browser on any machine,” and it worked like magic for us. And that’s the two reasons we generated and moved towards Catalyst because one, obviously it’s quality product. Two, they had the spirit of ediscovery education and John was always very dedicated to providing us with the resources we need. And in terms of having their training people work and develop a special set of videos. So all of those things came together a couple of years ago and we’ve been gradually working on refining the product. We’re at the point where we think we’ve got it pretty tuned today.
Sharon D. Nelson: This is so different from what law students generally experience in law school. They tend not to get too much that’s really practical. So how did they respond to the practicum?
Bill Hamilton: Well, we’ve gotten great reports on it. Students seem to like it and they like the fact that it provides them with concrete and experience on what the case law’s about. When you talk about basic law, for example, just to take another example, it seems really easy to field a grounder. It seems real easy to catch a flyball. It seems easy to hit a pitch. But when you get out there, it’s much different in the field. Similarly, we can talk about reading Judge Facciola’s cases and Judge Grimm’s cases on search and the difficulties of search and even Judge Peck’s cases on TAR. But until you try to do it and realize that it really takes some effort and some concentration and testing and the process is not easy, that will enrich their experience and they’ll come away with a deeper appreciation of how important ediscovery is in terms of the dispute resolution process. But it’s also a skillset, it’s only acquired with hard work.
John W. Simek: So, Bill, how is the practicum designed from a pedagogical perspective?
Bill Hamilton: From a pedagogical perspective, as we talked about earlier, our theory comes out of some recent studies that I’ve done on educational philosophies and really empirical research and what really works in the classroom. There’s a really good book out called Make it Stick and another good book called the Talent Code. And what these books emphasize is that the learning process requires a feedback loop and that the testing process that we’re typically used to for purposes of assessment is also a way that information becomes solidified with students. In other words, testing really should be understood less as an assessment vehicle, it’s always important for that. But also as a way of strengthening the student’s retrievable capacities and the ability to work with information. So what the catalyst program does from a pedagogical point of view is it allows the students to see what’s going on. So they watch the videos in the sense of let me show you how to do it. And, of course, they can pause the videos, play them over again or run them as many times as they want while they’re doing the same thing in the Catalyst Sandbox, so they’re getting comfortable with it. Then, next, we turn them loose on exercises. The exercises require them to go into the Sandbox and do things themselves and frankly to struggle through it a little bit. That struggling process allows them to understand if they really got it or not from the videos they watched and allows them to go back to the videos and watch them again. But it helps them assess their own maturity level in terms of learning a software and learning the skills that are appropriate for ediscovery. And then, finally, to give them more feedback on it, it requires them to dig in deeper. We do a test that’s a relatively short test, it’s ten or fifteen questions that allows the students to do some genuine retrieval practice which one has the benefit of letting them know what they’re doing, but it also has the process of allowing it to sink in. When you think about something and retrieve it, it makes it much easier to think about it and do it the next time. And it allows you also to build a larger consensual frame on top of it. It’s very difficult to do algebra unless you can multiply numbers together and know how to factor. You’ve got to have that foundation solid. Similarly with this practicum, what we do is try to establish a solid foundation with feedback loops and retrieval practice that allows the students to develop a better consensual framework when we’re discussing case law and how to apply the case law to concrete, specific situations that I bring to class that we’re all seeing around us on a day to day basis.
John W. Simek: Well, before we move onto the next segment, let’s take a quick commercial break.
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Sharon D. Nelson: Welcome back to Digital Detectives on the Legal Talk Network. Today our topic is Catalyst Offers Free E-Discovery Practicum to Law Schools. Our guest is Bill Hamilton, the executive director of the University of Florida’s E-Discovery project at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. So, tell me Bill, why did you decide to make the practicum part of the course grade?
John W. Simek: Well, students work for grades just as all of us work for money, students work for grades. It’s very important to them at the University of Florida and I believe most other law school’s grading is on a curve. So students to some degree are in competition with one another and they know they’re being ranked and evaluated. So it’s very difficult to motivate students to do work if it’s not going to count. We want it to count so that’s why we built it into the grading process. When we did that, I think the thing to keep in mind is that what we did is we made what’s called low stakes testing and low stakes evaluation and exercises. In other words, any particular one of the exercises in Catalyst or even the quizzes count for a relatively small portion of the grade that the student is going to receive. What this does is it lowers the anxiety level for the testing and makes the student approach it with a little more of a let’s see what happens approach. I want to expand myself, I want to test it out and do well. You can imagine going out again using the sports model on a soccer field and say you’ve got to kick a goal here or else the world is going to come to an end. Your chances of kicking a goal is dramatically reduced by the perception. On the other hand, if you have the team and you’re doing practices and you’re just kicking it in during practice, everything goes swimmingly well. That’s what we try to do with our students. We want it to count, we want the students to work at it, we want them to take it seriously. We want them to be rewarded for the work they put into the program. But at the same time, we didn’t want it to be a high stakes winner take all kind of experience. So that’s why we did it. It’s important that it becomes part of the curriculum and grading and that requires some creativity as you build in that grading element into it. We had to come up with the total points that are going to be available in the course, how many points is the final going to be worth, how many points our various Catalyst exercise is worth and the quizzes as well as the other things that we do in the class as well outside of the Catalyst practicum. But it’s important that the students work at it on an ongoing basis. And to encourage students to do that, we really need to have them getting credit for it. We don’t want students doing ediscovery, unfortunately, in the way that many students approach our traditional law school class, which is to pay a reasonable amount of attention during the term and then cram at the end for the final examination. What we want to do in ediscovery because of the nature of the course is they have to absorb the information gradually and build one class on top of another. So we use the software and the Catalyst testing and tools to allow that to happen. We found it very effective, so right away I get a sense as to whether the students are understanding our lessons on search and our class activities if they’re able to perform on the quizzes as well through doing searches and the actual Catalyst Sandbox.
John W. Simek: So that’s from the student’s side, but what commitment does it take from a professor to use the practicum?
Bill Hamilton: It does take some commitment. What, of course, we said is Catalyst has been very helpful. They’ve created the videos so we don’t have to worry about the videos. Catalyst has also done the examination and that’s auto graded. So I get a report from Catalyst as to the scores of my students on the quizzes. I might mention too that the quiz isn’t a one and done kind of event. Students have the ability to take the quiz over again if they don’t do well on it the first time or the second time or the third time to get themselves up to an acceptable level that they’re comfortable with and I’m comfortable with. So Catalyst provides those resources, which are absolutely wonderful. The burden on the professor is twofold. One on the exercises because the exercises require a certain amount of creativity and thinking it through. What the professor has to do is be able to evaluate the responses on the exercises. This isn’t rocket science but it does take some time. We’ve got to look at each answer, especially the answers that aren’t as correct as the other answers and figure out where the student might have gone amuck or at least not done as clean and crystal clear and direct a search as we would have hoped and then provide feedback to the student giving them some instruction. Additionally, what I hold are kind of ongoing sessions where students can contact me at any time. I meet with them in the office or on Zoom if they’re having some trouble on Catalyst and want some deeper explanation into this feature or that feature or some other function. So it’s a collaborative effort between Catalyst. Catalyst provides a lot, but the instructor, of course, can’t get away from our fundamental responsibilities to our students to assess their results to help them mature and develop and give them feedback and be there for them to make sure they don’t struggle too hard.
Sharon D. Nelson: It sounds like it takes a lot of commitment from the professor, so I certainly applaud you for that Bill. You mentioned some of what Catalyst does. Are there other elements to their support?
Bill Hamilton: Yes. The way it works is at the beginning of the semester I’ll get the names and emails of my students and then I will send that to Catalyst. They at the appropriate point in the semester, my direction will then send out a welcome message to students advising them of the Catalyst training program for students. There’s a special website for that and then a separate website for Sandbox that the students get to play in. So they get a message with two URLs, plus instructions on how to use both. Catalyst has also created a training manual that the students can use. They have their search guides, they have other Catalyst educational materials that students generally find very, very helpful. And lastly, if a student’s having a technical problem of some kind, the Catalyst helpdesk is available to assist them with technical and other problems related to access if there should be some challenges. And then as I said, Catalyst provides us with a report on a regular basis of how the students are doing. And lastly – and I think this is really important for the ongoing success of the program – we always meet at the end of the semester and do an appraisal. Did we accomplish what we wanted to accomplish? Should the exercises be tweaked? Should the testing be tweaked in some way? And usually, every semester we come up with a couple of good ideas between John, Patty Daly and myself in terms of how we can improve it, so it’s an ongoing work in progress. I really feel like Catalyst has been a partner in this for me.
John W. Simek: So, Bill, tell us a little bit about what you think the practicum means for ediscovery law school education.
Bill Hamilton: I think law school ediscovery education is really setting a model in many respects for the direction that law schools I think will be moving in the future. And that’s to provide more hands on training for students. When I graduated from law school, I was privileged to go work with a significant law firm, and I remember going through almost a year of training at the law firm where I had partners sitting beside me questioning – what it seemed at the time – every move. I remember having depositions where I would ask questions in the wrong sequence or miss something and the partner sitting with me would say, “We’re taking a break.” And of course, everybody in the deposition room knew why we were taking a break and that was to instruct Bill on a better way to do things.
John W. Simek: It’s called a feedback loop, Bill.
Bill Hamilton: Bill would come back very red faced and try to regain his focus and he’d go on, and we did it like that for months and I thought I was one of the brightest people out there at the time. What I’m hearing from students who have graduated and the like is that law firms feel more fiscally constrained and maybe clients feel more fiscally constrained as well. That kind of training students aren’t getting from the larger law firms and of course the amazing smaller law firms have their own struggles from a financial point of view as well. So I think it’s going to devolve back on law schools to provide more training on specifics and on concrete. We do that here at Florida, of course. We have our Moot Court which trains students in appellate advocacy. We have our various clinics, we have tryout practice. So it’s as they say in the techie world, a robust kind of practical approach to certain aspects of legal education and also I should mention our clinics. But I think more in terms of where the classrooms are going as well, especially for second and third year courses, we’re going to be doing more – I believe in the future – we’re dealing with specific concrete problems that students will face as soon as they leave the law school. This will make them more practice ready when they hit the street and I think we’re going to prove their value out in the marketplace as well. I think ediscovery education – not because we have any particular foresight or genius or anything, but kind of what we were forced into because we had to accumulate students to what digital evidence is and what a computer is and how it stores and creates evidence and what bytes and bits are and how that all works in terms of search and the like. The fact that we had to do that background work I think is a little bit of – I won’t say a model, but a kind of overall picture that I think other courses are going to look at and say, “Maybe we should be doing that in our courses as well.” So I kind of view one that ediscovery education is setting a little bit of a new trend in law schools, and second of all I think that law schools are all going to have to move in this direction by teaching ediscovery. This is evidence. We’re talking about evidence. Unfortunately, ediscovery kind of branded early on as this dark place where people went into the basement to review documents for hour after hour after hour in large group. It was kind of like Charlton Heston rowing on the galley. You live for this ship, you serve the ship. Unfortunately we had a little bit of that mentality early on in ediscovery and somehow it got out there. But that’s not the way it is, we’re talking about evidence. Here, if you don’t understand this evidence, then you can’t gather it properly, you can’t understand its richness and purposes. You can’t use it to adequately represent your client and to get the best possible result of the litigation context. So law schools have to move in this direction where their students understand this new evidence, because the practice of litigation and dispute resolution, if anything, is gathering evidence and understanding it and applying it as the law permits.
Sharon D. Nelson: I just think it’s wonderful that we had the opportunity to hear about the practicum today. I know that when I was president of the Virginia State Bar and went around to the law schools talking to students, the number one complaint I heard was that they weren’t getting hands on experience. They didn’t know how to get a real job or demonstrate their value to potential employers, and it was of great concern to them. When I asked them what they wanted to do, all they could tell me was, “I want to get a job and I’ve got six figures of debt.” So what you’re really doing is preparing them for the possibility of being very practical to a law firm when they first come on board and giving them a competitive edge as well. It’s been wonderful hearing the story of all of this and it’s a great program, and thank you for being with us today Bill.
Bill Hamilton: If I could just mention something else before we conclude, I think what Catalyst has done and some other vendors and software providers has been wonderful in terms of the industry. I really think the software and vendor community is stepping up to the plate now more than ever to provide these educational programs. We look forward in the law school community to continuing to work with them to bring an increasing richness to our students.
Sharon D. Nelson: Next time I see John I’ll buy him a drink on behalf of all the law students across the country to whom he’s offered this wonderful program
John W. Simek: Well that does it for this edition of Digital Detectives; and remember, you can subscribe to all of the editions of this podcasts at LegalTalkNetwork.com, or in iTunes. if you enjoyed this podcast, please review us on iTunes.
Sharon D. Nelson: And you could find out more about Sensei’s digital forensics, technology and security services at www.senseient.com. We’ll see you next time on Digital Detectives.
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