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Looking Back at Data Quality in the Erin Brockovich Era 30 Years After
Sep. 17, 2021

It was almost 30 years ago, in the early 1990s, that firms started to digitize their case management. Since then, technology has continued to advance, making running a law firm easier and more efficient for all departments, from legal to accounting to business development. Before we began digitizing data, case management, timekeeping, communicating with clients, and managing data were all done manually. This meant writing down information on hard copies, organizing those papers into file folders, and storing those folders in storage boxes or filing cabinets.

One of the best examples of how much effort lawyers and clerks went through to prepare a case is the movie, Erin Brockovich. In it, Erin Brockovich is a single mom with two kids who works for Ed Masry as a file clerk at his firm Masry & Vititoe. Ed asks Erin to open a case file for a pro-bono real estate case he’s taking on for a family in Hinkley, California. Erin discovers medical files mixed in with the legal files and begins to investigate why there would be medical records in a real estate case. She discovers that a large energy company used a poisonous chemical to prevent corrosion in cooling tanks for a natural gas pipeline, contaminating the water in Hinkley. Brockovich convinces some of the people of Hinkley, who have a variety of serious medical issues, to file a class action lawsuit, and, in turn, she convinces Ed Masry to handle the case.

In the movie, the director makes a point to show the law firm filled with boxes and Erin lifting and carrying them around. We see Erin reading document after document and flipping through hundreds of folders. Showing the physical exertion and the paper chase in every scene was a way to illustrate how much effort and information (data) it took to manage such a complex case. There’s even a scene where Ed Masry spills coffee all over himself after tripping over a box that his assistant set on the floor right inside his office door.

In today’s terms, that means data was lying around everywhere, unprotected, and unable to be used as a resource efficiently. No pulling reports, no analytics, no overview of the firm’s pipeline, and no reviewing history without a lot of effort to pull files, which then had to be organized and put back.

With CRM technology today, there’s no need to even fill in client contact data—systems can passively pull data from email signatures to create new contacts or update existing contact information.

In another scene, we see Erin reading through documents while in bed at night. She’s flipping through pages and going back and forth between folders. Identifying a possible opportunity for the firm was outside of Erin’s job scope, and piecing together information took so much time, she had to use her personal time to learn more details of the case. At that time, there wasn’t any technology to help unify data, which would make information processes more efficient and help identify opportunities. Originally, all information gathered was handwritten, if written down at all.

What would have happened if Erin hadn’t taken the initiative? What if she hadn’t used her personal time to investigate the case?

Though Masry ends up going with Erin’s recommendation and decides to represent the residents in Hinkley, he still had hesitations. He knew the case was going to stretch his firm’s time and resources and was going to cost his firm a large sum of money upfront. But Ed and Erin didn’t even realize at the time how large the case actually was. When they decided to represent the residents of Hinkley, there were 11 plaintiffs. But when Erin revealed that she found a document showing that the toxic chemical had been used since 1967, Masry knew the case was going to grow much larger; the number of plaintiffs in this class action lawsuit increased from 11 to 634.

Discovering there might be opportunity was just the beginning. Throughout the case, Brockovich was collecting information about the residents of Hinkley. She spent time building relationships with them, learning about them, and connecting with them, thus earning their trust. Erin also had to learn and document their contact information, necessary medical issues, and treatment—all the information she could gather to build a holistic view for each client and their case.

In addition to collecting information about each of the plaintiffs, Erin also had to research the effects of the chemical the defendant used that poisoned Hinkley’s water. This meant taking time to find a toxicology expert willing to be interviewed, plus collecting data from decades of public reports that showed a disregard for the potential health hazards. In one scene, we can see Erin spending what seems like hours, even at times with her three children, making copies of the reports while at the regional water board building. All of those copies had to be filed and organized manually.

During the movie, we learn that the class action lawsuit is too big for Masry & Vititoe to handle alone. So, Ed Masry brings in a larger law firm with class action expertise to help with the case Being a larger firm, they’ve begun to digitize case management information, and in one intense scene, Erin is confronted by a junior lawyer, who essentially challenges the data quality in Erin’s files. The lawyer needs more personal information and questions the research. After moments of silence and glaring at each other, Erin blurts out every possible detail from the file of a single sick child.

While it was impressive to see Erin’s recall ability after spending so much time with Hinkley families, the missing information highlighted a data quality issue that likely existed within many firm files before customer relationship management (CRM) software existed.

The case was settled in binding arbitration, and it’s well-known that the judge sided with the plaintiffs. The case was settled for $333 million, of which Masry & Vititoe received $133 million. But at first, Ed Masry didn’t want to expand past the original real estate case.

In the end, taking the case was worth the risk for Masry & Vititoe and Erin Brockovich. But when making the decision to accept the case or not, they made the decision based on limited knowledge. Today, Ed’s firm could have used the power of technology to pull reports, gather insights, and rely on analytics to help him calculate his firm’s risk. If Ed’s firm had a holistic view of the firm’s pipeline, he would have been able to better organize resources and align firm staff to help work on this case versus other cases the firm was handling.

While we no longer must rely on massive amounts of files and boxes and writing loads of information on paper, how we handle data may be an even bigger issue today because technology makes it possible to collect so much data more easily.

In the early 1990s, for a firm like Masry & Vititoe, it may have been very difficult to maintain data integrity and data quality. But today, by embracing technology, the right data can be collected and maintained to ensure its quality. And having the right CRM allows today’s firms to get a holistic view into the business development pipeline, pull advanced reports with key insights, and uncover new opportunities using
existing data.

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Chantal Williams

Chantal is responsible for planning and supervising marketing operations. She joined the Juris team in 2019 and has since helped in the development of marketing programs and criteria to achieve sales goals. Prior to joining LexisNexis, Chantal was a marketing coordinator for a prominent securities law firm in midtown Manhattan. She received her bachelor’s degree in Communications from Alfred University and a master’s degree in Communications from the New York Institute of Technology.

Read More View All Posts by Chantal Williams
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