California State Bar Issues Formal Opinion on The Duty of Competence in Ediscovery


Electronically stored information (ESI) is now commonplace, and discovery of that ESI is simply part of litigation. Attorneys who handle litigation must understand the requirements and obligations of electronic discovery and advise their clients with competence. The State Bar of California issued Formal Opinion No. 2015-193 that addresses the duty of competence in ediscovery by counsel.

The digest of the opinion reads as follows:

An attorney’s obligations under the ethical duty of competence evolve as new technologies develop and become integrated with the practice of law. Attorney competence related to litigation generally requires, among other things, and at a minimum, a basic understanding of, and facility with, issues relating to e-discovery, including the discovery of electronically stored information (“ESI”). On a case-by-case basis, the duty of competence may require a higher level of technical knowledge and ability, depending on the e-discovery issues involved in a matter, and the nature of the ESI. Competency may require even a highly experienced attorney to seek assistance in some litigation matters involving ESI. An attorney lacking the required competence for e-discovery issues has three options: (1) acquire sufficient learning and skill before performance is required; (2) associate with or consult technical consultants or competent counsel; or (3) decline the client representation. Lack of competence in e-discovery issues also may lead to an ethical violation of an attorney’s duty of confidentiality.

Following are nine suggestions in the California State Bar Formal Opinion No. 2015-193 regarding how attorneys can meet their ethical duty of competence.

  1. initially assess e-discovery needs and issues, if any;
  2. implement/cause to implement appropriate ESI preservation procedures;
  3. analyze and understand a client’s ESI systems and storage;
  4. advise the client on available options for collection and preservation of ESI;
  5. identify custodians of potentially relevant ESI;
  6. engage in competent and meaningful meet and confer with opposing counsel concerning an ediscovery plan;
  7. perform data searches;
  8. collect responsive ESI in a manner that preserves the integrity of that ESI; and
  9. produce responsive non-privileged ESI in a recognized and appropriate manner.

Read California State Bar Formal Opinion No. 2015-193