Extreme Lit Support: U.N. War Crimes Tribunals

I found the following article, in the industry journal Litigation Support Today (required reading!) extremely interesting.  I have re-printed it here so those outside the industry see it: 

August/October 2008 • Vol. 2 No. 3 Litigation Support TODAY

By Hillary Easom

Most people know little about the genocide that occurred in Cambodia and Rwanda aside from what they’ve learned through watching films like The Killing Fields or Hotel Rwanda. While Hollywood helped educate people to some extent, westerners typically remain in the dark about the details of these horrors and about the United Nations tribunals that prosecute perpetrators of war crimes. A native Californian, Shannon Bales never imagined that he’d find himself on the front line, so to speak, at these trials. Because of his expertise with litigation support software, Bales was given the unique opportunity to provide pro bono assistance to two UN war crimes tribunals.

Three years ago, in the throes of the Rwandan war crime trials and needing software assistance, the UN contacted CaseSoft looking for someone with CaseMap expertise. CaseSoft recommended Bales. Beginning in late 2005, Bales provided support for the Rwandan tribunal. The work he did there was well received, and in 2007 he was asked to provide similar support in Cambodia. “It was an incredibly long and frustrating process to get approved to go to the UN,” Bales recalls. “But eventually I made it, and what was really interesting wasn’t so much that they needed this one specific application as much as they needed everything.” In addition to issues addressed by CaseMap, Bales provided support with transcripts and imaging, among other things. He put together a team equal to that of a litigation support department in the U.S. Bales lived in Tanzania, right next to Rwanda, for three months and later provided additional support via the Internet. Before his arrival, issues abounded. First of all, too many bad experiences with technology had led the UN to give up using any litigation support applications; no one was actively promoting the technology and its many potential benefits. Paperwork, procedures and workflow were burdensome—for example, what could be condensed into a one-page document was, in this case, thirty pages of text. Another huge obstacle was job turnover: after working on the trial for several months, departing employees took all their case knowledge along with them.

Documenting work and workflow was half the battle. Half the day, says Bales, was spent tracking down inefficient workflow: How do I find this document? Where is this transcript? Working with documents in word processing format required an extraordinary amount of time that could have been alleviated by using a trial presentation program. “It just doesn’t make sense to stop the process of justice to go fetch documents when you can call it up on your computer in ten seconds,” says Bales. “If they needed a document that was not there at the bench or at the table, they’d have to call a recess, go down two floors, go across the courtyard, go up four floors, find the paper and come back …They were losing a lot of time.” Great efficiencies would have been gained by using a document management system that would have literally placed documents at their fingertips.

Moreover, UN policies state that any system used cannot be too “Englishcentric.” Most UN locations work with three languages: English, French and the local language (Cambodian, for example, or Swahili). Many technological applications used in litigation support are English-based, not intended to support other languages, and therefore dissatisfied many UN officials. Convincing them to use English-language litigation technology applications rather than word processing software in the local language was difficult.

Language issues presented many hurdles. In Cambodia, optical character recognition (OCR) was being used for documents; however, at the time there was no OCR engine available for the various Cambodian languages. The vendor was using English and Russian OCR engines in an attempt to retrieve any usable OCR to no great success. This created further snags.

Still, the Cambodian tribunal presented an easier challenge than the Rwandan, as Bales was involved from the beginning of the trial; there was less mess to clean up, and processes could be streamlined from the start. In Tanzania, Bales had plenty of obstacles to overcome just to earn the trust of the UN litigation teams. “They looked at me as a vendor,” says Bales of his early days at the UN Everyone assumed he was “a paid consultant, a flash-in-the-pan kind of guy.” In actuality, all the time he spent working with the tribunals was entirely pro bono. He had to work hard, though, to gain credibility. In meetings, Bales stated his position upfront and invited participants to criticize the applications if they felt there were shortcomings. He identified individuals who were supportive of litigation technology—he called them “Tech Angels”—and who were in positions of authority to require others to use these applications.

In a particularly hierarchical organization like the UN, it is critical to earn the respect and support of high-level employees so that their subordinates will jump on board. This involved building relationships with judges, the chief prosecutor and the head of the investigation unit. It also required “massive technology demonstrations” to show firsthand how these applications would bring efficiency to the different departments.

Bales found government employees to be very protective of their positions and guarded about their knowledge. To gain trust, he trained people one-on-one and followed up with interested individuals to achieve buy-in. Technological skills could strengthen a resume, and he knew employees were eager to rise within the UN system. “Even if they didn’t recognize the local significance, it was going to have a big impact on their ability to move forward.” Bales strived to identify talent and train these individuals to teach and consult on the litigation support applications. One of his greatest successes, claims Bales, was getting the UN to adopt LiveNote as a transcript management utility. This was a huge improvement over word processing software, which was more burdensome in the courtroom. Beyond the litigation support applications, Bales also helped the tribunals document their legal process. Before the UN leaves a country at the close of a tribunal, it aims to establish processes and professions for the local people. The litigation support teams Bales built from the ground up consisted of some UN officials but mostly natives.

Bales felt strongly about helping locals understand the importance of documenting the heinous crimes and subsequent trials that occurred in their homelands. “There I was, trying to tell people, ‘It’s important for your culture, your cultural history to document what’s happened here.’” He emphasized that more efficient processes would assist them and the victims they were trying to help by documenting the horrors that occurred, and bringing people to justice. Through learning to assist via legal support, local people had the opportunity to get involved in the process of justice. Setting up a work flow and teaching people to document their work was critical. This enabled electronic information to move from investigation to prosecution and defense and ultimately to the judge. The work product would impact future generations. In addition, people would understand the story of what had happened in their country, what the perpetrators had done and the lasting effects. “That’s key to our process here in the States, and it’s key to any legal system.”

The hard work Bales performed for the UN did not go unnoticed. Shortly after he returned home from Tanzania, a UN senior trial attorney and a local Tanzanian whom he’d trained in litigation support visited his firm in the U.S. to learn more.

“It was about helping them become technology promoters. I wanted to keep them excited about technology and what it could do for the law firm environment,” says Bales. The benefits of their visit were two-fold: they acquired tools to better and more efficiently document what went on during the genocide and the ongoing tribunal in Tanzania, and they gained knowledge and skills that will help them further their career and help promote the litigation support field once their tribunal work is completed. The Rwandan tribunal is nearly over, and the majority of tried criminals have been prosecuted. After spending two weeks in Cambodia working on the tribunal there, and sending a colleague to provide an additional two weeks of support, Bales has continued to assist with the trials electronically. He hopes to return to Cambodia to provide additional live assistance. His firm, Los Angelesbased Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, continues to fully support his endeavors with the UN.

“[Shannon’s] efforts have been an inspiration to others here to seek out opportunities to use their own talents to advance worthy causes,” remarks Kim McKay, Director of Case Support Services. “It is always difficult to do without a valuable team member; however, we felt that the contribution Shannon could make to the UN efforts and the professional opportunity was worthy of our support.” Furthermore, she notes, Bales “kept us apprised of his activities on a constant basis and gave several presentations to the Firm when he returned. We also received letters of commendation from the UN thanking Shannon for his very valuable assistance with their complex efforts.”

When Bales talks about his experiences with the UN, his passion for the litigation support field is more than evident. “I helped design the trial presentation system for the United Nations,” he marvels. “Having direct contact with the judges has been an invaluable experience. It’s something that has given me more credibility within my firm.”

Anyone in this field understands the importance of gaining credibility. “Too often, support staff live in the shadow of the attorneys. No one is going to come in and say, ‘Wow, you won that trial for us with that database search you did. That was the coolest database search in the world,’” he laughs. Still, it’s not about recognition and accolades.

“I owe this profession everything,” says Bales, “everything I have.” Shannon Bales is currently an Automated Litigation Support Team Leader with Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP in Los Angeles, California.

About the Author: Hillary Easom is a freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared internationally in various print and online publications. She writes from Silicon Valley where she resides with her husband and two young children.


Jim’s Note: “LITIGATION SUPPORT TODAY©” is published quarterly, February, May, August and November, by Conexion International Media, Inc., 10632 Little Patuxent Parkway, Suite 249, Columbia, MD 21044-6206. Subscriptions: Subscriptions are free to qualified litigation support professionals and allied specialists in the United States and Canada. For delivery to qualified subscribers in other countries a handling and shipping charge of US$12 per year applies. Subscribe at www.litigationsupporttoday.com  or by email, fax or postal mail. Interested parties not working in litigation support may also subscribe at $19.95 per year USA & Canada or US$34.95 for other countries 


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