Jay Edelson (Courtesy photo)
For the past five years or so, Edelson PC has housed a one-of-a-kind team that it believes gives it a leg up over rival plaintiffs firms looking to bring class actions that concern digital privacy and data security.
That team, which operates as a kind of in-house forensics lab, combines lawyers with strong technical or computer science backgrounds and engineers who can deconstruct devices and apps to determine whether there are privacy or data security concerns.
Edelson is known for its focus on data privacy and security litigation. It has taken on members of the legal community, accusing law firms of failing to adequately protect data, and challenging lawyers who have allegedly made a cottage industry out of objecting to class action settlements.
It turns out that many of the data privacy actions that have helped the plaintiffs firm make a name for itself grew out of work done by Edelson’s unique forensics group, according to firm founder and CEO Jay Edelson, who has been dubbed “very close to” the “most hated person in Silicon Valley” because of his penchant for suing technology behemoths such as Amazon Inc. and Google Inc.
In Edelson’s view, the in-house lab sets his firm apart from rivals in the plaintiffs bar. It allows his lawyers to get ahead of developments, while others try to glom on to the latest data privacy scandal that makes headlines, he says.
“Most plaintiffs firms are what we call, ‘chase the news’ firms,” said Edelson, explaining that, often a law firm will read a news report about a data privacy issue affecting a large company and then start preparing a lawsuit. “We’ve always found that to be less interesting to us. … We think of ourselves as a ‘make the news’ kind of firm.”
Although the lab has been up and running for roughly five years, Edelson said he and others at the firm recognized a need for it about a decade ago, and it took them several years to get everything in place. Now, the lab operates almost like a practice group within the firm, led by partners Ari Scharg and Christopher Dore.
In all, four lawyers are associated with the lab and are joined by four forensic engineers who aren’t lawyers, said Amir Missaghi, an Edelson associate who works with the forensics group.
“Their background is a lot of network traffic analysis and a broad understanding of software design and how it interacts with hardware,” Missaghi said of the engineers on staff. Missaghi noted that the lead engineer, Shawn Davis, has past experience at Motorola Solutions, where his role involved analyzing and defending against malicious data hacks. He also teaches courses on cybersecurity at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
Among other cases, Edelson credits the forensic lab’s work with helping it secure a $3.75 million settlement against “intimate products” manufacturer Standard Innovation Corp. earlier this year. In that lawsuit, the company was accused of collecting personal, sensitive information about customers who used a high-end vibrator product. The vibrator, known as We-Vibe, also had a companion smartphone app that connected to the device through Bluetooth and allowed users to control the device remotely. “Our lab is set up to analyze just these types of devices,” said Missaghi.
Creating the forensic lab came with upfront costs—including investing in the engineers on staff and having lawyers with technical backgrounds to communicate effectively with them—but Edelson said the financial outlay was well worth it.
Handling a lot of technical, investigative work in-house allows Edelson to be smarter about the cases the firm brings, Edelson says. That has a spillover benefit for the consumers the firm, and it gives the lawyers at his firm “a huge tactical advantage” over opposing counsel.
“We’ll file a lawsuit and we’ll get a call from [lawyers on] the other side … and they don’t understand their systems as well as we do,” Edelson said.
Beyond the litigation advantages, Edelson also said the lab helps his firm run better as a business.
As a plaintiffs firm, working largely for fees contingent on a successful settlement or outcome in court, deciding which cases to throw the firm’s resources into is important. A stronger case with evidence to back it up, not surprisingly, is more likely to result in a favorable court result, so the lab’s work amounts to a kind of due diligence for the firm when deciding which cases to pursue.
“The keys to success of having a firm starts with choosing good cases,” Edelson said.
The lab’s place in the firm also has some side benefits, according to Edelson, who said that it’s not uncommon to see recently released devices strewn about the firm’s Chicago offices as the forensic engineers and lawyers examine them.
“It looks like a tech center for some toy manufacturer,” Edelson said. “Sometimes I walk around the firm and I feel like I’m in the movie ‘Big.’”