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Tired of teaching an old dog new tricks? Try teaching one old tricks. That’s not so easy either, as Antonio Menendez learned. He had to learn to crack old code in a case that brought a $1 billion verdict against Exxon Corp. Menendez, 54, who is keen on many things high-tech, had to learn how to monkey with the codes of yesteryear. “Technology permeated this case from the start,” Menendez says. “It wasn’t modern technology, but very retro technology.” Menendez and his firm, Miami’s 85-lawyer Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson, represented retail gas stations that sued Exxon for stiffing them in a promise of a discounts-for-cash program. A jury in Florida federal court awarded more than $500 million in damages. Interest on that is expected to reach another $500 million. The evidence that ultimately spelled Exxon’s downfall — databases of the company’s pricing records — was stored on old cartridges dating from the 1980s. The databases were in the antiquated computer language APL, which is about as alive today as Latin. (Trivia question: what does APL stand for? Answer: A Programming Language.) Converting it might be worse than translating Virgil. Though Exxon had to fork over its databases as part of discovery, the court did not force it to convert the data. That was left for each side to do on its own. “[Exxon's lawyers] claimed they had not converted all of the data, and for them to be obligated to turn over what they had converted would disclose the mental impressions of the attorneys [involved in the case],” Menendez explains. Exxon lawyer Larry Stewart of Miami’s Stewart Tilghman Fox & Bianchi says that’s just how it should have been. “Our obligation was to turn over the data the way we had kept it,” he says. Had the data been encrypted, however, Exxon would have been required to present it in an unencrypted format, according to federal rules. Keith Altman, a consultant with the Philadelphia-based Fibonacci group, says Menendez’s giant conversion task bucks the current trend in the electronic discovery process. It is becoming more common for both sides to work together in providing the data, or for one party to make a compelling argument to the judge that the data should be deciphered jointly and efficiently, says Altman. After Exxon produced the first round of tapes, which contained the wholesale pricing data, plaintiffs’ counsel had to spend some quality time figuring out what to do with the database. It was no easy task. It fell to Menendez, who was a computer programmer in the 1980s before he went to the dark side. He found someone who could read APL by surfing the Web. “There is still a cadre of people who are very knowledgeable about APL,” he says. Plaintiffs’ counsel rented time on a mainframe computer in Virginia. Menendez took up a set of cartridges and helped convert the APL database from a mainframe to a PC format. The main problem, Menendez says, was that the mainframes just weren’t designed then to be used now. He then put the database onto Jaz drives, loaded it on a Windows program, put the material on about 20 CDs and hauled them back to Florida. The whole process took about six days. Menendez went through this rigmarole again, when Exxon forked over a second database with the retail pricing information. Once the information was back in Florida, it was converted into a form that was recognizable by Microsoft Access. Menendez says the whole process cost the firm more than $250,000. (Stewart, Exxon’s lawyer, doesn’t know how much his firm paid to convert the data or how much time it took.) Menendez says APL is painful to understand for someone who is not familiar with it. Some of the symbols are based on Greek letters. Once he cracked it, he was looking at a database he knew nothing about. “There are hundreds of variables that are particular to Exxon’s internal system,” Menendez said. “Basically, I couldn’t pick up the phone and call Exxon and talk to their programmers and say, ‘what is this variable?’ We had to do the best we could with data dictionaries and such.” Altman agrees that APL is an especially complex language. “One line is worth three lines of many other languages,” he says. He also calls it “beautiful and elegant.” (Incidentally, this is also the way my classics scholar friends describe Latin.) Beautiful is not how Menendez described his wrangles. Still, once the database was in a modern format, the economists, lawyers and other geeks jumped to analyze it. At trial, Menendez’s team presented the key information from the database on big pictures. And that was the best language to reach the jury.

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