Lawyer Don Wochna and his partners are betting there's big money in tracking data generated by the ever-expanding universe of electronic devices people use to e-mail, telephone, pay highway tolls, or simply navigate from one place to another.
Wochna's company, Vestige Ltd., specializes in mining data created by these so-called microprocessors for telling tidbits of information on behalf of law firms, health-care institutions, government agencies, and others.
Often, their clients are contemplating a lawsuit - or themselves fear they are about to be sued.
What Wochna and his colleagues are trying to do is to position themselves atop a vast mountain of electronic evidence that parties to litigation or other forms of dispute-resolution are increasingly trying to tap to gain the upper hand.
E-ZPass records, for example, can establish where a person was on a given day, helping to bolster one side or another in a case. Deleted e-mails recovered from a computer disk can shed light on a dispute, as they did in the criminal investigation of insider-trading charges against Martha Stewart.
Wochna, the chief legal officer at Vestige, said he would take a computer tape over a human witness any day.
"I believe the devices we are using make much better witnesses than human beings," Wochna said. "When human beings tell you what they honestly believe to be the truth, what they are giving you is an interpretation. Machines give you what happens without bias."
The market for such digital investigative services is projected to grow from $3.38 billion last year to $4.6 billion in 2010. While the privacy of digital records is a sensitive issue, and can cause legal havoc for companies that improperly disclose it, Vestige's investigations often take place under the protective umbrella of a court proceeding.
Moreover, the records examined by Vestige typically are owned by the company that hires Vestige. Such companies have wide latitude to examine records created by their employees on their equipment.
Based in Medina, Ohio, Vestige Ltd. opened its third office last summer in Bala Cynwyd (it also has an office in Pittsburgh) to better market itself to law firms in Center City and in Wilmington, where the firm is eyeing a rich vein of corporate litigation and bankruptcy work.
The firm also sees opportunity in the Philadelphia region's huge life-sciences industry - its concentration of pharmaceutical companies, medical-device-makers, hospitals, and physicians, all of it spewing out data and all of it potentially subject to discovery in legal proceedings.
Only a few years ago, such electronically stored information existed in a kind of legal twilight zone. There were no rules governing its use in civil proceedings. But that has quickly changed, and companies involved in litigation now are subject to heavy penalties for failing to identify and preserve data that might be relevant to the case.
What makes it especially difficult is that the volumes are huge: Lawyers in big cases can handle one or more terabytes of electronically stored information. One terabyte is roughly equivalent to about 75 million pages of data.
Quickly corralling relevant information and determining its relevance is what Vestige and other so-called e-discovery firms offer their clients.
"Our fundamental business model is helping people get to the truth," said John Steinbach, the managing partner of the Bala Cynwyd office of Vestige.
The company comprises a diverse group of legal and technology experts.
Where one staffer might be expert on decoding the intricacies of iPhone records, another might focus on records generated by global-positioning systems. Wochna himself is a University of Chicago-trained lawyer who for years practiced in the commercial-litigation group of Baker & Hostetler, a Cleveland firm with national reach.
Other key personnel include Marlowe Schaeffer, a lawyer and physician who began her legal career practicing in the Chester County District Attorney's Office under former District Attorney William Lamb, also a former state Supreme Court justice - and then went to medical school.
Schaeffer's expertise is sifting through reams of electronically stored medical information.
As hospitals and doctors turn increasingly to technology to monitor patients, particularly the elderly, Schaeffer and her partners said the data stored in those devices would help institutions and individuals monitor the caregivers.
That data might also show when the monitoring devices themselves fail to function properly, or might detect adverse effects of medication, all of which might serve as evidence, in court or out. Based on the evidence gleaned from such microprocessors, disputes can often be settled long before they reach the stage of litigation, Wochna said. That's because the information might highlight a company's vulnerability to a lawsuit, prompting a settlement.
On the other hand, it might convince a potential plaintiff that his or her case is too weak to proceed.
"We assist our clients who are law firms and companies to leverage technology," Wochna said, "to in effect find evidence that relates to a matter and then in effect use it in dispute resolution."