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Heavylifting

Russell Aoki has built a reputation for taming terabytes—and set a record in deadlift

Published in 2022 Washington Super Lawyers magazine

When Russell Aoki began his career as a public defender in the mid-1980s, his job was defined largely by paper: police reports, transcripts and other documents compiled in manila folders and three-ring binders, stored in ceiling-high file cabinets and bookcases.

Thirty years later, the practice of law has been transformed by digital data and the devices that collect and store it all. That revolution has especially affected federal criminal defenders, who have massive amounts of multimedia files to manage. 

“We help defenders learn how to find needles in haystacks,” says Aoki, now in private practice. 

“Russell is committed to the concept of public defense,” says Sean Broderick, an administrator for the Defender Services Office Training Division, which provides resources for the federal judiciary and defender offices. The office has been contracting with Aoki for 12 years. “He helps other lawyers understand the world of e-discovery.”

Aoki, 64, has an easy smile that charms juries, judges and even opposing lawyers. In his practice, which includes business litigation, white-collar defense and personal injury, he has defended civil cases brought on by the likes of Microsoft and Yahoo. But his national reputation is built on the cases where he serves as a consultant, helping public defenders manage data in complex cases.

“It’s not as easy as putting a word in the Google search box,” Aoki explains. “If, for example, you have a terabyte of data, it may come from local police, or federal law enforcement or whatever. So you type in your client’s name and a million documents get collapsed down to, say, 10,000. Then you look for search warrant pleadings or affidavits. And so forth.”

When public defenders have Aoki on their side, it makes the prosecutor’s job tougher, says former Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Blackstone, who faced Aoki many times. “Our database is not as good as Russ’,” he says.

Things were different when Aoki started doing federal criminal defense work in the ’90s. “You would get a case, go over to the U.S. attorney’s office, and they would give you the materials pertaining to your client—a stack of paper maybe an inch thick. And you’d go from there,” he says.

Then came the growth in computers and hard drives; laptops, smartphones and server farms. “And suddenly, the volume of discovery grew from a stack of paper to maybe 20,000 phone records, and then 200,000 phone records,” Aoki recalls. “And then we get a case with 30 defendants, many of whom have a phone that has been tapped for, say, three months.”

Year by year, the volume of data continues to increase, sometimes exponentially. Smartphones contain their own memories, “but they are also portals to cloud storage and social media,” he says. “And that transformed that inch of paper to … hundreds of pages, thousands of pages.”

 

Aoki attributes his passion for public defense work to a national and family tragedy that occurred before he was born. His parents were second-generation Japanese Americans who met as students at the University of Washington. After World War II began, they were interned with their families in separate camps.

“As a little kid, nobody ever said anything about it,” he says. “I remember my dad talking to his friends about so-and-so from ‘camp,’ but I didn’t realize at the time what ‘camp’ meant.”

Aoki went to school in pre-Microsoft Redmond, where he was both a good student and an avid golfer. He went on to UW, where he took several classes from the late Gordon Hirabayashi, a visiting professor who had defied internment orders and served time in prison as a consequence. “That shaped me a lot,” Aoki recalls.

He worked his way through UW in part by working at an East Side country club, where fellow workers urged him to become a lawyer because of the way he looked out for them on the job. Later, he took a criminal justice class from prominent local defense attorney John Henry Browne. “He’s a dynamic lawyer who was always taking high-profile cases that were in the newspaper,” Aoki says.

Aoki earned his law degree from the University of Oregon, then took the job with The Defender Association in Seattle.

It was an intense job, and Aoki aspired for a broader legal practice. “I’ve always admired John Henry Browne for his trial skills, but there’s only one John Henry,” he says. “I think the best lawyers are those who practice in a way that’s an extension of their own personalities.”

Aoki moved to a large firm with 55 lawyers, where he learned his way around business litigation and personal injury law. In 1991, he launched his own firm. A quarter-century later, his practice has achieved national recognition while staying small—just three lawyers and four staffers.

He often takes on white-collar clients faced with prosecutions for securities and tax fraud—complex cases that, of course, involve volumes of documents, finances and other e-discovery.

For Aoki, the need to tame the data explosion became evident in 2003, when he served as co-counsel for Kevin Lawrence, a Bainbridge Island businessman who eventually was convicted of fraud in luring thousands of investors to a health care startup called Znetix/HMC.

“The case involved over a million pages of documents,” Aoki recalls. “And in those days, everything was still going into filing cabinets, which were in warehouses and bank boxes all up and down the West Coast.”

The volume of discovery was too great to handle by hand, so Aoki met with U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman and devised a way to manage the documents digitally.

The challenge, Judge Pechman recalls, was both technical and professional. Aoki had to learn how to efficiently search vast quantities of data, but he also had to earn the confidence of more skeptical attorneys.

“I was the first judge he worked for in this capacity,” she says. “And I was fortunate to stumble on this remarkable diamond in the rough. He is a brilliant lawyer who has been discovered nationally, and who makes me and the process work better.” 

So she began appointing him to other federal cases involving multiple defendants and complex discovery, such as the prosecution involving TV investment scammer Wade Cook. 

In time, the federal public defender’s office in Washington D.C. got wind of Aoki’s work and offered him a contract to assist their attorneys on cases across the country. He is appointed by judges to help defense teams. “We train people to use technology to pinpoint more manageable collections,” he says.

Eleven years ago, he was the only lawyer in the country doing this work for thousands of federal public defenders. Now there are four others. The consulting still accounts for a majority of his time—scores of cases in about 30 jurisdictions. 

In one drug-conspiracy case in Spokane with 62 defendants and multiple lawyers appointed by the court, prosecutors announced that each lawyer would get 320 discs of investigative reports, phone records, emails and more. Do the arithmetic: 62 times 320 times the time it takes to find the essential information on each disc. Good luck with that!

“The judge said, ‘No, we’re going to look for a better solution.’ So I got brought in.”

Lawyers generally welcome the training Aoki offers—but not always. Aoki recalls working with a San Francisco defense lawyer who insisted on working with paper documents crammed into three-ring binders. “I got on the phone with this super-nice guy, a really good lawyer, and I told him we could help search this hard drive and find everything that pertains to his client—the government searches, the wiretaps. And he said, ‘For now, could you just print everything out?’”

So Aoki called a copy shop, which printed the records and compiled them in three-ring binders. “Must have been hundreds of boxes,” Aoki says. “It must have filled his office.”

A month later, the lawyer’s assistant got back to Aoki, saying, “Tell me about that hard drive again.” He graciously complied. 

Aoki excels in his role in part because he is not encumbered by an oversized ego, Broderick says. “He reminds me of Steph Curry in the NBA. He can make the long shot, but he has the humility to pass the ball to the guy with the better [open] shot. It’s that rare combination of advocacy and collaboration.”

Even Browne, Aoki’s former college professor who continues to practice criminal defense in Seattle, has benefitted from Aoki’s help.

“When I go into court, I want to know more about the case than anyone else in the courtroom, and Russell enables me to do that,” Browne says. “His attention to detail is phenomenal. And everybody trusts him—prosecutors, judges, opposing lawyers.”

Blackstone says technology isn’t Aoki’s only weapon for scoring courtroom wins. “He does it the old-school way,” Blackstone says, “with a mix of tenacity and civility.”

He cites the early-’90s case of a young man on trial for bank robbery. “The kid was pretty violent, and Russ knew there was no chance of getting him out of jail. But he tried anyway and made his case. I watched the magistrate, transfixed, pulling his robe zipper up and down.” 

 

Today, Aoki’s spacious office overlooking downtown Seattle remains furnished in part with a few file cabinets, but they’re used largely to store computers, hard drives and other technology. He still spends time in court, usually equipped with, yes, a three-ring binder, as well as his laptop.

Recently, Aoki, along with the Federal Defender’s Office, has been providing consulting services to the federal public defender in D.C. on how to manage all the videos and documents in the cases of those charged with storming the U.S. Capitol last year. 

His consulting work is less profitable than private practice, he says. “We don’t have billable-hour targets, and I’m not good at being a for-profit law firm. But the consulting is very satisfying.”

The challenge, as always, is to keep up with the technology that continues to transform the justice system, Aoki says. “You can’t be intimidated by technology. Don’t get distressed by how much you need to learn. Appreciate it. Embrace the opportunity.”


Weighty Issues

Like most law office walls, Aoki’s display various licenses and certificates. One certifies that he is a heavy lifter.

Which is to say: 446.4 pounds deadweight-lifting. That’s nearly three times his own weight, and a state record for his age group.

For some years, he had been working out at the Washington Athletic Club, a block from his office. “And maybe it’s a weird thing for an old guy to do, but I gravitate toward deadlifts, where you bend over, grab the barbell and stand up with it, because your progress is measurable. You continue to lift heavier and heavier as you improve.”

His workouts are generally at quieter times, often when the bar is busy but the weight room is not. At some point, he impressed a young staff member at the club who was into powerlifting. “He kept telling everybody that I needed to compete. I told him, ‘Cut that out, because it’s really embarrassing.’ But he kept it up, and eventually I said, ‘OK, if I sign up for this competition in Bremerton, will you stop telling everybody?’”

So in 2019, Aoki competed and hoisted 202.5 kilos of steel—a new state record for men age 60 to 64, certified by the U.S. Powerlifting Association. Since then, he’s slacked off a little, working out at home due to the pandemic and a bad hip. But he’s still training and lifting heavy.

“That surprises people,” he says. “I’m not a very big person.”

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