It occurs to me that elephants have turned up more than once on this site as a source of parallels or illustrations. Their first appearance here was in May, when my attention was caught by some large plastic elephants in a hotel pool in Orlando (see Describing the ediscovery elephant). I concluded there that what discovery and elephants had in common that you could describe both of them to a blind person but that their impression ”though broadly accurate in outline, would inevitably be hazy on detail”.
A few days ago, comparing the UK and US approaches to e-discovery / e-disclosure in an article called Sugaring the e-disclosure pill , I said “On our side, it is the elephant in the room which no one discusses. In the US, it is just an elephant, big, ungainly, and very expensive to feed”.
Craig Ball was taken with this example, and leaped smartly in to point out that the expense of feeding elephants is only the beginning of the problem. You then have to deal with what results from feeding them. Craig says that he is “among the ranks who clean up after the elephant”.
This shifts the parallel away from discovery as a whole and towards particular discovery exercises. I imagine that Craig means that he and his shovel are sent for when something has gone wrong – when, for example, the output from a discovery exercise is both unattractive to deal with and no less in volume than what went in. One can, of course, push these parallels too far.
Nevertheless, a couple more come to mind. I remember going, years ago, to a large London firm on an information-gathering exercise preparatory to the selection of a new system of some kind. “This firm”, one partner said, “is an elephants’ graveyard of failed computerisation schemes”. This pessimistic analysis proved, on examination, to be somewhat exaggerated – but there had been one system, relevant to his department, which had not come up to scratch. The episode taught me the value of enquiring about a firm’s past experiences before bouncing in to try and persuade them to invest in something, because people – like elephants, of course – never forget a bad experience. Such things lurk unseen in your path – like an elephant trap – but if you know they are there, you can avoid them.
People are also wary of taking on white elephants. A gift from a monarch of these rare creatures was both a blessing and a curse since they were expensive to maintain and could not be put to practical use. The expression has come to be applied to anything whose expense is disproportionate to its value. We have all known disclosure exercises like that. Strictly, a white elephant is a thing rather than a process, but its essential nature – something you have taken on but not cannot afford to keep going with – seems to me to apply to many discovery exercises and, indeed, to much litigation.
Pink elephants appear to be something entirely different. Dumbo the Elephant saw the Pink Elephant Parade when drunk. He gaped at them and wondered what to do as they grew and multiplied, changed size and shape, and turned into something completely different from their starting-point. So not that different from white elephants then, in discovery terms.