You nearly got a grumpy old man story from me yesterday morning. You were spared only because I did not have time to write it before setting off for London. If I had known how the day would evolve, I would certainly have written it – although I suppose if I had known how the day would evolve, I would not have gone to London in the morning and there would not have been anything to be grumpy about.
I was asked at short notice to cover for someone else doing an e-disclosure session at an industry-specific conference. I am pretty conferenced-out by this stage in the year, so I was not exactly suffused with pleasure at the prospect. I am generally fairly picky about the ones I do, sticking either to the very big ones which are bound to be good, or taking an active role in shaping smaller ones in advance. This one was set in stone by the time I heard about it, but I broke all my rules about reconnaissance to help out. I roped in Vince Neicho of Allen & Overy who kindly agreed to do it with me, and we worked together to produce a slide set and a running order. All conferences have a tedious lead-in period where emails fly to and fro; my crossness was with myself for conceding a battle over the time of our session – I wanted it as late as possible in the day, but the organisers simply wouldn’t have it and I had given up fighting over it. The slot they insisted on, just after lunch, screwed up my whole day, not just part of it, and I don’t have half days to spare at the moment, any more than Vince does. I had also failed to spot that the venue was not in fact in London but somewhere out in the Essex marshes.
Anyway, I was committed, so off I went in a suit on a beautiful morning, cursing the lost opportunity to sit at my desk and write the stories which were now going to have to wait yet another day. I got down beyond Canary Wharf, met up with Vince and had lunch, before going in to the conference room. There was all the usual frigging around to get the right slides up and then along came the chairman, who quizzed us about the subject-matter of our talk. Not what this audience wants to hear about at all, he said. They don’t do litigation or disputes, indeed the whole rationale of their existence is compliance to avoid anything contentious. We made it clear that the fact that we had wasted our time was no reason for wasting theirs. The chairman invited the audience to give their view, and five minutes later, Vince and I were spitting teeth on the pavement.
I had to be in London in the evening anyway, so there was no point in making the long trek home. I suppose I could have settled down in Starbucks and got on with my articles, but I was too cross to do that. My eye lighted in the Docklands branch of the Museum of London, and I went there instead. Even that was infuriating: you get the flavour of its politically-correct message from the notice which apologises for having to use the word “black” in its section on slavery. Why not just set out the facts and trust us to form our own conclusions instead of coating it all with self-exculpatory, holier-than-thou, Blairist grovelling? That apart, the museum was worth seeing, though perhaps not worth going to see unless you are already stuck down the back end of beyond with time to kill.
My father used to take us down there in that short period between 1961, when the highest-ever tonnage was recorded through the docks, and the coming of containerisation at the end of that decade which, coupled with the shift from Empire to Common Market trade, killed off the area. What I remember is the cranes, rows of tall grey structures beside long grey stretches of water, picking up bundles one at a time for manual sorting on the quayside. What has this history and autobiography got to do with electronic disclosure? Well, for one thing, you don’t come here for undiluted e-disclosure or, at least, you would not come back if that was all there was here. For another, consider this: the Museum showed that a particular kind of business activity developed over centuries, evolving to meet new commercial challenges but remaining in essence the same. Enterprises rose and fell with competition and investment, new docks opened and others went bust, but the business in 1961 was just a much larger version of the business of 1561 with added steam and hydraulics. Within a decade, the whole lot closed down, its infrastructure and working methods entirely overtaken. Your teams of lawyers reading through reams of paper are like gangs of stevedores manhandling goods on the quayside.
English Heritage do not, alas, allow reproduction of the pictures on their excellent ViewFinder site and I seem to recall some cookie-related oddity which makes linking to it unreliable. If this link does not illustrate what I remember, go to http://viewfinder.english-heritage.org.uk and search for “London Docks”. Then picture a modern container port, and see if you can spot the connection between handling cargo and handling documents.
It took forty years for a viable alternative to develop on the site of the London Docks, and that bore no relation to what had been there before. The successor to the former functions continues in other hands, in other places, and by very different methods. The same is happening with disclosure / discovery.
The day got better after that. I met up with my wife, Mary Ann, in Bond Street and we wandered in and out of some galleries, settling (notionally, you understand) on a fine painting of Newlyn Harbour which turned out to be a Christopher Wood. Then we had tea at Fortnums before crossing the road to FTI Consulting’s reception at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. This is a brilliant venue for a big party and a good way for a large business to link up the many disparate players with whom it connects in its wide-ranging activities. We came across two of my erstwhile partners from my days as a litigation lawyer in the 1980s, and saw Christine Gabbitas, Technology in Practice Analyst at Latham & Watkins, whom I have not seen since we did an SCL seminar together a couple of years ago. One of the more interesting exhibits which caught our attention (plates on an aluminium branch) turned out to be the work of someone we know, Paul Amey.
A day which ends like that and which, as a by-product, gives me a new analogy for the swift decline of businesses which do not keep ahead of the game, cannot be all bad. I still have all those articles to write, however. There is an parallel, albeit a tenuous one, between choosing art and deciding which conferences to speak at. The gallery picture we liked turned out to be the most important one on the walls; an exhibit we were drawn to was, as its happens, by someone we knew. Similar instincts should have told me to avoid this conference. It won’t happen again.